Not separate, still not equal: Pressure grows on America’s companies to fix failures of the past

In 1971, when Rodney O’Neal was admitted to the General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, an accredited undergraduate college then owned and operated by the iconic automaker, nearly all of his classmates were white men.

Coming from an all-Black neighborhood and schools in Dayton, Ohio, O’Neal, a top student, struggled and considered dropping out. A counselor urged him to stay on to challenge the status quo.

“It shows you how foolish you are when you are young,” O’Neal said with a chuckle. “How was I going to do that?” 

Just seven years after the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in hiring, Black Americans were making significant gains in the workplace, and O’Neal didn’t waste his shot. He worked his way up from making steering wheels to running the auto parts division that General Motors spun off as an independent company

Under his guidance, Delphi Automotive Systems navigated a turbulent era in the auto industry, emerging from a massive restructuring with booming sales. 

O’Neal’s groundbreaking career illustrates the strides corporate America made following the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yet new data analyzed by USA TODAY reveal how rare stories like O’Neal’s have been in the five decades since his journey to the top began. 

Rodney O’Neal is one of 19 Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500 list.

Political pressure was opening doors for Black workers when O'Neal started out, but the pace of change slowed in the 1980s.

By the time he retired in 2015, O’Neal was widely considered the most prominent Black leader in his field. Today he remains part of a very exclusive club, just one of 19 Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500 list.

“When you look at the numbers, what you have is a bunch of activity without much accomplishment,” he said. “The system has to work for all, and right now, it’s obviously not.

New data shows slow progress

USA TODAY gathered federal workforce records from 83 of the nation’s top 100 companies and found that the status quo is still largely in effect despite corporate pledges to do better after George Floyd's killing in 2020. 

White and male employees remain overrepresented in positions that pay the highest salaries, offer the best benefits and provide a path to promotions. Black workers, particularly women, tend to be concentrated in the lowest ranks of America’s leading corporations.

At the major companies USA TODAY reviewed, 1 in every 118 white workers is an executive compared to 1 in every 612 Black workers, according to the latest filings available, in most cases covering the calendar year 2020. That means white employees were five times more likely to hold C-Suite jobs than Black employees.

Similar, albeit smaller, gaps persisted in other positions with high pay and prestige. 

While 1 in 7 white workers held a management job, just 1 in 15 Black workers did. More than 1 in 4 white employees held professional roles like accountant or engineer compared to just 1 in 10 Black employees. 

Meanwhile, Black employees were clumped in job classifications like secretary and warehouse laborer.

That holds true at General Motors, where O’Neal rose through the ranks.

He credits the automaker with recruiting African Americans and grooming them for leadership roles when he was coming up. 

Yet, while it has made strides in hiring and promoting more women, the company has “gone backwards” in Black representation at the top, he says.

African Americans make up 19% of GM’s U.S. workforce yet hold 4% of the executive and leadership positions, according to USA TODAY’s analysis of workforce reports that the company files with the federal government. Black women account for just 1% of those top jobs. 

“If you look at the pictures of the GM board of directors and corporate officers, it says that the system has not worked in terms of hiring, identifying, retaining and developing African Americans for their top positions,” O’Neal said. “It does take time to right the wrong of doing nothing for years, but you can’t finish until you start.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion "are more vital than ever to GM’s success," Telva McGruder, chief diversity, equity and inclusion 0fficer at General Motors, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

"Our DE&I efforts are aimed at increasing the diversity of our talent pipeline at all levels, while maintaining GM’s overall commitment to providing equal employment opportunities to all qualified candidates," she said.

Until Civil Rights Act, ‘near total white male privilege’

In 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in hiring, there was “near-total white male privilege” in the workplace, according to Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor who runs the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

His analysis of decades of federal workforce data shows that Black workers made gains in the 1960s and 1970s, but that those advances fizzled as the push for racial equality faded from the national conversation. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson reaches to shake hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting the civil rights leader with one of the 72 pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act in Washington on July 2, 1964.

The most recent federal workforce data bears out the sluggish progress in recent years.

Between 2014 and 2018, Black employment in companies that report their data to the EEOC grew by 5.2% overall but their representation in executive jobs grew by just 0.5% and in managerial jobs by only 2.4%, said Tomaskovic-Devey, co-author of “Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act.”

“Progress is neither inevitable nor continuous,” Tomaskovic-Devey said. “Firms have to commit themselves to being inclusive, to nurturing talent and to policing their internal processes, HR practices and culture.” 

Just a handful of companies achieve racial parity

USA TODAY found that just a handful of the nation’s top corporations have achieved equal representation in at least some of their top-ranking jobs. 

Black workers account for 11.2% of the U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet they held a smaller percentage of executive jobs at all but six leading companies: UPS (20.3%), Lowes (13.7%), Southern Co. (12.7%), Colgate Palmolive (12.4%), FedEx (11.8%), and Bank of New York Mellon (11.8%). Of those, only UPS and FedEx also placed a representative share of Black workers in other management jobs. 

An additional nine companies had a proportionate representation of Black workers in management jobs but not in executive positions.

People celebrate the sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on June 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The degree of underrepresentation was extreme in many cases. At 53 of the 83 companies, the share of executive jobs held by Black employees was less than half the rate of Black participation in the U.S. workforce. The same was true for other management roles at 37 companies. 

Five businesses had no Black people in the C-Suite: American Tower Corp.; Booking Holdings; Costco; Metlife; and Oracle. Nine companies had zero Black women in executive roles: Accenture; American Tower Corp.; Booking Holdings; Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.; ConocoPhillips; Costco; Metlife; Oracle; and Qualcomm.

Corporate America’s broken promises

Corporate America must confront the failures of the past, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder & CEO of diversity, equity and inclusion firm ReadySet and author of “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down.” 

“It’s a question of who gets access to power and how much power they are willing to share,” Hutchinson said. “And the answer is, as it has been for the past 400 years, not much if any.”

The Executive Leadership Council is a nonprofit that helps develop Black executives. In December, it published a report pointing to the long trail of broken corporate promises including those that followed the 1992 acquittal of four white police officers in the videotaped beating of Black motorist Rodney King.

At the time, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley teamed up with dozens of companies on a project called “Rebuild L.A.,” which raised more than $500 million. But it was scrapped five years later, having fallen far short of its goals.

That same lack of progress is seen in the commitments corporate America has not yet kept since Floyd’s death, the council found in its report titled “Beyond Promises to Progress: Black CEOs and C-Suite Officers Speak Out on Diversity.”

“More recently, corporate America has recommitted itself to improving diversity and equity after the senseless killings of many Black Americans by police. Yet, more than one year after these commitments, visible signs of meaningful change have not been realized for Black people,” the authors wrote. “What is clear, however, is that the compelling case for racial equity in corporate America has not changed.”