Laura Murphy is a pioneer of the corporate racial equity audit. (Courtesy Photo)
By AFRO Staff
The clarion call for racial equity and justice, a call that rang louder after the death of George Floyd in police custody, has forced a reckoning across all corners of society, both in the U.S. and worldwide.
As corporate America does its own soul searching about its role in perpetuating racial disparities, veteran civil rights leader and policy strategist Laura Murphy has pioneered a useful tool: the corporate civil rights audit.
Murphy first ventured into corporate audits in 2016 as a consultant for Airbnb, the short-term rental hub. Companies undergoing the audit agree to let the expert examine their hiring practices, products and other aspects of its operations to assess their impact on marginalized communities.
“This is a time for serious engagement with the most important problems,” said Murphy in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in her office at the National Council of Negro Women. “Once you’ve agreed to address stakeholder concerns, and the auditors prioritize them for you, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. You have to do it.”
Murphy is uniquely poised to navigate the sometimes polarizing nature of such racial reckoning, balancing the tug-and-pull between corporations, activists and other stakeholders. Murphy was born into a prominent Baltimore family known for its activism—her father was a judge who also founded a firm that dealt with civil rights cases, and her mother was a well-known city activist and political figure. (The AFRO was founded and owned by the Murphy family and Laura Murphy is a board member of the newspaper). Murphy spent time on Capitol Hill, working for former Democratic Representatives Parren Mitchell and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Then she further honed her skills as director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Civil Liberties Union for 17 years, plus many more years balancing politics and policy.
“That’s her secret power,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, of Murphy’s ability to maintain relationships with people on all sides of divisive issues.
For example, after Murphy’s two-year audit of Facebook—her highest profile client so far—her efforts were praised by both the company and social media giant’s fiercest detractors. As a direct result of her recommendations, for example, Facebook suspended then-President Donald Trump from its platform after the January 2021 Capitol Hill riot was incited by his trademark inflammatory language. The company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg told Bloomberg that Murphy’s insight had a significant impact.
“There were a bunch of things that Laura really believed that we were able to do and able to do quickly,” she said. “There were some things that we were able to do more slowly. There were some things that didn’t work, but we were fine with her having a full and honest voice.”
There are some who question the efficacy of Murphy’s corporate audits since corporations cannot be forced to enact her recommendations.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, for example, said during a congressional hearing in May that audits amounted to “bureaucracy and BS.”
“There’s pressure to do less and not address discrimination, which is why we have to keep the pressure on,” Murphy told the AFRO back in May of the pushback against her and the civil rights community’s efforts to increase corporate diversity and accountability. She also said, “I want to create infrastructures to keep the civil rights awareness and anti-discrimination work going on after I leave.”
Social equity advocates, labor unions and other stakeholders seem to buy into the idea of the audits and are clamoring for more companies to undergo the assessment, saying they can effect both short-term and longterm change. Murphy is working on a white paper for the Ford Foundation about how to conduct successful civil rights audits, which she expects to publish later this year, Bloomberg reported.
“The value of the audit is a memorialization of what the challenges were at the moment,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the media reform group Free Press, said. “That’s helpful as we figure out, ‘What are the types of things we want to pressure on? What are the types of things we want to remedy through legislation?’”
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