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It’s Been a Year Since George Floyd Was Murdered. Has Black America Seen Meaningful Progress?

August 10, 2021

As part of the firm’s ongoing conversations on anti-racism and allyship, Morgan Lewis hosted a panel with Dr. Lisa Coleman, senior vice president of Global Inclusion and Strategic Innovation for New York University; George Holland, president of the NAACP’s Oakland branch; and John Harmon, founder, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

Along with senior director of diversity and inclusion Malaika Lindo, they discussed if social, educational, and economic outcomes have tangibly changed for Black Americans after George Floyd’s death, and provided thoughts on what true progress looks like. Marlana Lynch, a member of Morgan Lewis’s Mobilizing for Equality Task Force, provided opening remarks for the conversation, which is excerpted below.

Malaika: Progress is a tricky concept to measure. Some may measure progress in the form of symbols, some by the mere intention to do something different, and others only by actual demonstrable events. But the idea of progress is really more nuanced. To reflect on what progress has been made for Black America and what progress can be made going forward, we need to establish a point in time to start. George Floyd’s tragic murder at the hands of a police officer re-invigorated the public discussion around an equitable society for Black Americans. But to push that conversation into action, what do we need to see in terms of partnerships and transparency?

George: Before the death of George Floyd, many were questioning the need for the NAACP because, for some, the organization only served as a reminder of the 1960s protests of segregation, violence, poor public accommodations and more, that were broadcasted on TV and the radio. Although George Floyd was not the first or the last unlawfully killed Black person by law enforcement, the murder was seen worldwide via the internet, causing unforgettable shock. Many people became concerned about Black lives, and have asked what they could do to end these injustices, which we saw compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some thought we can give money, and they did; however, it was only a temporary fix.

John: With the murder of George Floyd there has been an outpouring of how to make society more equitable for Black people. It will take real accountability from corporate America and a change in structure and leadership. To bring change in a more meaningful way, you can’t have the same players in the room. Someone will have to give up the seat and plan for succession. But once we get in that room, we need to offer a value proposition. This renewed focus on diversity and inclusion might get you in the room, but if you don’t deliver value and efficiency, if you don’t impact the bottom line, that engagement will be short lived. At the same time, if we can’t get in the room, the change in outcomes won’t be exponential. So, for corporate America and policymakers, it’s not about checking the box to show diversity, it’s about getting the best players on the team.

Lisa: Passing the torch does not mean that more seasoned leaders need to simply retire, but they may need to repurpose. In this instance, it is not about passing the torch down, it is about passing it across and working in collaboration, and co-creating with emerging generations. It is important to think of succession planning and building for the future as a partnership imbedded in sustainability. This type of approach allows one to leverage the innovations of diverse, multifaceted, and emerging communities. For example, if leaders are not engaging with diverse and emerging markets (i.e., Black and Latinx), they are missing so many opportunities and, of course, no one wants to be Blockbuster, Altavista, or Netscape. Organizations and leaders must begin to think of global DEI as they would other crucial areas—in other words, as an area that will help them become more sustainable, more resilient, and future ready.

Malaika: Morgan Lewis is trying to create spaces to both talk and listen through programs like these, with the goal of being more transparent in our efforts. We are seeing incredible value from partnerships to learn from different sectors and people across the world. But looking at the crossover of how citizenship and community organizers are working with federal, state, and local government—are we seeing progress on that type of collaboration?

Lisa: We, organizations, need real—not rhetorical—partnerships. This will require accountability, impact, and action versus just conversation. I’m in the business of educational transformation, and to do this we emphasize changing structures, policies, and practices, accountability, taking action, and measuring impact. Organizational leaders, collectively, will need to work on all of these areas to push real transformational change. I am reminded of the South African concept of transformation, and as I incorporate these ideas into my own work, I underscore that there must be attention to historical truths for intentional organizational accountability. It is only after this type of reckoning that leaders can enact organizational accountability across practices. This will also require bringing in critical masses of formerly excluded groups of people (across all levels and areas) into organizations to help break up historical status quos. And this type of transformational change can only occur when organizations and leaders move out of the fear zone toward accountability and growth zones.

John: You have to acknowledge where you are to be able to set benchmarks of where you should go. The historical conversation has to be brought forward in a way that is palatable. Today, I see us in the position to be transformational if we have the right level of engagement and have substantive discussions. When we get in the room and are afforded the opportunities to represent our companies and interests, we have to show up, and we can’t be muted or afraid to fully express our value and educate those employers on how to get better engagement.

Lisa: As I have written about, I do not want to return to a “new normal,” because normal was often fraught with disparities and was not good for many Black and other historically marginalized peoples. I have argued that we need a “new different”—new ways of doing and being—if we want to accelerate transformational change for today, the future, and for our emerging generations.