Doing business in Atlanta requires an awareness of and responsiveness to community needs and Atlanta’s civic history – a civic consciousness – that has historically helped the city rise above economic decline when faced with civil unrest. When riots gripped the rest of nation in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., white business leaders came alongside Black community leaders to stem the tide of violence and to move the community to the forefront in decision making.
In conversations with Atlanta business leaders, most still talk about the importance of community accountability in business and civic life. However, many leaders struggle with translating their commitment to action–even at the risk of alienating members of the very communities to which they are accountable. And now, amid resurging concerns regarding the economic impact of COVID-19, and ongoing efforts from the Biden administration to execute an ambitious infrastructure plan that will in part redress systemic inequities, we are at yet another pivotal moment for the metropolitan Atlanta region and communities of color. This time the business community has more to do than just produce a statement to ensure that Atlanta becomes that “city on the hill” and a true reflection of Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community. Business leaders must do the difficult work of creating the “good and necessary trouble” as Congressman John Lewis charged us. And this is not unfamiliar territory for Atlanta businesses.
When the Georgia Legislature tried to pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation [insert year], Atlanta’s largest employers like Delta, The Home Depot, UPS and others placed their full weight behind opposing the bills, which never made it to the Governor’s desk to become law. As voting rights, particularly those of Black and Brown people regress to the Jim Crow era, these businesses and leaders must once again step up beyond declarations that these news laws are “unacceptable.”
Now is the time for businesses to once again draw from the Atlanta tradition of civic consciousness and community accountability, and stand with communities of color as we face continued racially-motivated affronts to equity and shared prosperity. Businesses have a responsibility to advance racial equity if they truly want to honor the city that they call home. To do so, leaders must begin from within their organizational structures, and engage their employees and leaders in playing an active role in advancing what the Partnership for Southern Equity, through our Just Business Roundtable, call “corporate racial equity”.
The Just Business Roundtable launched in April 2021 as a platform for businesses to learn and to hold honest dialogue about systemic racism in the corporate sector and beyond. However, the Just Business Roundtable doesn’t just explore issues in conversation. Dialogue between business leaders is designed to initiate improvement upon companies’ internal policies and practices to redress racial economic disparities. The audacious and unapologetic outcome of the Just Business Roundtable is to direct the power of business to help shape public policies toward a race-conscious, equitable approach to growing metropolitan Atlanta’s economy.
In a few short months, more than 25 businesses have joined the Just Business Roundtable, including founding or anchor organizations like Cox Enterprises, Interface, Mailchimp, and The Gathering Spot. However, more metropolitan Atlanta employers must commit to corporate racial equity for all communities to feel the structural impact of the economic change that the Atlanta region, and our nation, require.
Corporate racial equity is good for business. As national demographics shift from majority white to majority Black, Latinx, Asian-Pacific Islander and Indigenous peoples, companies have begun to see that shift in the talent pools from which they hire. The numbers don’t lie. According to the Partnership for Southern Equity’s “Employment Equity” report, full employment in Georgia across all racial and gender groups, would grow our economy by $12 billion annually. The possibilities of this growth are limitless – better education for all our children, more capital for small to medium-sized businesses, stronger infrastructure, less poverty, and more economic power to win against global competitors.
We cannot afford to allow racist systems and structures to minimize the ability for all people to reach their full potential. Now is not the time for companies to stay out of social policy for the sake of “doing business.” Business is heavily affected by social policy. Corporate racial equity is good for business. If Atlanta businesses want to retain their leadership and profitability in this current climate, leaders must take decisive action to bridge the divide between the communities hurt by structural racism and the companies who’ve benefited from maintaining these systems. If Atlanta is to be on the right side of history in the pursuit of equity and shared prosperity, we – businesses, leaders and communities, must do the work. The surge of protests against white supremacy in 2020 prompted for more room to be made at the proverbial table for some Black and Brown folk to listen into conversations about change. A year later, our city and our nation are still a far cry from taking critical action to initiate change. We must set a different table at which Black and Brown people speak, lead and act, to ensure an equitable future for all of us. The Just Business Roundtable exists for this very purpose, and I invite you to take a seat.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity. More information can be found at www.psequity.org.