Three disasters in 2020 created 'a movement, not just a moment': Ursula Burns

·4-min read

American life is never going back to the way it was before 2020 — and that's a good thing, former Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns tells Yahoo Finance in a new interview. 

The presidency of Donald Trump, the police murder of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic comprise "three disasters" that should bring about a fundamental shift on issues like racial and gender equality, said Burns, author of a new book entitled "Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir."

To that end, she applauded efforts on the part of corporations to support voting rights, a strong education system, and other hallmarks that she says make the U.S. "the land of opportunity and hope."

Burns, who became the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she took over Xerox in 2009, served on the President's Export Council under the Obama administration.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, she condemned Trump and described his tenure as a "hateful" presidency that created the conditions for a nationwide protest movement of the type that arose after the murder of Floyd. Simultaneously, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered everyday life, amplifying political turmoil and increasing the likelihood of permanent change, she said.

"This man [George Floyd] is going to be known for the rest of our lives as the person who started a movement — his death, his murder, started a movement," she says.  

"We're going to know this because we had another man who governed the country in...a hateful energy," she adds.

"Then we had the third [disaster], which is this disease," she says. "That literally changed the way that we live. This happened all in the same kind of sphere of time, and created what I hope is a movement, not just a moment." 

The public health and economic damage incurred by COVID-19 coincided with social upheaval. The police murder of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in May 2020 prompted a wave of protests nationwide and commitments of support for racial justice from top CEOs — a racial reckoning in corporate America that has continued this year amid uproar over state-level voting rights bills that some consider discriminatory.

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 25: A mural of George Floyd painted downtown to memorialize the life of George Floyd is shown on the anniversary of his death on May 25, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked protests and movements around the world. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)
A mural of George Floyd painted downtown to memorialize the life of George Floyd is shown on the anniversary of his death on May 25, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law in March that includes a slew of measures that could make it harder to vote, including reduced access to ballot drop boxes, a ban on mobile voting centers, and making it a misdemeanor to offer food and water to voters in line. A set of 72 current and former Black business executives, including Burns, signed a letter condemning the law and calling on corporations to join them.

Within weeks, hundreds of companies had signed onto a statement opposing laws that restrict voting access.

Burns traced a shift in attitudes toward racial justice back to the murder of Floyd.

"The response [to the murder] was what the response should have been — from society, not from the government," Burns says. "I'm hoping that these disasters — these catastrophes — turn out to be good starts to fundamental change."

While top companies have made some progress on diversity over the last year, their leadership continues to be overwhelmingly white. Fortune 500 companies increased the share of Black board members in the aftermath of Floyd's murder — but corporate boards remain 82.5% white, according to a study released this month by the Alliance of Board Diversity and the consulting firm Deloitte.

Similarly, white people continue to hold the vast majority of CEO positions. Only five Fortune 500 chief executives are Black more than a decade after Burns became Xerox CEO.

After leaving Xerox in 2016, Burns joined Amsterdam-based internet services company Veon as chairman, a role she held from 2017 to 2020, in addition to a period as the company's CEO. She is currently a member of the board of directors at Exxon (XOM), Uber (UBER), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Burns said she hopes the nation's reckoning will foster a more active role for corporations on bedrock issues like voting rights, education, and policing. She contrasted the constructive role she envisions for corporations with what she considers a divisive agenda critical of wealthy people.

"The outcome is rewriting the tax code and just kind of beating up the rich people — that's not the goal here," she says. 

"The goal here is more about acting like America, which is this is the land of hope and opportunity," she adds. "That's what this is about that we actually do balance it out a little bit better, we actually do make significant progress on racial justice, we absolutely have to make progress on gender justice.

"So my hope is from these disasters — three disasters — that we end up with corporations saying, 'I haven't spoken about voting rights before but voting is what this country is built on. We have to talk about that."

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