Merck CEO Ken Frazier has spoken passionately about racial inequality in America before. Monday, amid protests and rioting over George Floyd's death, he made that passion personal.
Floyd “could be me or any other African American man,” Frazier said in an interview on CNBC.
Frazier described the pent-up anger in the African American community and how the community saw the now-widespread video of the “clearly inhumane” treatment and death of Floyd in Minnesota. The four-day delay in acting to investigate police officers who knelt on him and kept others from helping “caused the spark that set this off,” he said.
It’s not the first time the Merck CEO has spoken up about racism in America. He was the first executive to resign from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council in August 2017 after the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacy rally. In Frazier’s resignation statement, he indirectly criticized the president for not taking a stronger stand against the event.
America’s leaders need to clearly reject “expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” Frazier wrote at the time, drawing a quick and heated Twitter response from Trump. The Merck CEO's exit triggered a cascade of defections from the council and, ultimately, its dissolution.
During Monday's CNBC interview, Frazier relayed his own story of growing up in inner-city Philadelphia in the 1960s, when he was bussed to attend a predominantly white high school. He said the “rigorous education” he received there—as one of just nine African American kids in a class of more than a thousand students—changed his life.
“I know for sure that what put my life on a different trajectory was that someone intervened to give me an opportunity—to close that opportunity gap. And that opportunity gap is still there. We’re not asking people to give everybody handouts, but we need to acknowledge that there are still huge opportunity gaps that exist in this country,” he said.
Frazier said businesses should work to bridge those gaps, offering as an example the Year Up program for talented low-income college students in Philadelphia. Merck participates in the job training program, in which students spend six months in professional coaching and then another six months in an internship. If the Merck interns succeed, they get hired, Frazier said.
In a closing message, Frazier expressed his concerns about the dual problem of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest and called for Americans to come together.
“We are now facing two storms in this country—the pandemic and the civil unrest. Those storms won’t be here forever, they will pass. And then the question is ‘Are we going to rebuild this country together? Are we going to go our separate ways again as we have in the past?’
"The fact of the matter is, no one of us can rebuild this great country, he said. "And the good news is, none of us has to do it on our own. Together, we can actually make this the country that stand for the ideals that have always been behind it."