Taking a Stand Against Racial Injustice

Of all the crises that John Asbury, president and CEO at Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp. in Richmond, Virginia, responded to during the Covid-19 pandemic, the one that may have affected him most deeply had nothing to do with the pandemic.

And had he chosen to ignore it, I wonder if anyone would have noticed.

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was killed on May 25 during an arrest when a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department knelt on his neck for nine and a half minutes, was shocking to Asbury — as it was to many of us across the country.

In the middle of the pandemic, when he was managing a distributed workforce of 2,000 employees and trying to understand the $19.9 billion bank’s credit exposure as the economy went into a freefall, Asbury felt that he needed to respond to Floyd’s death and the outrage that it provoked, particularly among Black Americans.

On June 4, he wrote an open letter to his employees.  

“It both angers me and saddens me to have witnessed these senseless acts of violence and injustice,” Asbury wrote. “Despite the progress that has been made, systemic racism unfortunately exists and it is up to all of us, together, to eradicate it. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we must unite and stand against hatred, violence and racism.”

“I could see from talking to some of our teammates, including one of our senior officers in human resources who is Black, what an impact this was having,” Asbury says in an interview. “Within a couple of days I thought, ‘My God, I thought we were better than this.’” 

Asbury says that during a late night conversation with a Black colleague, he reflected that “this is not an America that I recognize. … And she said to me, ‘John, this is the only America I’ve ever known.’ And that was like, I get it.”

A few days after Floyd’s death, Asbury had a “very quick conversation” with his senior executive team where they decided to take a public stand — even though they knew the bank might be criticized. Asbury later did a company-wide video about his views on racial injustice, and he and the bank’s president, Maria Tedesco, also hosted five webinars on the same topic.

In early November, the bank made its largest philanthropic donation ever to the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, and also to Virginia State University, a historically Black college. Asbury says the contributions are “pointed toward improving inclusion and assisting in driving racism out of our communities.” Atlantic Union is also focusing on its own organization through a newly created Diversity Equity Inclusion Council. 

Asbury says that ordinarily, Atlantic Union is “apolitical.”

“You will not see the company or me making political contributions, other than through the Virginia Bankers Association,” he says. “But this isn’t political. This is about justice and what is right. And I feel that corporate America has a responsibility to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ That’s why we did what we did.”
Jack Milligan is editor-at-large of Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can connect with Jack on Twitter at @BankDirectorEd.

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