Smoke and Mirrors - Race and the Black CPA
By: Anton Lewis, PhD
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated by an audio supplement, Voices of the Profession: Anton Lewis on the Quest for a Better Account of Black Accounting
Change is in the air for accounting. Many promises have been made about increasing diversity, particularly for Black accountants. But have all the projects, initiatives, and reports lived up to expectations? Or has it been a shell game? Genuine victories have occurred in the past, such as the 1994 PhD project initially led by KPMG (https://phdproject.org/), which has significantly increased the number of minority accounting professors over the decades. These diverse professors have in turn worked tirelessly to encourage many more students of color into the profession. Regrettably, this is a “drop in the ocean”; the accounting profession still seems incapable of fostering fundamental change in how race and racism is enacted—despite much protestation to the contrary, despite brave words and considerable promises of financial resources. This article seeks to reconcile recent pledges of racial equity made by the accounting profession—as represented by the Big Four, mid-tier firms, and AICPA—to racial reality. Given the state of play where race and racism are concerned, can accounting really fulfill its promises and make itself more equitable in the long term?
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
I previously explored this issue in this space over a year ago (“When Will We Be Able to Breathe in Accounting?,” CPA Journal, September 2020). Essentially what I’m accusing our profession of is talking the talk, but not walking the walk where race and racism is concerned. Even though we are over a year and a half away from the unfortunate passing of George Floyd, another ill-fated African American victim of racialized police brutality, little has changed. What has shifted is the avowed awareness of many financial institutions and Fortune 500 CEOs to such issues. Subsequent calls for fundamental change are to be applauded, but the question remains: what has actually been done? In my view, certain firms have enacted “racial cover.” For example, EY’s 2021 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Transparency Report: Pathways to Progress (https://go.ey.com/3260XRh) paints a pretty picture, citing positive diversity statistics and pointing to improved gender progression as an area of diversity success. Chart after chart is displayed alongside a litany of Black and Brown faces seemingly proving the diversity and inclusion (D&I) credentials of the firm.
And yet this doesn’t really comport with the wider picture, particularly where Black accountants are concerned. AICPA figures from 2019 paint a poor picture of Black participation in accounting. Although the EY report does cite this discrepancy, it is framed to infer that EY is better than other firms in this area. Point after point is made of how EY is on top of the diversity game, gives generously to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and works with their student groups to form a pipeline into EY through its Launch Internship Program. However, I suggest this is racial cover at play. It is the performative act of doing just enough at the institutional level not to attract negative comment or harm the company’s image. Testaments to anti-racism and placement in DiversityInc’s 2020 Hall of Fame (https://www.diversityinc.com/ey-hall-of-fame-2020/) imply EY is one of the good ones (and perhaps it is). But that’s not the point. The real point is not to dig too deeply, not to ask too many awkward questions, and certainly not to be held accountable to an outside body (AICPA/state/federal) that might conduct their own, perhaps less flattering racial metrics.
It may look like I’m being unreasonable when I highlight EY alone, and you would be right. I charge all the Big Four and mid-tier firms of enacting racial cover of some sort, saying the right things, hitting the correct racial markers to avoid any accusation that their firms are deeply connected with any notion of institutional racism [Kyriacou, O. & Johnston, R. “Exploring Inclusion, Exclusion and Ethnicities in the Institutional Structures Of UK Accountancy,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, vol. 30, no. 6, pp. 482–497, 2011; Miles, R., & Brown, M., Racism, Routledge (1989)]. And yet humility, not hubris, is required when dealing with racial representation in accounting.
A better question would be to ask what EY and other big firms are willing to risk in terms of their image and reputation to truly get a handle on a race problem that has no easy fix, never mind the other inequalities encapsulated by D&I. We have been here before. Accounting firms traditionally are long on promise, but short on results when it comes to increasing the representation of people of color, particularly Black professionals, within its walls. Assurances have been made before, and all have failed. The AICPA, as far back as 1965, resolved “that there should be no discrimination because of race, color, sex, or national origin in the employment practices of individuals or firms engaged in the practice of accounting” (Hammond, T., A White-Collar Profession, University of North Carolina Press, 2002). In the intervening 56-year period, this resolution has not held true. This article asks us to keep our eye clearly on the racial ball for this reason. Listen less to the current rhetoric around diversity and inclusion in accounting and instead watch carefully what is being done in a tangible sense. Let us not be distracted by smoke and mirrors, but instead demand consistent and unyielding focus over time on the racial makeup and progress of professionals of color, particularly under-represented Black accountants.
To be fair, some Big Four firms have made a great start in this area, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has been an exemplar. To date, PricewaterhouseCoopers has founded the CEO Action for Racial Equity initiative whose purpose is to lead firms signed up to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion project (https://www.ceoaction.com/racial-equity/) to advocate policy change at the local, state, and federal level. This initiative is different from other diversity schemes because it is by their own admission led, conceived, and promoted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this is one of the first steps on the path to getting results, and PricewaterhouseCoopers Chairman Tim Ryan is to be commended upon his push of this project. The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion’s mission statement declares a commitment to discovering, creating, and fostering viable public policies and corporate engagement strategies that will be transformative in promoting racial equity, with a focus on social injustice and enhancing societal well-being. It does so by focusing on four key areas: education, healthcare, economic empowerment, and public safety.
While this all very laudable, it does not address institutional racism directly. As ever, the real sticking point is racism within accounting organizations and the profession. This is a core causal factor of poor Black representation that the profession has worked hard to ignore. This is the elephant in the room, as I have written elsewhere (Lewis, A. “Counting Black And White Beans. Why we need a Critical Race Theory of Accounting,” European Journal of Contemporary Economics and Management, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 1-13, 2015).
It could be argued that “missing” race in such a fashion is just accidental, and we should give the profession the benefit of the doubt. But I see the ball moved around from cup to cup in a shell game and spy instead the sleight of hand which seeks to change the focus away from racism in accounting toward other areas, while little changes for the Black CPA. For example, culture change starts at the top and PricewaterhouseCoopers’s first 2020 Diversity & Inclusion Transparency Report begins the difficult process of holding such promises accountable. A good start is made in reporting the racial makeup of the firm by various categories. A year later, however, the report has now morphed into the FY21 PricewaterhouseCoopers “Purpose Report: Leading with Trust, Transparency, and Purpose.” D&I has been replaced in the report with “purpose.” Luckily, much of the same data (and additional data) is still reported, but the change in naming matters; this begins the sleight of hand.
The shadow of forgetting hangs over such projects. Will these initiatives have the staying power or longevity of the PhD project, or be forgotten like so many others? Although race and racism as a term can easily be found in literature around the CEO Action for Racial Equity initiative, already PricewaterhouseCoopers’ new report mentions race and racism less.
Having said all this, we should not forget that Deloitte has taken the unprecedented step of committing $75 million to enact D&I change using its flagship program MADE (Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable, “Deloitte’s MADE Commits $75 Million to Fuel Greater Racial Diversity in Tax and Accounting,” Deloitte US Press Release). This program is split into two parts. The first is a resource-giving section where $30 million will be granted in scholarships to (presumably) students of color pursuing a fifth-year master’s program in accounting from an accredited college or university program in the United States. The remaining $45 million is to be split into various goals. First, is the CPA Readiness program, which seeks to support better CPA pass rates among people of color through funding better quality study opportunities. Second, the Deloitte Academy: Accounting Edition program seeks to promote the benefits of accounting at the school level for underserved minorities. Third, HBCUs/Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) will work together to fund faculty and projects aimed at curriculum development. Fourth, the Climb Fellowship Program will aim to work with the Deloitte Academy to create a course which assists mid-career accountants of color in forming a community that can guide them to senior level positions within their organizations. Finally, the MADE working group will be formed to bring together experienced professionals, academics, and community leaders to challenge thinking around diversity and inclusion for Deloitte. They have already partnered with Louisiana Tech and Grambling State Universities to increase the number of Black accountants by contributing $250,000 to Master of Accountancy scholarship programs. Frankly, if this is not a game changer, then what is?
On pain of repeating myself, I would argue that throwing money at a problem without understanding the nature of that problem is a fool’s errand. Much of accounting’s trouble with poor racial diversity is that racism exists within the soul of the whitest profession, and no amount of money will remove it quickly. Instead, much deeper research, education, and structural analysis of exactly why racial practice continues to exist is needed. I expect that the polices of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte will marginally increase the number of Black and Brown accountants in the short term. But because lasting shadow structures blocking racial progress have been left untouched, the result must be failure in the long run.
What does this mean for the multimil-lion-dollar effort currently being thrown at the problem of poor Black representation in U.S. accounting? It means that we—i.e., the accounting profession—tried. It suggests that after doing so much, an inherent problem lies at the heart of Black accounting, one that is intractable and immutable. As these efforts eventually wane, the status quo, those pale and male accounting leaders will retain their dominant position undisturbed. In this sense, the current diversity and inclusion epiphany in accounting simply serves as more “racial cover.” If what I say is to be believed, then it is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.
I would argue that throwing money at a problem without understanding the nature of that problem is a fool’s errand.
The Trick is …
As we look at the racial diversity issue in accounting, we must ask ourselves are we simply falling into the usual Black/white binary of race relations once more? What about Latino/a accountants? Specific needs of the Latinx community must also be served, but their voice is seemingly muted. A variant of Critical Race Theory (CRT) known as LatCrit suggests that anti-Latinx racism manifests in the work-place (Solorzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J., “Critical Race and LatCrit theory and method: counter-storytelling. Chicana and Chicano graduate school experiences,” Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 471-495, 2001). What about Indigenous accountants? Again, a CRT offshoot known as TribalCrit implies that indigenous professionals face a specific type of racism suggesting that they do not belong in their own land [McKinley, B., & Brayboy, J., “Tribal Critical Race Theory. An Origin Story and Future Directions,” in M. Lynn & A. Dixson (eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory In Education, pp. 88–100, Routledge, 2013]. What about underrepresented Asian groups, such as the Hmong & Pacific Islanders, who suffer from the broad brush of the Asian “model minority” trope? Their needs are neglected because Asians are stereotyped as “too successful” [Cho, S. K., “Converging Stereotypes In Racialized Sexual Harassment: Where the Model Minority Meets Suzie Wong,” R. Delgado & J. Stefanic (eds.), Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, pp. 60–70, Temple University Press]. These are but just a few of the many questions that necessitate a far deeper understanding of racial practice within the accounting sphere. It also explains why historically the continued presence of institutional racism in the profession has effectively stymied meaningful racial progress in the past.
It’s Really All About the Why
If we accept the premise that accounting is institutionally racist, like so many institutions in our society, then we must ask the simple question: why? Of course, simple questions are always the most difficult ones to answer. At a very basic level, if we accept that racism is and always has been a permanent feature of American life, as suggested by Derrick Bell, then it makes sense that it would seep into every facet of society, including accounting (Bell, D., The Derrick Bell Reader. New York University Press, 2005). We are no different from any other profession struggling with racism, no matter what we tell ourselves. Yet, given this overarching reality, we still have specific issues regarding how racial practice is and has been expressed in financial service professions. In accounting, even with the new moves to increase minority representation, we still have not managed to move the needle because negative stereotypes around the Black and Brown accountant remain firmly entrenched (Viator, R. E., “An examination of African Americans Access to Public Accounting Mentors; Perceived Barriers and Intentions to Leave,” Accounting, Organisations and Society, vol. 26, pp. 541–561, 2001).
We in accounting continue to be adept at forgetting our racial past, such as the fact that accounting was key to the com-modification of human beings as chattel during slavery. This is the historic reality of racist accounting practice underpinning the subjugation of Black bodies at the heart of our profession (A. Lewis, Counting Black and White Beans. Critical Race Theory in Accounting, Emerald Publishing Limited, 2020). To raise this fact is considered taboo, distasteful, and irrelevant in our modern times (A. Lewis, “A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Neutrality and Colorblindness in Accounting,” Advances in Public Interest Accounting, vol. 19, pp. 113–134, 2016). Even now if one reads closely between the lines of the pronouncements for D&I as well as the anti-racist stances taken by accounting firms, the rhetoric projects an outward facing narrative about how society has failed, how other professions and U.S. business have failed. Accounting, on the other hand, has been an innocent, unbiased arbiter of facts and figures (A. Lewis, A Critical Analysis of the Black Accounting Experience in the U.K.: Tales of success and failure in the British professional workplace. Saarbrucken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012). But little mention is made of accounting’s own raced history and deep failings in this regard. This self-perpetuated myth will not encourage the tearing down of institutionally racist barriers required to keep Black accountants within the profession or encourage more into it.
Given this point and the new reality that the profession lacks warm bodies period of any type, it seems foolish not to look at historically subjugated groups as a new supply of accounting talent (Gabbin, A. 2019, “Warning Signs about the Future Supply of Accounting Graduates.” Retrieved from https://www.cpajournal.com/2019/10/11/warning-signs-about-the-future-supply-of-accounting-graduates/). But again, this thinking only works if we believe accounting is meritocratic, fair, and honest in its dealings with the racialized Other (Lewis, 2016). If it is not, then the issue is really a panic about the low number of pale and male accountants not coming into the profession. It is a concern about the minimal number of the most authentic, and therefore trusted, type of white accountant not being present. Racial diversity policies need only be smoke and mirrors in an institutionally racist environment for it to do its work—that is, to be seen trying to get Black accountants into the profession, but never letting them fully succeed over time.
Without a deep understanding of the problem, history says we are destined to fail.
So How Do We Do This?
How do we do this? You are not going to like my answer: I don’t know. I have some ideas, but nothing definitive. We don’t have enough data. We don’t have the push for practitioners to work with the accounting academy. We don’t have enough accounting academics with the correct diversity/race training to explore how to disrupt entrenched racial practice. Finally, we simply don’t have the impetus, even now, to truly commit to what is needed to sustainably increase Black accountants.
This may be a bit negative, but I believe it to be a truthful assessment of where we are at the moment. The initiatives pushed by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte (among others) are a real start, and I do commend the effort. But it is sustainability that counts here, and recognition that racism is deeply entrenched. Without a deep understanding of this problem, history says we are destined to fail. My own way of seeing the matter is that of a Critical Race Theory of Accounting (CRTA), which in my work simply suggests that race and racism is a central facet of the profession, and we must be honest about this and fight it (Lewis, 2020). But forces are already aligned against the very idea of CRTA. This sort of assault has occurred with CRT in Education, where in certain states, legislation has been passed prohibiting the teaching of CRT. Such a prohibition in accounting would prevent academics working together with practitioners to find solutions. It would eliminate the ability to create a theoretical framework to dismantle the hidden racial practice in the profession that forces Black accountants out of firms and suggests to potential entrants of color that they are not welcome.
Many of you will say this is heresy to be discounted and ignored. How dare I impugn our profession in this fashion? I do this because it is needed, and we need honesty. Honesty about the fact that we will see no quick fixes and that considerably more time and resources need to be allocated to make progress. This is the reckoning I believe that is needed if we are to look through the smoke and mirrors and reach our long-professed vision of greater racial representation in accounting.
Anton Lewis, PhD is an associate accounting professor in the college of business at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind.
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