Conversations on race, bias and inequity

  • BlackRock

Senator Cory Booker, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation Wes Moore joined BlackRock’s Lyenda Delp for a series of conversations about how racial inequity affects healthcare, business and society at large.

Highlights include:

  • How systemic racism manifests itself in everyday occurrences and affects advancement opportunities in the workplace
  • How corporations can play a bigger role in ensuring racial equity
  • How certain policy changes could directly alleviate poverty and racism in America
  • The importance of education in forging a more just society
  • Lyenda Delp: The complexity of race has been a societal challenge for hundreds of years. Since then and continuing to now, a complex history of laws and social structures have contributed to massive differences in the life experiences of poor people of color versus others. It’s been impossible to avoid the recent eyewitness accounts of a few who have taken their privileges to the extreme and led to a fresh round of suffering and pain. Such activities have caused corporations and individuals alike to take notice and, in some cases, to take significant action.

    I'm so pleased to be speaking with Senator Cory Booker from the great State of New Jersey.

    You have noted that the American dream isn’t real for anyone unless it’s within reach of everyone. What are the key social issues you believe we must face together so that we can achieve a more equitable society.

    Cory Booker: I'm just grateful to be here. And maybe I can answer that first question with a quick story. Hurricane Sandy was coming, and I was Mayor of New Jersey’s largest city and as it was slamming coast, I went out in my command vehicle with some police officers just to survey the streets. I'm driving along. I get a phone call proceeded by the stupidest question I think I’ve heard in a long time, which was an operator saying, hi, this is the White House operator. Would you hold for the President of the United States? And I'm like, ah, yeah, of course.

    The next thing you know, I was talking to Barack Obama and it was this amazing call where he was just human being checking in on me and my city. And it was just an amazing, you know, few-minute conversation of grace and kindness and decency. And as soon as I hung up with him, my phone rings again, and almost as if they had coordinated it, but they hadn't, and it’s the Governor of the State of New Jersey. It’s Chris Christie doing the same thing, being a human, checking in on me. And when I hung up with him, I was rising to a hill and I had seen on the top of that hill all the telephone poles had come down, live electrical wires. It was a disaster.

    But then, I see through the rain and the wind a guy in a yellow slicker with a floodlight just waving at me. And I – just to stop. And I stopped my car. I rolled down my window and then I see it’s an elderly man. And I yelled through the rain. I go, sir, what are you doing out here? And he looks at me as if I'm the one that asked a stupid question. He goes there’s telephone wires down. There’s live electrical wires. I'm standing out here to make sure that no one gets hurt, that no one comes along and gets hurt.

    And in that moment, I had just talked to the President of the United States, the Governor of the State. I'm the Mayor of the largest city. But the greatest person I saw in that moment was the man on the top of a hill in a storm standing up for other people. That, that’s the spirit of our country. That's why I'm here and so many of us are here right now, because people in a storm, in a crisis stood up for others, made a sacrifice for others.  It’s that spirit of people who stormed beaches in Normandy, who did freedom rides all for us here. And the challenge we have in our country is these ideals are so worth fighting for, so worth dying for, putting your life on the line for others is we can’t stop that now when we live in a nation where there are hills to stand on and where there’s a storm.

    are you willing to stand on that hill? How important is the role of allies in this fight, in supporting the concerns of all those people, the women you’ve just mentioned, minorities of all races, but especially black and brown people?

    Lyenda Delp: Let’s talk about the American Opportunity Accounts Act or otherwise sort of simply known as Baby Bonds, which about a year ago you and Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts proposed. Why this proposal?

    Cory Booker: Well, let me confess. First of all, this is not an original idea. People were talking about baby bonds decades before I got to the United States Senate. And from both sides of the political aisle you would find this kind of thought ... it’s this idea that we are a capitalist society and let’s give everybody at birth an equity stake in this capitalist system that we have. And in fact, studies show that if a child has a – knows that they have an account out there for them, their – they – their chances of going to college go up about three to four times as likely to go to college, just knowing that somebody has set up an account.

    Our bill says let’s put some real equity here. Let's have every child as a birthright in America. You’re born. You get an interest-bearing account of $1,000 and every year you get more money placed in that account based upon your family’s income up to $2,000 for the poorest kids and that compounds over time that by the time that kid is 18-years-old, the lowest income kids in America will have about upwards of $50,000 in an account. And because of the racial disparities in wealth in our country, the average black kid is going to have somewhere near $30,000. And as Columbia University looked at it and said it actually, for those teenage kids it actually gets rid of the racial wealth gap in America.

    And so, it’s this powerful way of giving people a stake and then that 18-year-old can use that either to keep it in that account to grow or invest it in buying a home or starting a business, going to college, or getting the training, advanced technical training they might need for a job. And see, these are the kind of things that we can do in adherence of our policies that have big, big impact.

    So, I want to probe a little bit more beyond the Baby Bonds, because that idea is really about long-term wealth creation and bridging the gap over a period of time. there are marginalized families right now. And they’re facing incredible challenges due to systemic racism, the gaping financial holes even made wider by COVID-19, and so many complex structures persistently tamping down the opportunities. what other laws or other initiatives could have nearer-term enduring impact?

    Cory Booker: the one thing I worry about is the problem of poverty in our country. And when I say poverty, I'm talking about a poverty of empathy and a poverty of compassion and a poverty of understanding, that we are comfortable with levels of injustice in our country that are stunning to me. I mean we torture children in prison.

    We’re a nation that still shackles pregnant women when they’re in prison. I could go through the things that we do in our name, what we do to the mentally ill in our country, what we do to the addicted in our country.

    There are so many things that we would not be comfortable with, environmental injustices that are outrageous in our country. I went on an environmental injustice tour of our country and sat in packed black churches and – of people that have had these environmental toxins shoved into their neighborhoods. I mean there’s – this is an issue of us understanding and having the empathy to pause and see what our fellow Americans are struggling with. And the policy ideas are there.

    I’ll give you an example. I mean we can just double the earned income tax credit. In other words, if you work – I grew up in one of New Jersey’s wealthiest areas, but as an adult I chose to live in a low-income area. The neighborhood I'm sitting in right now, the median income is about $14,000 per household. Now, let me tell you, there are people in my neighborhood that work longer hours than my parents work, but they still go to the local bodega up the corner from me and use food stamps to feed their family.

    We live in a nation that through our tax code very easily we could – and this is – I’ve heard everybody from Paul Ryan to people on the left talk about let’s make work pay. Let's double the child – the earned income tax credit. Let's massively increase the child tax credit. We could half African American poverty right away doing that. And by the way, that poverty line is not just a numerical line. Things happen to children who are above that poverty line versus below in terms of their life outcomes that are pretty dramatic.

    Lyenda Delp: the American dream isn’t real for anyone unless it’s within reach of everyone. For me, it begs comparisons to the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I find both powerful, simple, but with a very high bar for a collective. Do you think we are at a seminal moment in our history where we can achieve the changes that will make that dream attainable for everyone?

    Cory Booker:  I thought about my dad and how it broke my heart that I let him down, one of my biggest mistakes of my life, because my dad was born in the Jim Crow South in 1936. He was born to a single mom below the poverty line. He used to say I, son, I couldn’t afford to poor. I was just po, P-O. I couldn’t afford the other two letters. And he was rescued by the people in the community that wouldn’t let him fail. His – a family took him in, not his blood. But, when his family couldn’t take care of him, they took him in, and he wasn’t going to college. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. But teachers insisted he go, and the church took a collection to enroll him in an HBCU. And he graduated in the early 1960s, moved to the Virginia and Washington DC area, became the first black man ever hired as a salesman in the entire Virginia area. And my dad had the gift of gab and thrived, ended up being one of IBM’s top 5% of their global salespeople, then moved up to New Jersey. And you heard, again, how black folks and white folks intervened to get him and his family into suburban America.

    That's a conspiracy of love. And I let my dad down because I moved to Newark, New Jersey. And up the street from where I live, there was high rise projects that I decided to move into. And I lived there for almost a decade. I watched kids grow up. And there's this one group of kids that hung out in the lobby, boys. And Hassan Washington, who was the head of this crew, he was my dad incarnate. He was just as brilliant, just as funny, just as gift of fab, born leader. And he, I tell you, and my dad, both born at the poverty line, both being raised by a single mom, so much in common.

    And I remember one night I came home, and I smelled marijuana. I smelled pot in the lobby and they’re not Stanford kids. They can’t experiment with drugs. The criminal justice system will chew them up and spit them out. And so, I took them out the movies and dinner, hoping to get to know them better and started mentoring. And I made commitments to these kids that I was going to set them up with mentors. And then, I got busy with life and I was running for Mayor of the city and I got too busy to follow through on my commitments to the kids.

    But I would still come home during the campaign and they would still cheer me. Well, I get elected and then there were death threats on my life. And so, they put police officers stationed in the projects and I didn’t see the kids, because none of this on this call when we were teenagers want to hang out where the police are hanging out.

    But, I’ll never forget going home that night for a couple hours of sleep and I'm going through my BlackBerry and I see the reports for the day and there was a police report and there’s the murder, the report of the murder. And I see the person who was killed, the name of the victim, the murder victim on the pavement with a sheet covering them. The name was Hassan Washington.

    And I’ll tell you, something broke in me that night. And I, you know, I – his funeral, it was the most shameful I had ever felt in my life. It was in the basement of this funeral home, all black people piled in on top of each other, chained together in grief, moaning and groaning at another boy in a box, an American tradition, another black boy dead in a box. And I couldn’t stay for his funeral. I ran to the city hall, new mayor, slammed the door, sat on that couch and wept for the first time. And all I could think to myself was I can never pay back the people who did for my dad, but when God put dad right in front of me, a kid with more genius than I have, natural born leader, I got too busy to be there for him. And yet, all of us were there crammed into a funeral home for his death, but where were we for his life.

    And so, if you want to know what to do, it’s to never forget that the biggest thing you can do in any day will always be a small act of kindness, decency, and love, to know that you can never pay back all the people that did for you and your family and your ancestors, but we have an obligation to pay it forward. Never underestimate that we today can do something that can change the lives of generations unborn.

    Lyenda Delp:  Senator Booker, we have covered so much in this conversation. We are grateful that you took the time to join us in this dialogue.

    Cory Booker: Thank you. All the best to you and to everyone listening. Thank you.

    Lyenda Delp: Thank you for joining the Future Forum and this conversation on race, bias, and inequity in the workplace and our broader society.

    So, last September you and two professors from Harvard Business School published an important book called Race, Work, and Leadership.

    there are two burning questions I really must ask you. Is systemic racism truly commonplace?  And then, I'm very curious to know why we think it persists.00:08:54

    Laura Roberts: Oh, such important questions, Lyenda. Thank you so much for welcoming me today and thank you also for your support and engagement with the book and with the research. It’s so important that we have these broad datasets to help inform our answers to these important questions.

    So, with your first important question about systemic racism, is it truly commonplace, is it endemic to the ways that our organizations function today? And, unfortunately, I have to answer based on the data that, yes, systemic racism is still widespread, and it’s deeply baked into many of the structures and practices in corporate America.

    You know, it shows up at various levels of the process when we think about entry, we think about advancement, when we think about engagement, and when we think about leadership impact, all central important questions around talent management. We see the impact, longstanding and current impact of racism on those processes.

    So, at the entry level, we see racial disparities in terms of who gets hired and the ways in which racial bias enters into that process just from the point of screening a resume or a CV and looking at a person’s name to code or decode whether or not that person might be white or whether they might be a person of color. And numerous field studies have shown that those kind of split-second decisions will weed somebody out of the hiring process just that quickly.

    But, let’s assume you get into the door. Then, there are questions around systemic racism that relate to advancement and engagement. So, we’re looking to develop an invest in our high potential contributors and our future leaders, right. And so, we see that there are racial disparities in terms of the kinds of developmental experiences that people are afforded, the types of mentoring and sponsorship that they get along the way, and those translate into whether or not they’re tapped for this high potential opportunities that allow them to advance beyond entry levels in organizations.

    And then, the last piece is around the leadership impact question. So, let’s say you advance, and you make it to the level of managing director or similar senior leadership roles within your organizations. We find that even at those levels people of color and black people in particular still face the day-to-day stressors of racial microaggressions, of people sort of questioning or doubting their authority, of being mistaken for lower level or lower wage workers in the organization or perhaps an administrative assistant or someone who’s on the custodial team, rather than someone who’s responsible for initiating and executing important decisions.

    So, all throughout the journey of one’s career, racism still plays a role. It persists because systemic racism, it’s capturing the idea that racism operates as a system and by system we mean their reinforcing system of beliefs, decisions, practices that create self-fulfilling prophecies around who has power and advantage and opportunities within our organizations and who has to struggle harder to get access to those opportunities, if they get them at all.

    Lyenda Delp: clearly now there’s a bright light being shone on corporations and leadership across America.

    Laura Roberts: I think, Lyenda, the first step is to do what we’re doing today, which is to invite more open engagement and learning conversations around race. For so long, race has been unspeakable. So, that is an important and noble step and I have certainly seen a difference in the past, you know, months in the floodgate of opportunities that are opening for organizations to start to advance anti-racist work because people have started listening. And when leaders signal that they’re listening, then members of the organization and other critical stakeholders will begin to speak more freely about their experiences and people can learn together how to create or co-create the best path forward.

    So, that path involves acknowledging the harm that systemic racism may have imposed outside in the community, yes, and we saw that catalyst with protests against the racial violence. But, what corporations are doing now is looking internally, so also having to create cultural audits to say, hmm, let me look at my engagement practices, let me look at my hiring practices, let me look at the rate of advancement and the level of credentialing for members of different racial and gender groups within the organization to see is there a different path that certain individuals have to follow in my organization versus others.

    Get that internal data and then from there invest in the necessary infrastructure to promote sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

    Lyenda Delp: So, what do you think are further catalysts that corporations need to act and go beyond the talk to demonstrate that, their real commitment? What will be the drivers?

    Laura Roberts: I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that a lot of the urgency of change right now is coming from those external catalysts and drivers of success. It’s been a public outcry, a public global outcry around racial injustice and that is much of the same horror that drove change around racial injustice during the 20th century civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movements.

    We have to recognize that there’s a lot of collective voice that helps organizations and corporations understand what their priorities need to be at this moment in time. Now, internally what happens here in driving the change is to have those courageous voices who can partner with their colleagues in the organizations to help engage this new call to consciousness, help to translate experiences that quite honestly many of the leaders probably hadn't been aware of until this point in time. You know, for some who have been silent about race to date, it’s because, we wanted to evaluated simply on the basis of our performance and to not have race be an obstacle or barrier.

    But there are others for whom race represents a collective shame or guilt or just a lack of empowerment, a frustration about what to do with this big challenge and how to fix it. And we recognize that terrible things have happened in the past and maybe they’re still happening right now. But, you know, I feel like I don’t know, I'm not equipped to be able to handle it. So, therefore, I'm afraid to talk about it and acknowledge it.

    And then there’s a third group who have actively resisted a lot of the DEI initiatives. So, for those who say they feel that their organizations haven’t done enough, there are others who have been reflected in these that say white men are being overlooked and excluded by DEI initiatives. And so, the DEI initiatives then have fallen out of favor, you know, especially when people feel that they are focusing too much on race or racial and ethnic minorities. So leaders, in order to move through change are going to have to contend in some way with that conflict, the internal conflict within the organization about how much attention and how much – how many resources, to be quite frank, this kind of work should be getting.

    Laura Roberts: Oh, gosh. I would say at once everything changed and at the same token nothing changed, right. The world of May 25th was the world of May 24th and in large part from a structural perspective the world of May 26th.

    Since George Floyd was killed, other black people have been killed by police officers. People have been run down by cars in the middle of riots and protests. COVID is still having a disproportionate impact in a shocking and brutal way on black and brown communities. And we are still not of common mind or common voice about what it takes to protect the lives and livelihoods of our planet, much less those who are most vulnerable.

    And so, those remain deep-seated concerns for me. I'm encouraged by the fact that many corporate leaders have expressed their unequivocal support. I'm also mindful and observing the fact that there is still a wide continuum where some corporate leaders are all-in and other corporate leaders sort of dipped their toe in the water and now they’re realizing it’s a little hotter than they expected that it would be and they’re starting to pull back a little bit and, what, it hasn’t been six weeks yet, barely six weeks.

    So, you know, bottom line am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful.

    Lyenda Delp: This has been a fascinating conversation and it’s quite clear why you, Dr. Roberts, are sought out for your wisdom, even more so now at this important crossroads in our shared history. We at BlackRock are grateful to have been benefiting meaningfully from your guidance and I personally have just gleaned incredible new insights today. We wish you the very best and we thank you, again, for joining us.

    Wes, some know your story, but I want to ensure everyone has important context for all you bring to our conversation. You are the CEO of Robin Hood, one of the most important organizations in the effort to address poverty in our nation. You are a combat veteran, a bestselling author, a social entrepreneur.

    What were some of the challenges and the key influences that enabled you to become the man you are today?

    Wes Moore: Well, first, I just want to say thank you and what an honor that it is to be with you today. And so, truly, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation. And, you know, I think that so much of who I am was – has been rooted and established from my earliest days. You know, I am the grandson of someone who was born, first one on my mom’s family actually born in the United States. But, it was actually the Ku Klux Klan, when he was just a toddler that actually ran my family, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, out of the country, because my great-grandfather was a minister who was very vocal and verbal threats eventually turned into physical threats, to the point that he decided that he had to pick up his family and leave the country. And most of my family made a pledge never come – to come back to the United States.

    But, my grandfather did and my grandfather always said that this was the country that he was born into he felt that he had just as much ownership as anybody else. And so, he eventually did. He came back here.

    My father died in front of me when I was young and my mother was having a really difficult time with that transition, then decided to move us, myself, my older sister, and my younger sister, to go live with my grandparents, who lived up in the South Bronx. And they had a house that was barely big enough for them, but they figured out a way to make it big enough for all of us.

    And I think about in that moment where when the question is, you know, what about that childhood helped to make you the man that you are today. I think in many ways the fact that my family has always gone through this idea of being tested, the fact that the neighborhood that, frankly, I grew up in was one that was chronically neglected and we knew it, the fact that, you know, we continue to feel this need and this feeling of being able to feel a self of justification for belonging. And I think that feeling, that push, and frankly the fact that I had a lot of people, to include my family, but eventually leading to this amazing string of people who entered into my life and, frankly, showed me and believed in me in a way that I wasn’t even prepared to believe in myself at the time, that they really helped to guide me and direct me into not just the person that I am, but also into the things that I want to focus on and the impact that I'm hoping to make.

    Would you say there were any differences in the type of racism and bias that you may have observed either at different times or at different places,?

    I think one of the things that I realize is that when you think about all of our life, all of our life experiences, I mean some of the most predictable life outcomes are completely highlighted by race, right, and that includes life expectancy. It includes academic achievement. It includes income and wealth, physical and mental health, maternal mortality. That's just the data.

    But it’s also highlighting how those different mechanisms continue to have generational impact. So even, for example, you know, even when you go into certain areas or you get certain educational awards, you know, the fact that I was the first in my family to walk on, you know, go on to places that my family didn’t even imagine even existed. you know, going to school in England and going to school overseas and all this kind of stuff and doing everything, again, that was being asked. But here’s also the reality is that a person, a black person with a college degree has the same wealth as a white person who is a high school dropout and that’s a true fact right now in this country that a black woman who has breast cancer has a 42% higher chance of dying than a white woman with breast cancer.

    And so, you see how even when you factor in for the socioeconomic, because if that was it, if it was just about, well, you lived in an impoverished community and, therefore, this is what it is, that’s one thing. But, the thing that the data continues to show us is that even if you transcend from there that racism still continues to show itself, because it is one of these things that has permeated every system that we have within our society, from housing, transportation, education, everything, criminal justice, everything. Can you explain for us just the cost of child poverty? Can you just break that down just a little bit further? Absolutely. So, if we’re looking at the cost of child poverty and, again, and where all that comes from and where those, you know, where those numbers come from, the numbers actually come from an OECD study. And so, we’re talking about, you know, a study that’s looking at the impact in the levels of deep poverty and what deep poverty has actually meant and done, you know, to our measures of society. So, you consider the fact that three decades ago the poorest families in America received, you know, most of the transfers going to families, you know, with private aid comes belong 200% of the federal poverty threshold. But, you know, but if you look at kind of where that is right now in recent years, those families receive less than one-third of all of the transfers. We have fundamentally made the challenge of child poverty more and more difficult.

    And so, when you’re looking at things like the OECD study, when you're looking at things like the National Academy of Sciences, who are talking about the $800 billion to the $1.1 trillion a year, you know, they’re looking at it and that’s every year, they’re looking at it in lost adult productivity, so increased costs related to crime, increased health expenditures. And as staggering as that number is, it also fails to capture that level of untapped genius and unrealized potential of the nearly 10 million children, 10 million children in this country who are trapped in poverty.

    Lyenda Delp: How has the work of your organization changed in any way since the murder of George Floyd in particular?

    Wes Moore: 2020 has been a year that none of us could’ve predicted and all of us wish we did not have to have these twin crises that arrived at our doorstep, right. It’s the – and it is. It’s twin crises of the introduction of a virus that has had absolutely catastrophic health and economic implications on society and also, you know, the very unneeded reminder of how policing is not equitable in every neighborhood.

    But the interesting thing that I think it also has shown and how it also has influenced our work as well is that while COVID-19 impacts everybody, it did not impact everybody equally, you know. And while policing reform is necessary in every neighborhood, we watched how George Floyd’s name was added to a long litany of people to include names like Michael Brown and Philando Castile and Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Sean Bell and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor and Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery and Travon Martin and the list goes on.

    But you watch how these twin crises really exposed a singular truth that race plays in our society. And if you look at even our work, it’s absolutely undeniable to understand the role that race plays in the poverty fight that we have going on right now.

    And so, organizationally we have really, you know, pushed and doubled down on our commitment, not just to keep our north star of moving families out of poverty measurably and sustainably, but also double down on being able to attack these things that we’re seeing not just at the effects but also at the cause, being able to address this issue of racial inequity in a very real and a sustainable way. And we’ve made a few movements in that space that I, I'm very, very proud of.

    You know, one is how we’re thinking about it from an organizational perspective about how we really move to attacking it internally and externally in every way that we see it and thinking about what is the leverage power of Robin Hood, but also in the creation of something called the Power Fund.

    So, the Power Fund is a new initiative to fund and elevate nonprofit leaders of color who share in Robin Hood’s mission of increasing economic mobility from poverty and it allows us to address this issue of poverty through the lens of that interplay between racial injustice and economic injustice.

    Robin Hood, in addition, is putting $10 million of our own capital into this, but also being work with other partners to be able to target something that we know is not just an issue now, but address it on a long-term basis as well by supporting the leaders of today and also the leaders of tomorrow.

    Lyenda Delp: Thank you for all you’re doing at Robin Hood to help those less fortunate, to help make things better for others.

    Well, I have had such an incredible opportunity to speak with three incredible individuals today. This conversation has enriched all of us. Dr. Roberts, Senator Booker, and Wes Moore each provided thoughtful perspectives on one of the most important topics in our nation at this time. Thanks to each of them for joining in the various conversations. It has been an outstanding opportunity.

    This conversation is only part of the discussion. The full conversations with Senator Booker, Dr. Roberts, and Wes Moore will be shared soon.

Extended conversation with Cory Booker

Watch or share with your colleagues the entire one-on-one interview with Cory Booker, United States Senator of New Jersey.

Extended conversation with Wes Moore

Watch or share with your colleagues the entire one-on-one interview with Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood.

Extended conversation with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts

Watch or share with your colleagues the entire one-on-one interview with Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, Researcher and Professor of Practice at UVA.

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Cory Booker
Senator of New Jersey
Lyenda Delp
Head of Client Relationship Management for the Financial Institutions Group
Wes Moore
Chief Executive Officer, Robin Hood
Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts
Professor of Practice, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business
BlackRock Future Forum 2020
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BlackRock Future Forum 2020