Reframing Racism as a Human Rights Risk

Racial equity and justice are at their core human rights issues. As sustainability and social impact leaders, we often put human rights frameworks such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights at the center of our work. Erika George—a scholar, activist, and human rights expert—examines the responsibility of corporations to address diversity and racial equity as a part of their commitment to human rights.  

Despite a global pandemic, thousands joined anti-racism protests around the world to denounce racism following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Independent experts of the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a joint statement condemning “systemic racism” and “state-sponsored racial violence” in the United States. Now many corporations are examining their role in perpetuating racism and exploring reforms. The business community has reacted to recent antiracist activism with responses ranging from issuing solidarity statements in support of the previously untouchable #BlackLivesMatter movement to hiring chief diversity officers and requiring diversity training.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Incorporating Rights: Strategies to Advance Corporate Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2021), it is timely to consider the relationship between sustainability, diversity, and social impact. The term “sustainability” has come to take on many different meanings, but to truly make a meaningful difference, I believe we must understand sustainability to mean respect for human rights. Human rights recognizes the wrong of racism. Sustainable businesses should respect human rights and could have a powerful impact on efforts to end racism.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination affirms the importance of “eliminating racial discrimination throughout the world in all its forms and manifestations.”  The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination reaffirms the importance of taking effective measures to end policies that have the effect of creating racial divisions or perpetuating racial discrimination. These international human rights instruments recognize racism as an obstacle to peace and security. Racism is also an impediment to sustainability.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is an ambitious plan of action that seeks to promote peace and prosperity. Reducing inequality within and among countries and promoting inclusion are among the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs” or “Global Goals”) to be achieved by 2030. Through an “integrated and indivisible” approach the Global Goals seek to balance the economic, social, and environmental aspects of sustainability. It will be impossible to reduce inequality without confronting the role of racism in creating and perpetuating it.

The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights has embraced the Global Goals and recently launched a “UNGPs+10” initiative to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the unanimous endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021. The United Nations Guiding Principles provide that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights. To that end, businesses should avoid being involved in abuses and should address human rights issues by identifying and preventing adverse impacts on the enjoyment of rights. Businesses should assess operations, products, services, and relationships to gauge risks to human rights. Racism remains a human rights risk.

Business leaders have expressed renewed interest in doing diligence to determine the ways certain policies and practices serve to promote racism. Several Fortune 500 firms have pledged to make changes in the aftermath of the uprisings. Microsoft announced it would stop providing facial recognition technology to law enforcement due to racial bias until legal protections were put in place. IBM has also gone on record opposing the use of its technology for mass surveillance and racial profiling as violations of basic human rights and freedoms inconsistent with the company’s stated values of trust and transparency. PepsiCo retired brands rooted in racist stereotypes criticized as nostalgic for chattel slavery.

Reaching the Global Goals and putting the Guiding Principles into practice will require a sustainability that recognizes the importance of an anti-racist approach to doing business. Antiracism rejects the idea that “race-neutral” and “color-blind” policies will be adequate to advance equality. Antiracism challenges the racist ideas that lead to the racist actions that create and perpetuate racial inequality. Maintaining that one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way is racist. When inequities are attributed to the inferiority or superiority of a given racial group, antiracism recognizes this reasoning as racist—because, despite apparent racial differences, antiracism sees all races as equal. Antiracism attributes racial inequities to racist policies and practices. An antiracist approach to sustainable business requires an examination of policies and practices that are causing or contributing to the adverse human rights impacts that serve to entrench racial inequities. Diversity initiatives alone will not be enough. Solidarity statements are nice but are not sufficient. Stakeholders and social movements are calling for more than #BlackLivesMatter marketing. To have a meaningful and measurable impact on inequality, sustainability must confront racism. Conducting human rights due diligence to detect the practices, policies, and patterns of behavior that reinforce racism and replacing them with more equitable alternatives could have a powerful positive impact.

The coronavirus crisis is forcing a much-needed and long-overdue rethink of corporate responsibility and sustainability. The present moment provides an opportunity for us to move beyond business as usual—sustainability leaders can and must imagine more equitable and inclusive ways of structuring economic, social, and political life.

Continue to hear from thought leaders in this space by following our Racial Equity in Action series on the Presidian Blog, where we explore how, as sustainability and impact leaders, we can move the needle toward a more equitable and just society. Our series sits at the intersection of racial justice and social responsibility and features insights from the PGS community as well as external experts and thought leaders. Our goal is that through these shared insights we can better address racial inequity as a part of our day-to-day interactions and careers. If you’re looking to accelerate or shift your career, live your values, and lead with purpose, consider joining an upcoming cohort at PGS.