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US companies are urged to tackle inequality

Published on Tuesday, 09 Jul 2013
Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), speaks to the media during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (BLOOMBERG)

Robert Johnson, the first black billionaire in the U.S., said companies should adopt rules requiring that minorities be interviewed for every senior job to address continuing inequality.

Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, told reporters today that the voluntary measure would be similar to the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires franchise owners to consider members of minority groups for senior posts.

“My take on affirmative action is that it is absolutely necessary because there’s a wide disparity between African Americans and white Americans,” said Johnson, 67. “Unemployment is double for African Americans, the wealth gap approaches US$90,000. We’ve got to resolve that by providing more jobs or opportunities.”

The longtime media executive spoke to the press at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, an annual gathering of executives from media, technology, finance, government and industry. Johnson sold his BET Holdings to Viacom Inc. in 2001 for US$2.35 billion. He was the first black person to list a company on the New York Stock Exchange.

The issue of race can’t be separated from economic inequality, Johnson said, adding members of minority groups need to catch up in terms of access to capital and jobs.

The 10-year-old Rooney Rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is designed to ensure minority coaches are considered for promotions. It requires owners to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coach or general manager opening, according to the league’s website.

2012 Turnover

Ian Rapoport, a reporter for the and NFL Network, said in January that eight coaches and seven general managers lost their jobs after the 2012 season, and none were replaced by a person of colour.

Johnson is founder and chairman of RLJ Cos., with interests in entertainment, real estate and investing. His companies, including publicly traded RLJ Entertainment Inc. and RLJ Lodging Trust, follow policies similar to the Rooney rule.

“I think that same philosophy should go to corporate America,” Johnson said. “I think it would increase minority employment and we could do it without passing any laws.”

RLJ Entertainment, based in Bethesda, Maryland, closed unchanged at US$4.95 in New York. The stock has declined 1 per cent this year. Johnson controls about 41 per cent of the stock, according to a company filing. RLJ Lodging Trust rose 1.8 per cent to US$23.32 and has gained 20 per cent this year.


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