Civil rights leaders want corporate America to stop writing checks to politicians and effect real change

September 23, 2022, 2:39 PM UTC
Woman in a red suit shakes hands with another business women while at a conference
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Two civil rights leaders shared some advice for corporate America: Do better.

This week, I spoke with Derrick Johnson, the CEO of the NAACP since 2017, and Fredrika Newton, the co-founder of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, former Black Panther Party member, and widow of Huey P. Newton. The pair were on hand for a breakout session at Salesforce’s Dreamforce Conference; our discussion topic was “Why Corporate Engagement Is Everyone’s Business.”

Johnson got right to the point.

“It is not only a business imperative to keep society moving, but it is also a business opportunity,” he said, citing Unilever and Procter & Gamble for creating products for and marketing to a diverse customer base. But in a political environment marked by “tribalism” and violence, it’s time to move past “uncomfortable conversations” and into the kind of real talk that addresses the current threats to democracy. “It’s on an accelerated pace,” he said, referring to the attack of Jan. 6. “And it’s because we have social media platforms that are allowed to create rules where really the business of individuals and organizations can market racial hate, radicalize people, and some of those people carry it out.”

This is all sadly familiar, Newton said. The longtime Black Panther Party member recalled the often-misunderstood work that the organization did with communities. “We need to address the needs—very directly—of the people who are in the streets.” She talked about an episode of gun violence she witnessed the day before and said the elements that create fear, homelessness, food insecurity, and despair in the lives of ordinary people should become part of the corporate mandate. “We need corporations to enlist organizations that do direct service to these people that are on the streets, working poor, homeless,” the people who cannot participate in society as creators, leaders, or consumers. “The government has failed…people in the ivory towers need to enlist the help of organizations that are in touch with the communities that they need to serve.”

I asked about the role employers have in preserving voting rights, in part, as a prelude to an in-depth story I’m reporting on a unique voter activation program the NAACP is launching in advance of the U.S. mid-term elections. I cited two areas of interest—protecting voting access for individuals and lobbying against cynical re-districting efforts. Johnson waved me off and turned up the heat.

“What the biggest part of corporate behavior is who they support as candidates, and who they are writing checks to,” he said. “Political parties are nothing more than vehicles for agenda. And that’s why you see different alignments of people over time, switching from one political party to the next. It has nothing to do with party identification, has everything to do with the agenda that the parties carry.” 

The polarizing issue is about taxes, who is getting taxed, who isn’t getting taxed, and the unmet needs created by a lack of public will. “Are we spending those tax dollars on social good to ensure that there is a safety net across the board?” Building off Newton’s example, he said, “the homeless crisis in California is outrageous… you’re really talking about the people who own homes on the backs of those who are now camping out on blankets.”

Johnson, who lives in Mississippi, said that the problems are related but highly localized. “Lack of nutrition or access to health care in the South, safe, quality living conditions in the North, you name the part of the country there’s a policy that needs to be pushed.”

But who is at the table matters, too. “You want to tackle climate change, how are you going to do it? Who are you going to convene in a role that makes sure that the room looks like society?” Johnson said.

Newton agreed. “These are hard conversations, I see that.” She said that organizations need to find ways to let their own employees help direct their resources since a diverse workforce brings a rich understanding of the needs of the communities they represent. Again, it’s local. “If you see a need in your community, what can you do to address it?”

She recalled the Black Panther’s Ten Point Plan, a policy platform that described their commitments. Way back in 1972, technology was a stated lever. “How do you use modern technology to provide health care for people? Who are you hiring to help harness technology in better ways?”

And don’t go it alone, she says. “You don’t have to do this singlehandedly. There are people working on these things. Join them.”

Wishing you a solidarity-filled weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Jack Long.

On point

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On background

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Parting words

"We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology."

—Part of the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Plan, published in May 1972

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