It is ironic that at a time when taxpayers are sending billions to airlines and other companies to sustain them through the recession, so few businesses pay heed to the obligations of corporate citizenship. (They are more than willing to take subsidized loans from taxpayers, but ask them to increase corporate taxes to pay for infrastructure that benefits all Americans — companies included — and many of them throw a fit.)
Coca-Cola also had a change of heart. After putting out a mealy-mouthed statement last week that left one uncertain what if anything the company’s position was, on Wednesday, “Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said the company has always been against legislation in Georgia that restricts voter access, but is choosing to speak up publicly about it after the bill passed,” according to a CNBC report. That really makes very little sense. Quincey insisted, “Now that it’s passed, we’re coming out more publicly.” In truth, it never made its views known until a hue and cry went up over the anti-voting measure.
It is not hard to figure out why these companies reversed course. Public outrage from African Americans around the country, and perhaps the threat of boycotts, seemed to have had their desired effect. Moreover, 72 African American executives signed on to a public letter demanding that corporate America stand behind democracy.
The New York Times reported on the letter organized by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck:
“There is no middle ground here,” Mr. Chenault said. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.” . . .“There seems to be no one speaking out,” Mr. Frazier said. “We thought if we spoke up, it might lead to a situation where others felt the responsibility to speak up.”Among the other executives who signed the letter were Ursula Burns, a former chief executive of Xerox; Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner; and Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber. The group of leaders, with support from the Black Economic Alliance, bought a full-page ad in the Wednesday print edition of The New York Times.The executives are hoping that big companies will help prevent dozens of similar bills in other states from becoming law.
How did giant corporations — especially those that have been so attuned to issues such as last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ rights and climate change — get this so wrong? One explanation is the lack of diversity at the heads of major companies. There are four African American CEOs among the Fortune 500. No wonder they “missed” this.
And it is not, of course, simply a lack of diversity among CEOs. The upper ranks of management overall remain astoundingly homogeneous. USA Today reported in 2020 that of the 279 top executive-level positions listed in proxy statements for the top 50 biggest companies, only five were Black. “Business and diversity scholars say the executive suite is still one of America’s most exclusive and impenetrable clubs, with the corporate hierarchy most closely resembling a plantation: Heavily white at the top,” USA Today found.
Corporations also likely thought they could get away with statements that either avoided specifics or praised some aspects of the bill. Corporate PR executives are adept at avoiding controversy, but there is no place to hide in this case. To maintain their desired corporate image and avoid real economic pain, they need to get on the side of democracy — and stay there.
Businesses must decide what to do going forward. Civil rights activists would do well to come up with a code of conduct for responsible companies that might include lobbying against voting restrictions, refusing to give money to politicians who support voting restrictions, offering paid time off for all employees to vote, distributing voter information to all employees for their home states and demanding that suppliers and corporate customers do the same.
It is time for them to act to prevent noxious Jim Crow-style laws and to make clear that Republicans will lose their support if they pursue such measures. Perhaps they will finally pay attention.