Atlanta Fed chief to head chamber in 2022, sees diversity as economic fuel

Credit: Taylor Zorzi / Zorzi Creative

Credit: Taylor Zorzi / Zorzi Creative

When he was appointed head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Raphael Bostic knew his words would be carefully scrutinized, and he was well aware that he would bring a high-profile voice to any economic policy discussion.

So, it wasn’t lightly that he made the decision to use his platform to encourage workplace diversity and to push local businesses to cast a wider net in both hiring and promoting employees.

Bostic, who four years ago became the first Black and the first openly gay person to head a regional bank, says that diversity is not just a moral issue, it’s an economic one.

“In my role,” he said, “my focus is on economics, the health of the U.S. economy and getting us to a place where we can experience the full potential of everyone. It’s my view that, when we have more fulsome participation of everyone in the U.S. economy, the economy is actually going to grow faster. It’s going to be stronger. It’s going to be more resilient.”

Bostic — who graduated from Harvard and earned a doctorate in economics from Stanford— is an economist and former professor. He heads an Atlanta Fed district made up of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

His belief in the practical value of diversity is a byproduct of his own experience.

“My first job out of graduate school, I was a research economist at the Fed in D.C., and the team I worked on was incredibly diverse,” he said.

“Any kind of hidden or not intentional perspectives or ideologies that may have slipped in — because we all have our biases — would be noticed by the other members of the team and then we’d be able to get them out so that the final product was actually stronger and more objectively articulated and characterized than it would have if any two of us, or any one of us, had been on the team.”

Fed officials frequently survey businesses in a kind of economic pulse-taking, while the Fed president’s job typically involves personal contact with local business leaders.

Bostic will have even more occasion for those contacts in the coming year. He’s been named the 2022 chair for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

While none of the executives he’s spoken with has rejected the value of diversity, not everyone sees it as a priority. Bostic said he often finds that companies concentrate on making a profit, and business leaders don’t understand that diversity is an asset that can help them do that. Additionally, they don’t know how to measure — or improve — their performance in that area.

Still, he said he is persuaded that the nation is making progress toward more racial and gender equity, despite political turmoil and social inertia.

In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bostic offered his thoughts on the importance of continuing to narrow economic and racial divides. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You said in a recent interview that racism is ‘a yoke on the economy.’ What did you mean by that?

A: When you think about racism in the United States, this is something that has prevented African Americans, Latinos and others from fully participating in the promise of the American economy.

You can think about the laws and segregation that happened through the early and middle parts of the 1900s, which prevented African Americans and others from buying a house in particular areas or buying a house at all. When you don’t have that kind of wealth, that then means that it’s much less likely that you will start a small business. It’s much less likely that you’ll be an entrepreneur. So people who might have had skills and talents to do those things are just prevented from doing it because of the structures and constraints that are in the economy.

Q: Recent events highlight the challenges to achieving an equitable society — the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the sometimes violent protests along with some backlash. Do you find all that discouraging?

A: No, I actually think we are making progress. It’s important to always be mindful that we didn’t get to this situation overnight, there’s been a cumulative effect over many years, so I don’t think that we should have an expectation that some of the inequities that we see are going to just disappear in a day or a year. It requires sustained effort. But, what I’ve seen is, many are willing to make that effort.

Q: What do you look for in your conversations with business leaders about diversity?

A: Intentionality on the part of business leaders and others to make sure that policies, practices and programs are equitable. One of the things that I have learned and seen through the more recent period is that there were many business leaders who hadn’t actually been asking questions about their own policies and programs regarding equity and inclusion and how they were doing in terms of their own employees and staff.

I’ve talked to many businesses and they seem to be committed to good faith efforts, so we should see metrics and benchmarks and also changes in policies and practices as we start to make progress.

Q: What worries you most about continuing to make progress?

A: Attention span. We didn’t get to this place in just a handful of days, so it’s going to take a while and a longer-term commitment in order to see change along these dimensions. That is going to require perseverance and patience, and these are things that are harder to maintain and sustain. I’m hopeful we can find ways to allow ourselves not to be distracted as we try to build a better United States and a better economy, one that works for everyone.

Q: Your answer focuses on people who are well-intentioned, who want the country to live up to its ideals. Aren’t you worried about other forces that would resist that notion?

A: I try to focus on the things that I can control, to make sure that I do the best I can on those issues. The folks that are going to try to block and obfuscate and make things harder — there’s not a lot I can do about them except to try to find ways to work around them.