Monday, March 22, 2021

Momentous Appointment

The Biden administration's nomination of and subsequent Senate confirmation of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is a monumentally important moment in our nation's history.  Secretary Haaland becomes the first Cabinet level Secretary of Native American descent in the history of the nation.  This after Ms. Haaland served as the first native Congressperson (along with Sharice Davids of Kansas, both elected in 2018) in U.S. history.  This nomination and confirmation is critical for many reasons, including according to Secretary Haaland herself:  “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she wrote on Twitter before the vote. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

The New York Times reports:  "Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history on Monday when the Senate confirmed her as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.  Ms. Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to the House. But her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.  Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species."

Secretary Haaland said the following at her Senate confirmation hearing:  “You’ve heard the Earth referred to as Mother Earth, it’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land. And I feel every Indigenous person in the country understands that.”

Again, per the NY Times: "Ms. Haaland will quite likely assume a central role in realizing Mr. Biden’s promise to make racial equity a theme in his administration. Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, will assume control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, where she can address the needs of a population that has suffered from abuse and dislocation at the hands of the United States government for generations, and that has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus."

A hearty congratulations to Secretary Haaland on this momentous appointment, to President Biden for the foresight to seize this moment, and for an appointment that was far too long in the making.

photo in the public domain

Friday, March 19, 2021

Corporations Become Unlikely Financiers of Racial Equity

Corporate giving has exploded since the racial reckoning in summer 2020 brought on by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.  Corporation donations have far outpaced donations from foundations and individual philanthropists since the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, per the philanthropy research organization Candid.  "Companies donated or pledged about $8.2 billion of the $12 billion in total contributions earmarked for racial equity--the 'first time direct corporate giving to racial equity cases has reached this magnitude'--said Andrew Grabois, Candid's corporate philanthropy manager."

Some of the most significant corporate commitments have come from JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, AMEX, Bank of America, PayPal, Salesforce and Chase.  These large corporate commitments do not account for the other minority-focused investments, such as JP Morgan's initiative to lend more openly to minority owned businesses and black and brown home purchasers.  The corporate giving trend is fueled by changing expectations of younger employees and progressive consumers that expect corporations to become serious about corporate responsibilities to social issues and causes.  Advocates argue that these corporate commitments will not be enough to achieve racial equity in housing, employment and policing, but acknowledge that if these corporations are serious about their commitments, that it can mark an important start.  "'The world is changing, and the expectations of how companies engage are changing,' said Brandee McHale, Citi’s head of community investing and development."

ABC News reports that "[s]ince late May, Grabois said, financial commitments by companies to racial equity causes have grown 'exponentially larger' than any other cause other than COVID-19. A report by McKinsey & Company, which tracked corporate responses from May to October, found that of the top 1,000 U.S. companies, 18% made internal commitments, like diversifying their hiring, and 22% pledged to promote racial equity through donations or other means."

Whether corporate giving to racial equity causes results in systemic change and reform remains to be seen.  Holding corporations to their commitments will likely be an important undertaking.

photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Count the Black Lawyers

I was an associate at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison from 1988 until 1991. These almost three years were impactful even though my time there was brief. To say that I learned a great deal is an understatement. My work at the firm took me to places like Gracie Mansion, and to Hollywood for several weeks to perform due diligence for a music publishing company. My time there was further evidence of my African American family’s dramatic upward mobility in just six generations. My maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of enslaved African Americans. She worked as a maid and cook before she went back to school. With a sixth-grade education, she passed the New York State licensing exam for cosmetology. She opened a successful hair salon, and she and my grandfather sent my mom to Hunter College. My mother retired decades ago from a successful career as a scientist and school administrator. And when I went to Paul Weiss, I was making more money than anyone in my immediate and extended family had ever made.

There were about 400 lawyers at the firm’s New York office during the years I was there. Only six of those lawyers (associates) were Black/African American. None of the approximately 80 partners were Black.  My time at Paul Weiss was brief because my plan was to become a law professor. But while I was at the firm, I was supported and mentored. That is why I was surprised to see a 2018 LinkedIn photo of the firm’s new partners in which almost all were white and male. None were Black.

Happily, much has changed in the years since I was associated with the firm, and even in the almost three years after the LinkedIn photo. I attended the firm’s webinar (The Biden Administration:  What’s Next for Businesses) on March 3rd, 2021. Two of the firm’s (Black) litigation partners were on the panel– Loretta Lynch, former U.S. Attorney, and Jeh Johnson, Former Secretary of Homeland Security. After the webinar I went to the firm’s website that reported the following: “27% of our attorneys self-identify as racially diverse compared to the 20% Big Law average” and “Racially diverse partners are 13% of the equity partnership, compared to the 8% national average”. 

After seeing this website report, I was left wondering how many of these “racially diverse” individuals are Black. Paul Weiss played such a significant role in the upward trajectory of my African American family. And Paul Weiss issued a statement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. But its racial diversity disclosure had only a fraction of the precision that has made the firm a giant in the legal profession. Law firms can address antiblack racism, if they choose to do so, only if they confront the problem and its impact on the success of Black lawyers. Firms can’t do this if they fail to consider that Black lawyers face issues that are saliently different from those endured by white women, and indigenous, Asian and Latinx individuals. Firms can make their disclosure on these issues more meaningful by counting the Black lawyers. If the numbers are not good (on retention, percentages of partners), it’s time for the firm to engage in some meaningful introspection.

Oh, and one more small, but important point. People of color bring racial diversity to an organization. White people bring racial diversity to an organization. But to say that an individual (a partner, for example) is “racially diverse” is the kind of inaccurate, imprecise language that clouds discussions about difficult issues like antiblack racism.