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Corporate America Alone Cannot Save Us from Trump

Activists must fight to ensure that all of our institutions are inclusive of all people

Corporate America took a stand against hatred and bigotry this week. On Monday, Merck pharmaceuticals CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from Donald Trump’s manufacturing council in response to the President’s equivocations about the white-nationalist riot that took place in Charlottesville over the weekend. Even after James Alex Fields, Jr. murdered 32-year old Heather Heyer by plowing his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, Trump continued to fault “many sides.”

Heyer’s murder seems to have been the last straw for Frazier, a former death row defense attorney, the second African American ever to head up a major pharmaceutical company, and the only black CEO on Trump’s Council. Frazier’s Full Statement:

“I am resigning from the President’s American Manufacturing Council. Our country’s strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs. America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal. As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Immediately following Frazier’s statement, John Maraganore, CEO of Alynylam Pharmaceuticals, tweeted that he was “proud to stand with leaders like Ken Frazier @merck #diversity is key to prosperity.” Packard CEO and former California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman tweeted: “I’m thankful we have business leaders such as Ken to remind America of its better angels.” Subsequent resignations by other members of Trump’s two business advisory groups led President Trump to disband both councils.

Media outlets have celebrated Frazier’s bold “stands against intolerance.” But, there is more than individual valor informing the comments of Frazier and his fellow corporate executives.

Corporate support for “diversity” — a popular phrase indicating recognition of human difference, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and even political beliefs — has faced considerable criticism in recent years for failing to adequately address institutionalized systems of oppression. Diversity without direct action, these critics contend, risks becoming a meaningless phrase. Here, the history of the struggle for corporate social responsibility supports them.

In May of 1970, a group of lawyers from the Washington-based Project for Corporate Responsibility led a protest at what was then the world’s largest corporation, General Motors. Among the many issues raised by the lawyer-activists, including concerns about consumer safety, environmental protections, and company transparency, Project for Corporate Responsibility members decried the lack of diversity on GM’s board of directors.

“You have told the shareholders about 100,000 employees, black employees, of General Motors, but you have not said that none of them are in top management positions,” Project representatives declared at GM’s shareholder meeting in October 1970. “Why are there no blacks on GM’s Board of Directors?”[1]

Facing pressure from Project activists, who received a major victory with the SEC’s 1970 ruling in favor of shareholder resolutions addressing social issues, and under scrutiny from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission for violating the state’s anti-discrimination clause, GM executives took action to change the company’s image.[2] In January 1971, the company appointed African American minister and entrepreneur Leon Sullivan to its board of directors, the first such appointment by a major American company.

Other appointments of African Americans to the boards of major U.S. companies and financial institutions followed. Just days after General Motors’ announcement regarding Sullivan, the New York Federal Reserve Bank appointed National Urban League President Whitney Young to its board followed by the nomination of Asa Spaulding to the board of directors of W.T. Grant Co.. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of black men holding executive, administrative, or managerial jobs increased each year at twice the rate of white men.

The addition of black managers altered more than just the demographics of American corporations. Many corporations charged black executives with overseeing newly created departments. These departments went by different names, including Urban Affairs, Public Affairs, and Community Relations. They shared a common goal of improving corporate image on race and other social issues.

In 1972, former president of the National Urban League Harold R. Sims joined Johnson & Johnson as Vice President for Corporate Affairs. In an internal memo outlining his duties, Sims described his role as “represent[ing] Johnson & Johnson [to] the minority communities.”[3] Johnson & Johnson executives later told Sims that they hoped his actions, which included recruiting African Americans and women managers into the company, would reduce chances for “disquiet, company dissension and inflammatory situations as experienced at AT&T, Polaroid, Sears, and MacMillan and Company, to name but a few.”[4]

American corporations also partnered with civil rights organizations to promote black empowerment. In addition to appointing Leon Sullivan to their company’s board, GM announced their sponsorship of a new program to train hundreds of black auto mechanics and dealers. The venture took the form of a joint partnership between GM and Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Centers, Inc. (OIC), a non-profit organization offering vocational and entrepreneurial training to black and other marginalized people struggling to find employment. By May 1972, the program had trained 100 black dealers and mechanics.[5]

Support for black empowerment — while often limited in scope — earned companies like GM accolades in the media. Following the company’s announcement of the GM-OIC partnership, the Oakland Post published an article titled “Black Director of GM Makes Big Difference.”[6] Meanwhile, the New Pittsburgh Courier similarly praised the Gulf Oil company for its sponsorship of a Gulf Oil-OIC service station training “hard core unemployed and youth in ghetto areas.”[7]

Trump’s Presidency — and the public outrage sparked by so many of his statements, actions, and inactions — have prompted some American companies to reassert their commitment to diversity and inclusion. In February, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum amidst pressure from activists and employees who opposed the administration’s immigration policies. Another group of 50 companies, including Microsoft Corp., Google, and CBS, took the unusual step of encouraging a federal court to declare discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, an action opposed by the Trump administration.

None of these public avowals by corporate executives, including Frazier, would have occurred without pressure from activists. History shows us corporate social responsibility follows direct action. In this moment when bigotry and hatred are on the rise, it is important that we continue fighting back to ensure that all of our institutions are accessible and inclusive of all people.

Footnotes:

[1] John Egerton, “Black Executives in Business,” New Pittsburgh Courier [Pittsburgh, PA] October 24, 1970: 9.

[2] “GM hit on 2 job bias counts,” Afro-American, November 14, 1970: 6.

[3] Memo, Vice President Corporate Affairs, Corporate Staff, [circa 1972] Harold R. Sims Papers, Box 11, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University.

[4] Memo, “Consideration of Women’s Discussion Groups and periodic Steering Committee meetings with upper management,” September 27, 1974; Meeting Minutes, Special Meeting of the Council of Personnel Directors, November 20, 1972, Harold R. Sims Papers, Box 11, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University.

[5] “Rev. Sullivan: Pushing Hard for Black Economic Progress,” Sacramento Observer [Sacramento, CA] May 18, 1972: F-9.

[6] “Black Director of GM Makes Big Difference,” Oakland Post, November 18, 1971: 24; James Mateja, “GM Offers Blacks Job Aid,” Chicago Tribune [Chicago, IL] September 23, 1971: E7;

[7] “OIC, Gulf Oil Corp. Enter Partnership for Training,” New Pittsburgh Courier [Pittsburgh, PA] December 23, 1967: 13.

Jessica Ann Levy

  • Scott

    The business people that joined the Trump administration knew very well what the 45th president’s views on the alt-right were, and businesses that have distanced themselves from them, and Trump as well, are in some measure no doubt just as much protecting their brand as making a principled stand, hence, the need for activism.

    So I certainty understand the need for activism regarding pushing corporations to do the right thing. But this activism must address both racial and economic justice as well as adhering to ethical business practices. It does little good to hire more minority workers at a plant, if later that plant closes and moves its production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor (as GM has done since the 1970s). And when applying pressure on a company such as Merck to be more inclusive, activists should also address their invidious business practices that may harm minorities as well. (see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/business/merck-agrees-to-pay-950-million-in-vioxx-case.html)

    The current role that corporate America is playing, or trying to play, as some sort of moral authority, also needs to be understood in context. When the CEO of Starbucks condemned racism and hatred, that was to be commended. The thing is, when it comes to supporting social justice, there is some degree of hypocrisy involved when corporations such as Starbucks have, very knowingly and intentionally, tried to put small businesses out of business and monopolize the market in the quest of maximizing profits. When it comes to economic justice, corporations also take a stand—against unions. Unions cut into their bottom line, and breaking them up, or preventing them from forming makes good business sense (to them).

    My point is that the current tendency seems to be to focus simply on race while neglecting class. In the interests of social justice, their intersection must be understood, not only how this may impact inclusion, but also how this relates to broader social issues such as the economy, health care, and environment, that is, issues which affect everyone.

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