Former NAACP legal defense chief says businesses are not living up to racial equity promises

March 18, 2022, 8:33 PM UTC

Happy Friday. Former NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Director Sherrilyn Ifill isn’t holding back on how she feels about companies that committed to diversity following the death of George Floyd, and how those commitments held up. And she’s not the only one preaching to the choir—y’all had words for Jane Campion and how she and other allies could and should do better.

Last week, I asked for your help turning Jane Campion’s unnecessary put-down of Venus and Serena Williams at the Critics Choice Awards into a “teachable moment” for allies.

Well, you delivered.

Susan McPherson, CEO of McPherson Strategies and author of The Lost Art of Connecting, says, “Campion as much as she might not realize, holds a significant amount of power in Hollywood and on the global stage. Her acceptance speech should have been the perfect time to lift others up, acknowledge her power, and address the status quo.” Her error was glaring. “We should never compare our struggles. Doing so gets in the way of real empathy, listening, and learning.”

Understanding majority culture power and responsibility was a big theme.

One reader, who described their identity as in the “crosshairs of intersectionality,” wrote: “I’m appalled by Campion’s words, the worldview they espouse. What can white women do to become better allies? The best thing they can do is to have some self-awareness: Of their own power, and of their responsibility to be allies to others, particularly women from marginalized communities.”

Karen Fleshman—or, a white woman named Karen dedicated to anti-racism work—says she had to look past the well-intentioned colorblindness she was taught as a child.

“My parents taught me that racism is terrible and to be colorblind and treat everyone the same, but I did not see them relate across difference as equals because almost everyone we knew was white.” The general assumption that the Civil Rights Movement took care of racism is a huge problem. “If I had not had the good fortune to work for women of color in global majority organizations throughout my career I could imagine myself making a remark like Campion’s,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to have a different paradigm because I have built enduring relationships with Black women and women of color, reported to Black women and women of color, learned from Black women and women of color.”

It’s time to go deep on intersectionality, said many of you.

“Leaders need to know that autistic women exist! I am one of them,” writes Jessica Kramer. “Many women, non-binary people, and people of color have been misunderstood or under-diagnosed, and are navigating their challenges & workplaces without adequate support or understanding.” The impacts are profound, she writes. “Up to 85% of autistic college grads in the U.S. are unemployed. The suicide rate is 3x higher for autistic folks than NT [neurotypical] folks. It is also a business imperative /competitive advantage – autistic people have unique talents, skills, approaches, ideas that are good for the business bottom line as well as talent retention.” 

Janet Stovall, a self-described “diversity pragmatist,” offered three tips for white female allies. I’ll give her the last word:

  • Stop centering yourselves. I know that’s hard, it’s natural to do it. But trust dies and equity is unserved when Black women are the means to white women’s ends, be they voting rights, equal pay, political contests, professional advancement, or absolution. No matter how much standing up you do, if you revert to self-interest when it’s convenient, we know who you are.
  • Stop crying. Equity and justice are not for wimps. The angry Black woman is not a negative stereotype; it’s a justified state of being. Yes, sometimes we’re angry at white women (See point 1). Often we’re angry at systemic oppression, just like you. Unlike you, however, we have systemic oppression squared.
  • Stop taking our energy. Sometimes, white women feel almost vampiric. How many times have Black women heard about how great we are to be around, how infectious our energy is? Yes, we get it. But we need that energy to deal with systemic racism. If you aren’t bringing energy — in the way of true allyship — please don’t kumbaya ours away.

Wishing you a powerful and responsible weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

As one of the nation’s preeminent civil rights attorneys, Sherrilyn Ifill has a lot to say about business, diversity, and racial inclusion.

Ifill recently stepped down from her role as President and Director-Counsel of The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and is currently writing a book about the growing influence of white supremacy and its damaging effects on society and Democracy. It likely won’t be a light-hearted read.

She took part this week in a thoughtful discussion about Democracy and equity that was hosted by the enterprise software firm Collective[i]. The entire conversation was immensely thought-provoking as Ifill touched on topics like social media’s role in a polarized society, how executives’ actions say more than their words and the role of companies in a functioning Democracy.

When Ifill speaks, wisdom seems to naturally spill out. Here’s a sampling of what she had to say:

When businesses talk a big game about diversity.
After the tragic killing of George Floyd by police, corporations were quick to pledge support to diversity issues, even stamping the Black Lives Matters hashtag on their homepages. But, many of their pledges about improving diversity were left unfulfilled, and their public support for Black and underrepresented communities waned as the months progressed.

“None of these pledges had the force of law, you know, so there’s that,” Ifill said, noting how those statements lacked teeth.

Sometimes you have to say no.
Ifill discussed the role of nonprofits in contributing to the flaky attitudes of corporate executives, who mistakenly believe that supporting diversity and equity simply involves handing an advocacy group cash (plus the chance to associate the company’s name with the group).

“I will tell you that some of the fault is on the side of us and in the nonprofit world,” Ifill said. “There is money I have turned away, quite a bit of it.”

She recounted the time an unnamed executive contacted her after George Floyd’s death. The executive wanted to tell Ifill that their company was going to give the LDF a check for $1 million; a press release was primed and ready for delivery.

“I hope it hasn't gone out because there is no way we can take a million dollars from you,” Ifill said.

Ifill didn’t say what the company did, but it was involved in a situation that “had a devastating effect on our community.” Ifill told the executive that she hadn’t “heard any pledge to go another way or exploration of how decisions were made.”

When executives are reluctant to speak out.
Company leaders sometimes say that they want to stay out of politics, some even going as far as to disallow political discussions in the workplace because they could be a “distraction.” Afterall, executives have a company to run, and they want their employees to focus on the work at hand. Therefore, these leaders are reluctant to discuss societal issues, not wanting to open themselves up for criticism or get involved in issues that don’t directly pertain to business.

Ifill, however, noted the hypocrisy in this line of thinking. Many executives are quick to publicly advocate for climate change and environmental issues, and more recently, “companies have had no problems deciding that they were not going to be engaged with Russia,” she said regarding how businesses are addressing the war in Ukraine.

“I'm not sure that I agree that corporations just want to run their company, because, you know, they support political candidates,” Ifill noted. “So, I'm not sure I buy that.”

As Ifill explained, it’s the topics that executives choose to remain silent on that show their true colors.

Read the entire constitution.
Ifill remembers having conversations with Meta executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in 2018 and 2019 discussing the company’s role in spreading disinformation and how politicians like former President Donald Trump were using social media to deter Black Americans from voting.

“And always it was a conversation about the First Amendment,” said regarding how the social media giant has argued that its protecting free speech on its platform. “And I would submit to him you know, it's not that there's just one amendment, you’ve got to read the 14th Amendment, you know the equal protection of laws; you got to read the 15th amendment and the clear intention to protect voting rights for Black people.”

“You can't cherry pick this thing,” Ifill said.

Jonathan Vanian 

On Point

A desperate backlog of worker permits imperils the immigrant workforce  Worker permits, commonly known as H-1b visas, are the only thing that allows immigrant employees to keep working at their jobs. In the past, renewals typically took three months, which workers knew to plan for. Now, reporting suggests that people are waiting up to 12 months. At issue is the badly underfunded Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes the paperwork. “The government doesn’t keep statistics on how many people have had their permits expire while waiting for a renewal, but officials estimate that at its worst in January and February, hundreds per day were losing permission to work,” reports Bloomberg Businessweek.
Bloomberg Businessweek

A tip of the hat to HBCU fashion  Later this month the fashion retailer will be releasing two capsule collections that will honor the sartorial traditions of Spelman and Morehouse colleges, to HBCUs long overlooked for their aesthetic contributions to fashion. The project is the brainchild of James Jeter, Ralph Lauren director of concept design and special projects, Morehouse College graduate, class of 2013. “A lot of this project was really about changing ownership around how we think about clothing,” he told WWD. Campus fashion nostalgia—think, 1920-s to 1950's—has long been the domain of the Ivy Leagues, he says.“So who owns three-piece suits? Who owns cable cardigans? Who owns the circle skirt, for instance?” The collections will be supported by an “all-Black everything” campaign, including Black creative directors, photographers, cinematographers, and models, most HBCU grads themselves.

You might be forgiven for not knowing who Brittney Griner is, suggests Jemele Hill, in this powerful piece. While the center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury is one of the league’s most celebrated players, her excellence in an under-resourced sport means that she needed to find meaningful ways to supplement her income. Griner, who plays on a Russian team in her off-season, was taken into custody in Moscow last month at Sheremetyevo Airport after state media had reported that officials allegedly found vaping equipment and cannabis-oil cartridges in her luggage. While her family, the league, the NBA, and others have been working quietly to secure her release without angering the Russian government, the situation is dire. “Griner’s plight is especially acute because she’s a Black queer woman being held by authorities in a country that is hostile toward LGBTQ people.” The fact that she felt the need to play in a dangerous country was simple economics, says Hill. Griner’s base salary in the WNBA is around $220,000, she made more than $1 million playing for the Russian team.
The Atlantic

On Background

Racism is a national security issue This important piece from Sherrilyn Ifill, now the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, deserves a re-read as war rages across Ukraine. In it she discusses the research that describes Russian efforts to use existing racial tensions to sow divisions, mislead Black Americans, and disrupt political systems in the U.S. “But our discussions about Russian interference rarely touch on the other major threat to our elections: the resurgence of state-sponsored voter suppression in the United States,” she writes. “Racial injustice remains a real vulnerability in our democracy, one that foreign powers are only too willing to attack.” Click through for her solution. (Hint: It involves voting rights.)
Washington Post

Did you love “Island of The Blue Dolphin”? The book by Scott O’Dell has long been a childhood staple, the tender tale of a girl surviving alone on San Nicolas Island, a small island off the coast of Santa Barbara California. It is based on a story of a real woman who actually lived there from 1835 to 1853. She died six weeks after her rescue; because nobody knew her language, we don’t even know her true name. This analysis from American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) offers rich details of the life of the real woman, the context in which she lived and died, and why they don’t recommend O’Dell’s version.
American Indians in Children’s Literature

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

Parting Words

Here are more recommendations from readers:

  • Read this article by Dr. Ludmila N. Praslova on de-toxifying cultures harmful to autistic talent.
  • Better understand the concept of intersectionality as originally taught by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw.
  • Seek out films, shows, music, and other creative content made by artists of color, or who are different from you in some meaningful way. [My tip: Put them on your calendar.]
  • Upgrade your education on civil rights and history. Current reader faves: The 1619 Project, Ava Duvernay’s “The 13th,” “High on the Hog,” “Whose Vote Counts.”

This is the web version of raceAheadFortune’s newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

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