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Racial inclusion and equity is good for Baltimore business | COMMENTARY

Calvin Butler, GBC chair and CEO of Exelon Utilities, addresses the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting, held virtually this month.
Calvin Butler, GBC chair and CEO of Exelon Utilities, addresses the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting, held virtually this month. (Lorraine Mirabella)

Is Baltimore racially and economically inclusive? A ranking last year by the Urban Institute found the city was middle of the road out of 274 cities the think tank analyzed. It ranked 166th overall, 182nd on economic inclusion, and 143rd on racial inclusion. What can we take away from this? There’s some work to do.

Fortunately, the business community seems to be up to the task. At its annual meeting this month, the Greater Baltimore Committee outlined its strategy for “advocating and advancing a racial equity and social justice agenda” not just for the city, but the entire metro area. GBC Chair Calvin Butler emphasized that creating this inclusive climate can’t be done as a “side job” or effort secondary to any core business strategy. That would be a recipe for failure. “It has been seen as only part of the work,” said Mr. Butler, also CEO of Exelon Utilities. “I’m here to tell you, it is the work.”

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That is the right message coming from Baltimore’s business community as a social justice movement has taken hold across the country over the past year, brought on by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and other brutal police abuses. For Baltimore to deal with its own racial inequities, it needs the buy-in of all the city’s stakeholders — community groups, residents, government officials and religious institutions. With the city’s business power brokers on board, work can start on closing the economic gaps that have created a city of haves and have-nots based on race; fostered obstacles in growing businesses owned by people of color; and contributed to high crime levels, spurred by poverty, and the social issues that accompany it.

But Mr. Butler is right that equity and inclusion can’t be a fly-by-night effort that fades away until the next big police-involved incident sparks another movement. It was Rodney King’s beating 30 years ago and George Floyd’s death in 2020, and little progress has been made. It shouldn’t take the police beating or death of a Black man to rouse up people’s consciousness. People are tired of hearing promises and want to see real change. A deliberate effort, with accountability, is needed to confront and transform decades of institutional racism that has gotten us to where are today.

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This time companies and communities need to make equity a permanent part of their thinking — a part of economic growth goals. And that doesn’t mean adding a couple of Black faces to leadership positions. That is diversity. Equity and inclusion means giving people a true seat at the table where they have a chance to influence change. It’s making sure residents and business owners of all races have a chance to take part in the economic opportunities of a city and region. It’s making sure all people have access to decent housing, transportation and jobs. It’s having more Calvin Butlers head major corporations. It’s ensuring that no one is left on the sidelines.

This kind of inclusion is not just a feel-good activity. Equity and inclusion creates more stable and prosperous cities and communities, according to the Urban Institute. It also makes for a more diverse and skilled workforce and improved life for all residents. At the end of the day, it’s good for business, and that’s why the business community should want to play a vital role. As the country becomes more diverse, it might make the difference between cities that thrive and those that struggle.

The GBC and its member businesses have already started some of the work toward a more inclusive business environment. Other groups, like the Downtown Partnership, have also initiated their own programs and goals. Mr. Butler when elected GBC chair last year, vowed to work to improve racial equity and inclusion at businesses in the region and so far the results have been that businesses have reexamined everything from diversity on their boards to hiring practices.

Now we will wait to see if the efforts result in more capital investments in minority businesses, more people of color in executive positions with decision-making powers, more contracts that go to typically underserved businesses and staffs that better reflect the diversity of the region. These are concrete changes that will have true impact and amount to more than talking points or photo-ops for the company annual report, or something that looks good to shareholders. Only when these kinds of changes take place will we know that the effort by Baltimore’s business communities is more than lip service.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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