On International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, here are 10 pathways to progress for any organization

Business can take a leading role in the furthering of racial justice and in tackling ethnic and racial discrimination.

Business can take a leading role in the furthering of racial justice and in tackling ethnic and racial discrimination. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kimberly Bennett
Lead, Racial Justice in Business, World Economic Forum
Asha Nooh
Specialist, Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, World Economic Forum
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  • 21 March marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a day introduced following an apartheid regime attack on peaceful anti-racism protestors in Sharpeville, South Africa.
  • While progress against discrimination has been made over the last century, work remains to be done to reach equity.
  • To that end, the World Economic Forum has developed a Global Racial and Ethnic Equity Framework to assist organizations in identifying where their equity strategies should begin.

In Sharpeville, South Africa, 63 years ago, more than 7,000 people gathered at a police station to protest the "pass laws" — a racist, internal identification system used by apartheid authorities to monitor and control racialised people within the country.

The Sharpeville protest, intended to highlight the indignity of not being allowed to freely move within one's own country due to the colour of one's skin, turned into a violent confrontation. With a hail of bullets and clubs, police descended upon the crowd, killing nearly 70 people and injuring 180 others.

After the massacre, global outcry led the UN General Assembly to adopt Resolution 2106 — the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination — in 1965. A year later, the UN declared March 21 International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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Progress has been made since Sharpeville

Globally, people have mobilised to address and eliminate racism since those tragic events of that fateful day.

As a result of these efforts, several milestones have been achieved in the journey toward racial and ethnic equity. In 1964, the United States passed the Civil Rights Act (later known as the Employment Equal Opportunity Act), which addressed employment discrimination against racially marginalized groups across the country.

In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election, officially ending a 46-year-old apartheid regime. More recently, the French and European governments have announced anti-racism action plans over the last two years to address structural racism within their public institutions. Lastly, just this past year, Colombia elected its first Afro-Colombian vice-president in its history.

More work against racial discrimination is needed

The progress on racial and ethnic equality over the past 63 years has been encouraging, but there are still areas in the public, private and civil society sectors where improvement is necessary.

Although 22% of Canadians identify as visible minorities and 5% identify as Indigenous, as of 2021 only 3% of Canadian Members of Parliament are Indigenous and 15% are visible minorities. In the US, African Americans and Latino Americans represent 30% of the US population, but only 10% of leadership roles in the non-profit sector. Additionally, Black- and Latino-led organizations receive only 4% of philanthropic grants and contributions.

UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2106 — the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination — in 1965.
UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2106 — the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination — in 1965. Image: Crist - Kolder Associates, 2021

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many companies in the private sector pledged billions to organizations fighting for racial and ethnic equity. Between September 2019 and September 2020, many companies placed increased emphasis on diversifying staff representation and creating an equitable organizational culture, resulting in an increase of 56% in diversity, inclusion and belonging (DI&B) jobs. In the period between May and September of 2020, those jobs increased by 123%.

Though the public has demanded an increase in racial and ethnic diversity and the diversity and inclusion industry is booming, only six of the CEOs of the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 are African Americans, 40 are Asian Americans and 20 are Latino Americans. In South Africa, in 2020, only 14.3% of top executive roles were held by Black South Africans, despite making up 81% of the entire population.

Efforts need to be redoubled to maintain the gains made following the Sharpeville massacre. Important starting points are robust and frequent self-assessments of racial and ethnic equity progress, designing strategies to address racial and ethnic inequities and building multi-sectoral coalitions to tackle systemic racism and ethnic discrimination in society.

Guiding principles for racial and ethnic equity

As part of the Partnering for Racial Justice in Business Initiative, the World Economic Forum developed a Global Racial and Ethnic Equity Framework and Briefing Paper to assist organizations in identifying where their equity strategies should begin.

The Framework was designed to provide context to the current challenges and opportunities in racial and ethnic equity, as well as identify pathways inequity can be reduced through a whole-of-business, holistic approach. The Framework is built upon 10 Guiding Principles for Racial and Ethnic Equity, each related to a specific function within an organization's ecosystem:

1. Leadership commitment

Leadership commits to racial and ethnic diversity throughout the business network, including but not limited to representation.

2. Employee networks

The organization supports, works and cocreates with employee networks to ensure actions are aligned with overall racial and ethnic inclusion and diversity strategy.

3. Work environment

Ensuring the workplace environment is psychologically safe and thriving for marginalized staff.

4. Policies and procedures

A racially and ethnically equitable lens is applied to policies and standard operating procedures.

Prioritizing Racial and Ethnic Equity in Business: Towards a Common Framework
Prioritizing Racial and Ethnic Equity in Business: Towards a Common Framework Image: World Economic Forum

5. Branding, communication and marketing

Messaging, branding, and marketing are inclusive and sensitive to the viewpoints of all races and ethnicities.

6. Innovation and product design

The research and design process for products is inclusive of the perspectives and experiences of racially and ethnically marginalised groups.

7. Recruitment, retention and development

Examining and applying a racially and ethnically equitable lens to hiring practices while also tracking career progression and development of racially and ethnically marginalized staff.

8. Knowledge sharing and training

Focusing and providing learning and training opportunities for staff for continued improvement on issues related to racial and ethnic equity.

9. Technological fairness

Addressing algorithmic bias and how it affects external stakeholders from racial and ethnic groups.

10. External stakeholder and social impact

Giving opportunities to racially and ethnically diverse suppliers and evaluating the organization’s social impact on racially and ethnically diverse populations in communities in which the organization operates.

Though society has made progress since that fateful day in late March 1960, and we celebrate the accomplishments made on the road to racial and ethnic equity, we have not yet reached true equality in society.

Public, private, and civil society organizations should embrace the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination as an opportunity to renew their efforts to achieve racial and ethnic equity — going beyond representation and towards organizational culture change. We should all strive to ensure that people from racially and ethnically marginalised groups have the same access to opportunities as everyone else.

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