As protests sweep major U.S. cities, businesses large and small are posting on social media our opposition to racism and violence. It’s important for Black folks within a company and across society to see America unite in opposition to racism. But is that enough?
What’s behind the protests’ rage and despair is the sense that talk is cheap, and change is painfully slow. We love to denounce someone else’s racism, but it would matter more if businesses looked at our own contribution to a divided America and decided what to do about it.
The most obvious thing is hiring and developing more people of color to positions of power. We say that we believe talent is equally distributed between people of different races, but most businesses, including Redfin, are run mostly by white people. Changing that can’t be the only priority of a CEO, but it has to be one of our top priorities, now, and long after the protests are over.
Like most execs at most companies, I thought of myself as a diversity advocate. But many of us have had a visceral reaction to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor: we haven’t done enough. Redfin has hosted symposia on race and real estate, reported each year on employee diversity, invited undercover journalists to speak to our agents about steering, and required diverse slates of candidates for every management position we fill at headquarters and for many positions in our real estate team. But very few of us will retire thinking we did too much to put our companies on the right side of history.
Businesses trying to diversify may complain about what we’re up against. The whole system has been set up to bring more qualified white people into our company: highly funded suburban schools, mentorship from wealthy uncles, better opportunities and sympathetic peers for white folks at employers before us. It’s a big gap. But imagine how people of color feel about it. We need to hire the ones who’ve been under-valued, who have something to prove, who want to eat the world.
And then clear their way. This isn’t just about recruiting; it’s leaders spending a lot of time with employees of color to understand how lonely it is to be the only Black guy or Latina in an office, and then trying to make those people feel truly welcome at our companies, not just permitted or tolerated; it’s developing objective performance criteria and formal training programs, rather than just promoting your cronies; it’s spending a massive amount of energy trying to be fair, and to develop people who started not just on third base but on first base, or who are still waiting for their first real at-bat. History has shown over and over again that the team that gives everyone an equal opportunity to play scores more runs.
And then whether we’re a grocery or a bank or a real estate brokerage, let’s commit as businesses and business people to serve Blacks and other people of color better. Companies that employ hundreds or thousands may feel it’s beyond our control to stop one grocer or bank teller or broker from jumping to the wrong conclusion about a customer, and doing something racist that hurts that customer, and stains our reputation for years.
But culture is what makes it harder for that grocer, teller or broker to do the wrong thing, and easier to do the right thing. For real estate businesses like Redfin, this means educating your workforce every year and at every large gathering about race and real estate: that the miracle-working lender, the insider real estate agent, the arms-folded neighborhood association have to become a competitive weapon for, not against, people of color.
It matters when industry leaders acknowledge that unconscious biases — about whether a person of color is poor or rich, whether she belongs in one part of town or another — shape our decisions about whom we serve and how. That kind of racism isn’t the 1957 stuff in history books; it’s why exclusive neighborhoods are still exclusive, why a Black person driving into a gated community often feels like he doesn’t belong, why a white person competing for a coveted house still just wants to talk to the seller.
Maybe those seem like tiny things given everything going on right now but segregation is the sum result of all those tiny things, and it’s why we react to one another with so much fear, anger, violence and racism. So by all means, denounce what someone else did in the videos. But let’s also look in the mirror, and do something where we can actually make a difference, at work. In June, Redfin is publishing its annual report on employee diversity and our diversity initiatives; we’ll talk in more detail then about what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s next.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the post stated that we required diverse slates of candidates for every position we fill. We’ve updated the post to clarify our current policy requiring diverse slates for every management position we fill at headquarters and for many positions in our real estate team.