Calls rise inside Amazon to address racial inequity

By Karen Weise

Last week, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, wrote a rare note to all of the company’s employees. His leadership team had been reflecting on the “systemic racism” facing Black communities, he said, and he urged employees to take time to learn and reflect on Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. “I’m canceling all my meetings on Friday, and I encourage you to do the same if you can,” he said.

But some of Amazon’s employees said there was one big problem with his suggestion: For the vast majori- ty of Amazon’s Black workers, canceling a meeting is not an option. They work in Amazon’s fulfillment operations, packing, shipping and delivering products to millions of customers.

Several other retailers, like Target, J.C. Penney and Nike, made Juneteenth a paid holiday. At Amazon, many warehouses recognized the day by encouraging workers to dress in black.

“What does a black shirt do for anybody in terms of social justice?” said Adrienne Williams, a Black contract driver for Amazon in the Bay Area, who organized a vigil for Juneteenth. Better pay, she said, would do far more. “That would cut down the preexisting condition that is po- verty,” she said.

Williams and more employees and contractors are arguing that Amazon, one of the nation’s largest emplo- yers, needs to do much more to address racial inequality within its own walls. The calls for change — including di- versifying its top ranks and addressing racism in its ware- houses — have generated an unusual degree of turmoil inside the tech giant.

Many other large businesses also face calls for change from within. But Amazon stands out because it has a lar- ge percentage of Black employees — more than a quarter of its 500,000-person domestic workforce, most of them in hourly jobs at its sprawling logistics operations, where they earn far less than their corporate counterparts. That percentage is slightly higher than among Walmart’s emplo- yees in the United States, and far higher than at other big tech companies. At Facebook, for example, less than 4% of its workforce is Black.

And few executives have been as blunt in their public support of the Black Lives Matter movement as Bezos, the world’s richest person. On Instagram, Bezos posted distur- bing messages he had received in response to his support of racial equality, including an email from a person named Dave, who used racist slurs and said that he would no lon- ger do business with Amazon.

“Dave,” Bezos wrote, “you’re the kind of customer I’m happy to lose.”

Johnnie Corina III, who last week filed a discrimi- nation complaint accusing Amazon of fostering a hostile work environment for Black warehouse employees, said it was hard to consider those statements as more than lip service.

“The ‘in’ thing right now is Black Lives Matter and equal justice,” Corina said. “You can tell when something is genuine and something is not.” An Amazon spokeswoman, Jaci Anderson, said that the company stood in solidarity with the Black community,

and that it was “committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.” She said employees had been free to take vacation or accrued unpaid time off to attend Juneteenth events. “We respect and encourage their choice to do so,” she said.

Employees and some shareholders have long grou- sed about the lack of diversity on Bezos’ senior leadership team, a group known as the “S-Team” that has 22 executi- ves, none of whom are Black.

At a town hall in 2017, after Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Sandra Bland had already become household names, an employee asked Bezos about the lack of diver- sity on his team. Bezos said his top deputies had been by his side for years, and he saw the low turnover as an asset. Any transition on the team, he said, would “happen very incrementally over a long period of time.”

In April, before George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, a group of midlevel employees wrote to Bezos and his senior team, saying there was “a systemic pattern of racial bias that permeates Amazon,” according to emails viewed by The New York Times. They said they were prompted to write after a leak of meeting notes showed that David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, had called a Black warehouse employee in Staten Island “not smart or articulate.”

Zapolsky had said his comments were “personal and emotional” and that he did not know the employee was Black. But in their email, the corporate employees said it “was not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of a bigger problem.”

They said Amazon adopted the entrenched racism that plagued America, evidenced by the “homo-geneity” of the its leadership compared with “the rich racial and ethic diversity amongst our hourly worker population.”

The group proposed almost a dozen specific chan- ges, including conducting a third-party audit of bias, relea- sing detailed figures on race and promotions, establishing goals for representation in management and leadership roles, and having the head of diversity be a member of Bezos’ S-Team.

Bezos’ leadership team in recent weeks has been holding “listening circles” with Black employees, and many Amazon executives have written personal emails to their departments. Some teams have moved away from bia- sed technical terms, ditching phrases like “black lists” and “white lists” to connote network access, according to an email shared among some employees.

But many employees want more to be done. They have been collaborating on a document to propose that Amazon make diversity a new “leadership principle,” the guiding list of attributes Amazon uses to hire, review and promote workers.

In the document, dozens of employees anonymously cited experiences of discrimination in daily work interac- tions. When a Black employee “said something honest, he was told, ‘You’re not earning trust,’” one wrote. “But when a White Stanford MBA said the exact same thing, he got an accolade.” Others wrote about being passed over for promotions, or not being mentored.

Anderson said that the anecdotes “do not reflect our values.” The company does not tolerate workplace discri- mination, she said, and it investigates all claims reported through official channels. She added that the current lea- dership principles encouraged diversity because they “re- mind team members to seek diverse perspectives, learn and be curious, and constantly earn others’ trust.”

In the warehouses where Williams and the bulk of Amazon’s Black employees work, the concerns of some workers can be even more explicit. Corina, in his discri- mination complaint filed in California, said Amazon re- peatedly failed to adequately respond to racist graffiti in bathrooms of the warehouse where he works east of Los Angeles.

Corina, who is involved with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that since November he had repeatedly re- ported racist graffiti and that the language worsened after Floyd’s death. Some used racial epithets to express hatred toward Black people and said that they should “go back to Africa.”

He said Amazon had not addressed the warehouses’ employees to say such behavior was unacceptable, nor had he seen any evidence that Amazon has investigated who wrote the racist graffiti, even though he had asked.

The result, he said, left him scared to go to work. “To not do any interventions is really not a safe environment for a Black person,” he said.

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