Anti-Black Racism in the C-Suite

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When Black Excellence isn’t enough

It can be a long way to the top, especially for those from racialized backgrounds. When even the highest achievers come face-to-face with systemic barriers, organizations need to take action to create more equitable workplaces and allow racialized employees well-deserved positions in executive offices.

For fans of the Toronto Raptors (and the NBA in general), Raptors president Masai Ujiri is a living testament to the ongoing challenges of racial discrimination in the workplace. Even after  reaching the mountaintop of NBA glory—leading the Toronto Raptors to win the NBA Championship in 2019—Masai’s undeniable excellence wasn’t enough for some.

You might remember the night of June 13, 2019, where the Raptors had just won their first title in Oakland and Ujiri made his way to the court to join his celebrating team. He was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy on the edge of the court who refused to recognize his VIP pass and instead instigated a shoving courtside match, later suing Ujiri for the incident. When the lawsuit was dropped in 2021, Ujiri released a statement identifying the moment for what it was: an incident of anti-Black racist on the biggest stage in basketball.

Masai Ujiri raises his fists in celebration of the NBA Championship win, surrounded by members of the Toronto Raptors team.
Masai Ujiri celebrates winning the 2019 NBA Championships.

Reputation doesn’t always equal respect

Anti-Black racism can manifest in a multitude of ways, and affects every person of African descent, whether born on the continent or as part of its wide diaspora. For Masai, that meant a long and arduous journey from basketball journeyman to unpaid and then underpaid work as a scout and General Manager, to his eventual role of president of the Toronto Raptors, having to constantly prove his value every step of the way.

Masai’s keen eye for talent and opportunity is one of his hallmarks—being the lead on a blockbuster trade for eventual NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will give you that reputation. But for Black professionals, reputation and respect are not coupled together as often as they should be.

This meant contract negotiations that were so heated that the best president in Raptors history almost walked away from the franchise. Ujiri’s contract negotiations were in their final stages with the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2021. Accusations that Masai “wasn’t worth the money” by one of the Raptors (white) board members almost derailed the negotiations, making Masai consider declining the offer outright to take a year sabbatical.

Anti-Black racism off the court

As we discuss in Anima’s Interrupting Racism course Challenging Anti-Black Racism in Organizations, negative stereotypes about Black people are so pervasive and accepted that even the most successful executive in Raptors history—one that oversaw a quadrupling of the franchise’s valuation from $500 million in 2014 to over $2 billion in 2022, and delivered its first and only championship— was not wholly considered a lynchpin to its continued business and sporting success. In a business where he’s received numerous accolades and awards for his brilliance, where fans of other teams are hoping to lure Masai Ujiri away, his own employers doubted his competency.

This isn’t isolated. A 2021 review of the United States’ 50 most valuable public companies by the Washington Post revealed Black employees represent a “strikingly small fraction of top executives”: only 8%. For the 2021 Fortune 500 companies, only four (less than 1%) of those CEOs are Black. And on the current trajectory it will take an estimated 95 years for Black employees to reach talent parity across the private sector—excellent or not.

What can we do?

If you are reading this and you are of African descent or a racialized person, parts of this probably sound eerily familiar. That’s a great disappointment for me to write, and maybe even for others to recognize. This work to disrupt discrimination never stops. Ujiri’s story is proof that even success doesn’t buffer individuals from discrimination; we need understanding, education, policies, support and accountability as some of the few powerful tools available to navigate this landscape. But the road ahead is long and vanishing.

Masai Ujiri speaks to the media with the Toronto Raptors.
Masai Ujiri speaking to media for the Toronto Raptors.

Masai Ujiri was able to seize the opportunities afforded to him, even if it meant sacrificing during the smaller battles along the way. And while we all make sacrifices, systemic discrimination asks some of us to make more sacrifices than other. Not all of us have the emotional latitude, financial means, or material support to make the same decisions that Ujiri made along the way. That’s why we all have the responsibility to change the conditions around us, so the sacrifices aren’t so great for those of us who follow.

It’s up to each and every one of us to keep pushing our organizations towards equity goals. For more on how you can challenge and change conditions of anti-Black racism in your own workplace, join our Challenging Anti-Black Racism in Organizations course.

Headshot for Husayn Symonds

Author: Husayn Symonds

Anti-Black Racism and Equity Educator

Husayn is an educator, leader and writer with over 10 years experience creating and developing ideas to advance cultural knowledge, policies, and environments within organizations across three continents. He enjoys creating opportunities for discovery and helping to broaden the vision of those he works with.

Learn more from Husayn in his Interrupting Racism course Challenging Anti-Black Racism in Organizations – A Primer.

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