NEW YORK: The killing of George Floyd prompted a wave of promises from corporate America to advance racial equity. Nearly a year later, large US companies are under pressure to show progress on fulfilling those promises.
Shareholders will vote in the coming weeks on some of those initiatives, including whether Walmart should report on the fairness of its pay scale and whether Facebook and Google/Alphabet should appoint a civil rights specialist to their boards.
Another frequently proposed option is a racial equity audit that compares a company's record with statements made in its glossy marketing materials.
Proponents characterize this report as a risk-management tool that can help protect brands.
"There are a good number of shareholders that recognize that this is an issue that could cause some reputational damage on a significant level," said Tejal Patel, corporate governance director at CtW Investment Group, an activist group that organized the drive at several leading companies.
Proposals calling for a racial equity audit garnered support of around 30 percent or more of shareholders at several large companies, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson. And later this month, Amazon shareholders will weigh a similar audit plan.
"It is a work in progress," said Olivia Knight, racial justice manager at As You Sow, another advocacy group that has been active on proposals aimed at addressing racial justice and diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI.
The current push by activists is a response to events last spring, when police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans sparked mass protests and a national reckoning on racial justice.
In the aftermath of that uprising, large companies were quick to issue statements supporting Black Lives Matter and promising to do more to be responsive to non-white consumers, employees and communities.
Activists have greeted these pledges somewhat skeptically, in part because of corporate America's lack of progress on promoting diversity at the highest levels. The largest US companies are still overwhelmingly led by white men.
CtW and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) late last year drafted resolutions calling for racial equity audits at eight large financial groups, several of which have settled multi-million government probes on lending discrimination in recent years.
Large mainstream banks also have a reputation for shunning inner-city neighborhoods, creating "banking deserts" that make it more likely that residents will be forced to turn to predatory lenders.
The resolutions called for a once-over of firm operations, including lending practices and political contributions, that would be prepared in consultation with civil rights experts and released publicly.
"I think if there was someone peeking in, it would be more transparent," said Toni Smith, who said her New Orleans branch of Chase Bank discouraged her when she needed a car loan and a loan for business equipment.
Smith, who works in home health care and cosmetology, is struggling to pay off lenders who charged interest rates above 20 percent. She told Agence France-Presse she plans to file for bankruptcy.
"If we're not sitting on money, you don't get the opportunities," she said. "We can't work our way up."
The challenges Black Americans have faced in building wealth over generations due to lack of access to credit and racially motivated restrictions on where they can purchase housing has been another focus of racial justice movements.