“I can’t breathe.” Three words seared into the minds of Black and Brown people in the United States and the world over. We heard George Floyd say it, we heard Derrick Scott say it, and we saw with ghastly clarity Eric Garner utter the same words. These words resonate because to be Black or Brown existing within a racist society means on some level, always having difficulty “breathing”—be that during a life-and-death altercation with police officers or just working at the office. It is the pervasive reality of Black life that is devalued. It is living the nightmare of racial anxiousness, never being able to rest freely. It is why Black people are tired, and they are no less so within the accounting profession.

I start in this manner because I want to be clear about what is at stake in our profession. As a British Black accounting professor, I care that my students, in particular Black and Brown students, enter the profession and succeed. I have made it my life’s cause to do so. But I too cannot breathe. My chest becomes heavy as I think of the obstacles that must be overcome by my Black and Brown brethren and critical white allies. It is my hope this article goes some way to outlining what is at risk in the accounting profession should racism not be taken seriously within it. To my mind, it is no less than its very soul.

Where Are We Now?

First, we should ask ourselves where the profession finds itself. This has been a difficult question to ask in the past, and data is difficult to obtain even today. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 data revealed that out of 1,436,100 accountants and auditors (Accountants and Auditors: Job Outlook, 2019a, https://bit.ly/34VJQB0) 77.1% were white, as compared to 8.5% categorized as African American or Black (Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 2019b, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm). But these figures do not readily discern between who is CPA-qualified and who is not, nor who is qualified in a role and who is not. For figures of qualified CPAs only, one must turn to the AICPA 2019 report of CPAs within accounting and finance roles in CPA organizations. This data shows real Black CPA participation to be 2%, a poor situation indeed when compared to white involvement of 84%. Even more concerning are the prospects of Black accountants as they progress through their careers. The AICPA confirms that a mere 1% of Blacks/African Americans are partners, contrasting wretchedly with their white colleagues, who represent 91% (AICPA, “2019 Trends in the supply of accounting graduates and the demand for public accounting recruits,” 2019). To remember context, as of 2018 African Americans make up 14.6% of the U.S. population (https://blackdemographics.com/). This is all the worse when framed against the historical reality that Black CPAs have typically represented less than 1% of the profession until quite recently (T. Hammond, A White-Collar Profession, University Of North Carolina Press, 2002).

However, it should be noted that the AICPA has not been idle in its effort to do something about this predicament. Indeed, a cursory look today at its website shows a panoply of tools and initiatives aimed at reversing this trend, from diversity tool kits to webcasts and articles on diversity and inclusion (“The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion,” AICPA, 2018, https://bit.ly/3lOlL5c). This is to be lauded in no uncertain terms. But this is not a recent development either; the AICPA has a history of initiating diversity and inclusion programs with the aim of increasing minority participation in the profession. A typical example is the formation of the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups, which was explicitly charged with expanding minority inclusion in the profession during the 1960s (P. Brotherton, “A History of Determination,” Journal of Accountancy, October 2005, https://bit.ly/2YXyoAO). Many more programs have followed since that time; but in this author’s opinion, they have been long on sentiment but short on outcome. The recent AICPA pronouncement stands as a case in point:

The most pressing societal issue we must address is the systemic, structural racism that has caused such anguish and frustration in the Black community. We are encouraged to see many people of all colors speaking up and protesting against injustice. As leaders, we recognize that we must advocate against racism and act to build a more equitable society. We offer our support and compassion to our Black and African American colleagues, friends, and business partners and to each other (“AICPA is Committed to Equity: Our Statement,” AICPA, Jul. 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Z0oP4k)

In many ways, this statement is exactly what I call for—except such allegiance to racial justice has been uttered decades before. Theresa Hammond notes that the very first pronouncement on race made by the AICPA in 1969 included the much the same rhetoric, refuting discrimination based upon race, sex, or national origin in accounting firms. Specifically, the AICPA Council passed the following three-point resolution to ameliorate the situation:

  • that a special campaign be undertaken to encourage young men and women of high potential from disadvantaged groups to attend college and major in accounting;
  • that special efforts be made to provide educational opportunities for young men and women from disadvantaged groups so that they may enter the accounting profession without educational disadvantage;
  • that such men and women be hired by individuals and firms in order to integrate the accounting profession in fact as well as in idea (Hammond 2002).

Subsequently, the AICPA’s Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups determined to push these objectives until they were met; furthermore, this mandate was sent to deans, chairs, and accounting departments in academia, as well as accounting firms (Hammond, 2002).

The scarcity of real progress on race in accounting over intervening years means that the AICPA’s soaring rhetoric has traditionally been “all bark and no bite.” We still do not have anywhere near relative inclusion of Black and Brown people in the profession, as seen above, despite just over half a century of trying. All told, it points to a comprehensive failure of the AICPA to create a diverse professional society. The danger here is that we are perpetually journeying toward racial recompense, but destined never to arrive. Eventually, after this moment of racial clarity has passed, Black professionals can expect more empty oratory and a return to business as usual. It is the epitome of what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed terms “non-performativity”—that declarations and policies such as this exist to publicly prove the profession is eternally rooting out racism, shielding itself from criticism that it is acting to the contrary, all the while privately the profession is reconciled to the fact that it will actually never achieve its end goal in any meaningful way (S. Ahmed, “The Nonperformativity of Antiracism,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 104-126, 2006). This approach freezes racial progress and partially explains why race metrics seem to forever show minimal gains despite decades of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

We still do not have anywhere near relative inclusion of Black and Brown people in the profession, as seen above, despite just over half a century of trying.

Indeed, the Big Four have fared little better in the United States and seem similarly unable to make real racial progress within their own firms over time. Worse, racial progress within these institutions is not easily broken down, because usually it is not readily or regularly reported upon by the Big Four, making comparisons of inclusion and career progress difficult (A. Lewis, “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). Hammond observes that this is a predicate to real racial reform in the profession, the laying down of a benchmark for firms to compel tangible improvements—a point Hammond has made previously in testimony to the House of Representatives (Testimony of Theresa A. Hammond, Hearing on Diversity in the Financial Services Industry and Access to Capital for Minority-Owned Businesses: Challenges and Opportunities, delivered before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Financial Services, United States House of Representatives, July 15, 2004).

Let’s Talk Race and Racism

Perhaps now is the time to apologize, dear reader, for coming at you hard and fast with talk that may make your head spin so quickly that you can barely catch your breath. If so, then conceivably progress is being made—enabling you to see another place and another space in accounting that is deeply racist. But why should this be shocking or uncomfortable at all? I proffer that it is because we just do not want to do this. This kind of work is unsavory. I can empathize. As a Black accounting professional, I am tired. It is too much that I must experience subtle racism in the workplace and then be compelled by white people in my immediate environment to explain the actions of the oppressor, to the oppressor. You (white people) feel tired because race talk is just so difficult, it is such fertile ground for misunderstanding. Better to leave well enough alone. Except that, for all the reasons cited above, we cannot. Not if we wish to be the fair, meritocratic profession we want to be.

We need better ways to explore race in the profession. We need a tool that can be used to challenge, question, and investigate—without retribution or harm—what race and racism means in the accounting setting. This is distressing work, which means what I am asking of the profession is painful. But it is here, in this act of hard-won racial empathy that we get the chance to rearticulate the hidden notion of the devalued Black accounting professional and raise them to a position of equal worth. In my soon to be published book, Counting Black and White Beans: Critical Race Theory in Accounting (in press, 2020), I begin such a journey hoping that others join, in a collective attempt to ensure Black lives matter in accounting in the United States today. If we are to improve things, if we are to do this, we need to center race and racism in our conversations at every level.

As highlighted by a recent global inclusivity report, racism is considered by 83% of respondents to be a major impediment to inclusivity in U.S. society; globally, 58% considered it a factor, second only to poverty (“The Power of Diverse Voices,” Global Inclusivity Report 2020, Emerald, 2020, https://bit.ly/2EEmAg9). Because of the importance of race in this context, the conceptual framework used in this discussion is that of a critical race theory “curved” to the particulars of the accounting profession. This is the approach I take in this article. Discomfort is our watch word, asking questions that have been missed, including: What is the whiteness of accounting? Does accounting have a racist past? What is the Black voice in accounting, and why is it important?

The Past

Initially, it sounds foolish to accuse accounting of past racial misdeeds. But is it? I would argue that the core of accounting is and has always been the reporting of financial data that was imperative under the British Empire, at a time when slaves were valuable financial assets, existing as wealth drivers for those at the Imperial center and more intimately in the Antebellum South of the United States. In the United Kingdom, reporting was vital for wealthy Britons who owned plantations in the British West Indies and equally important to Southern plantation owners who utilized accounting practices to extract higher profits from their slave stock. Accounting was a colonial device, intricately linked with the process of Imperial administration, and without it the colonial expansion of Britain over Black and Brown lands could not have taken place. Within the slave economy it was essential too, as a data tool gauging bales of cotton to be reached, the lash of the whip being the result if goals were not met.

Indeed, such was the motivation of the lash that it led to the figurative creation of the “Southern Whipping Machine” as detailed in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist (Basic Books, 2014). His description outlines the ever more harsh and cruel whipping techniques used in tandem with accounting metrics to extract greater and greater production from enslaved Africans. Along with this, branding of human slave flesh was analogous to a premodern GPS, tracking wayward slave assets who might run but could not effectively hide, ensuring a speedy return to enslavement where at all possible (S. Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Duke University Press, 2015). Accounting technologies of this time in either Imperial Britain or the Antebellum South were the most efficient means of attaining profit maximization that was paramount for both, irrespective of the suffering of African slaves.

Our past tells us that racism has been deeply entrenched in accounting history and exists right at the moment.

But what of the accounting profession itself? Yes, even here outright racism can be found when we examine who was considered eligible to enter and remain in the nascent profession. It is in the mid–18th century when we find the first British royal charters to be issued to a range of former occupations organized together around the idea of professionalism, to produce what we recognize today as the modern accounting profession, and in the process quickly defining those to be judged Other. Many Indian citizens, or darker Black and Brown denizens from elsewhere within the Empire, often found themselves being denied articles in professional organizations in Britain. This made official entry into professional bodies or accounting firms of the time in Britain or some in their homeland difficult (Lewis, in press, 2020). This practice would surface time and again as the Empire receded and Black and Brown accounting professions tried to establish professional autonomy for themselves, an act that often proved difficult. (C. Poullaos and S. Sian, “Accountancy and Empire: Connexions, Patterns and Suggestions,” in C. Poullaos and S. Sian, eds., Accountancy and Empire. The British Legacy of Professional Organization, pp. 238-250, Routledge, 2010). Indeed, as America expanded and local professions developed, it would not be until 1921 when Blacks could claim their first accounting professional, John Cromwell, Jr. (Hammond, 2002).

The Present

The point of discussing accounting’s racial past is not to shame, but to open the profession’s eyes to what has been, so we may clearly perceive what is now and hopefully what may be in the future. Our past tells us that racism has been deeply entrenched in accounting history and exists right at this moment. Unfortunately, I submit that seeing is not so easy for most white professionals where race is concerned, as well as for, it must be said, some uncritical Black and Brown people. The academic Joyce E. King suggests that we have all been conditioned in our more modern times to “dysconscious” racism, one not readily apparent to the waking mind but actioned upon nonetheless instinctively (J. E. King, “Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and Miseducation,” in R. Delgado and J. Stefancic, eds., Critical White Studies: Looking Behind The Mirror, pp. 128-132, Temple University Press, 1997). It is accidently forgetting to invite Black and Brown colleagues to social gatherings, not because you hate them, but because it does not cross your mind to do so. This is important because these informal settings are where connections are made and deals are done, all the while being out of sight. Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. proposes that it is the racial habits we possess, so ingrained as to be invisible to most white people, which are responsible for a racism that just seems to “never go away” (Democracy in Black. How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Broadway Books, 2016).

For the ability of race to occasionally become bothersome to white professionals is a hallmark of Whiteness, that ever-pervasive rightness of things. It is to be pretty much at ease in nearly every setting because that setting is and always has been designed to put white people at ease. But what of those who are not white? In short, we must adapt, contort, strain ourselves until we barely recognize ourselves, so twisted we cannot breathe. Ours is the task of satiating the never-ending needs of white comfort in an environment that demands it be this way—or else. It is to be forever adjusting oneself to the appropriate way to be in white accounting space. Policing one’s speech (it must be white speech), how one dresses (white professional clothing only), how one does their hair (no threatening braids or dreadlocks). To resist is to court risk, to open oneself to accusations of being unbecoming, unprofessional, and far too Black, an anathema to this white world of accounting (D. Carbado and M. Gulati, “Working Identity,” Cornell Law Review, vol. 85, pp. 1259-1308, 2000).

For far too long, it has been solely on the shoulders of Blacks to call out racist practices as intolerable in our workplaces and the streets.

I believe that this is how life is now at this very moment for many a Black accounting professional. To paraphrase somewhat W.E.B. Dubois, Black life is the twoness of things, to reside within the color line—Black and white areas with very different rules of existence. Perhaps the most fundamental rule is that of value; who matters more? We say that Black lives matter, that they have value, all the while the true message of society teaches both Black and white that it does not. Only white lives have value. As a profession, we are in the valuation business; how can we accede to such a premise unless tacitly we believe it? Has not our past inaction on race and racism in the profession made it so? Certainly, we can do better, and present events demand that we must. I believe we must find a way to redress the “value gap,” as Eddie Glaude Jr. so aptly describes it; to fill what is missing is to pour value back into Black professionalism making it whole, done so by truly listening and to acting upon their thoughts and concerns.

The Future

As I look to the future of what could be done to improve race and racism in our profession, I honestly think we have simply run out of effective ideas. We would rather, as usual, wait to see which way the wind blows. But hopefully that time, that way of thinking is past, instead I hope for a brave new world of accounting, a newfound way glimpsed in recent pronouncements from a few progressive accounting leaders, white allies who are guiding change. I think here of the recent work of Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He clearly voices the opinion that corporate America has failed Black America. Ryan chooses to act as well as speak, helping to found “CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion,” a consortium of 900 CEOs of large successful companies actively seeking to make the commercial work-place more inclusive and diverse. His tone is the correct one, as he highlights that his own organization needs to be better, as PricewaterhouseCoopers has only one Black board member and never had a Black chairman (J. Sahadi, “PwC chairman: How Corporate America can stop failing black workers and diversify its ranks,” 2020, https://cnn.it/3bjcBss). Indeed, under his tenure PricewaterhouseCoopers has produced data that candidly speaks to the process of benchmarking progress with the aim of racial transparency that I advocate within this article (“Building on a culture of belonging,” https://pwc.to/3k2dR6a). In this way, Ryan throws down the gauntlet to the other Big Four accounting firms to do likewise—if they dare.

This is what is needed, but in my estimation, it is still not enough. I have long called for the Black voice to take the lead in policy and action. Black people do not enjoy catching their breath in the professional workplace. They have ideas, thoughts, worldviews, and a lifetime of living under oppression with which to shape meaningful policy. They are the invisible experts, uniquely qualified to do this work. I call for a championing of the Black voice in this regard. But we must be careful.

For far too long, it has been solely on the shoulders of Blacks to call out racist practices as intolerable in our workplaces and the streets. It is our failure to progress in environments such as accounting, and our proverbial necks crushed into the ground by indifference that is a hallmark of uncaring white environments. Traditionally, this work is done alone. If we are not to burden and fatigue Black colleagues in such a fashion, then it must be done together. Black professionals must be supported in a way hitherto not experienced. For Black professionals to engage in what I suggest, the entire institution of accounting itself must become antiracist. No longer turning a blind eye to subtle racist acts but actively calling out racist practice in the workplace and within themselves, running the risk of finding something deeply unpleasant in the process (I. X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, One World, 2019). I see this now as is the fight of our time, where we must decide what our society is to look like and what our beloved profession is to be. Put simply, whom will we choose to embrace in accounting, and whom will we not?

Yet it is my hope that we can still do the work needed to move the racial needle. This is a Sisyphean task, the racial weight we push is intolerable and it may seem like we will never succeed. But this is the meaning of commitment: To be values-based at our core and to live the social justice we espouse. We will be in it as one, as it must be if race and racism are to effectively be challenged.

Accounting and Society

It is my assertion that we cannot go further without an honest conversation about racism and how it affects our future as a profession. For too long, the topic has been taboo. But the younger generations have taken note of the need for real social justice. They are demanding meaningful change. If the profession does not change, society will change it for us, with or without our help. Younger generations will no longer stand for the status quo that has entrenched past inequality. They want action now. They demand we honor the call to be antiracist and pro-active in this fight. As such, accounting’s response must be intersectional in nature; it must address racism directly, and this cannot be achieved without recourse to other major inequities. We cannot and shall not leave women, or our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, behind in the quest for social justice. If we as a profession are to survive, we must demand a profession of actual equality. It must be a profession whose activities match its words, one which bears witness and resolves to act upon the troubling, but needed, ructions in U.S. society right now on its way to a better place. Only then will I and many others in the accounting profession finally be able to breathe.

Anton Lewis, PhD, is an associate accounting professor in the college of business at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind. He is the author of Counting Black and White Beans: Critical Race Theory in Accounting, to be published by Emerald this fall.