Detroit’s White CEOs Must Offer Strong Action, Not Sweet Words

By Bankole Thompson 

On the surface, the public appearance of some major Detroit CEOs who came out on Wednesday to condemn racism in the wake of the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police seemed appropriate and appreciable to any justice seeking individual or community that wants corporations to do more in fighting inequality in Detroit than just focus on their bottom line. 

It would be embraced by those who want companies in the city to move beyond the comfort of the C-Suite, and make significant investments in tackling the crisis of income inequality in Detroit.

For too long, they have felt satisfied with simply writing large checks to annual civil rights chicken dinners for the obvious purpose of securing political cover and rebranding their image. 

But the press conference orchestrated and staged yesterday by Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP, who paraded several leaders of different companies in the city to go on the record and speak out about racism as the nationwide protests against police brutality continues, left many unanswered questions. If the intention of the meeting was to show a public solidarity with black people in Detroit on the issue of police brutality, and racism in the criminal justice system, the press conference did not achieve that. 

I was baffled by some of the presentations of the corporate leaders ranging from General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Ilitch Holdings CEO Chris Ilitch, DTE Energy Executive Chairman Gerry Anderson, Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farmer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan CEO Dan Loepp, Henry Ford Health System’s CEO Wright Lassiter to TCF Financial Executive Chairman Gary Torgow, which seemed not only reactionary, but failed to specifically outline what steps their companies would take in joining the fight against police brutality. 

The business leaders did not speak to the heart of the issue of police misconduct and overbearing law enforcement, which is the impetus of the daily protests. 

One of the most remarkable and shameful contradictions of the press conference was the fact that Little Caesars Arena, a prominent publicly funded arena, was the holding place for protesters who were arrested by Detroit police during one of the demonstrations. It was unconscionable and appalling that the LCA management opened its doors for the police to detain protesters, which is a glaring contradiction of the alleged intent of the press conference orchestrated by Anthony and attended by Chris Ilitch, the CEO of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the LCA. 

Ilitch should have flatly rejected the request of the Detroit Police Department under Chief James Craig for the LCA to serve as a processing center just like some heads of major corporations in the nation, who have exercised great moral courage and turned down President Donald Trump’s request to do his bidding on similar human rights issues. The right to protest is not only a human right issue, but it is firmly embedded in the Constitution. 

Anthony as president of the NAACP, the premier civil rights group tasked with ensuring and upholding the constitutional rights of black people, seems to have failed to convey this message, which was the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. It was remarkable that during the press conference that Anthony and his band of companies did not give the Detroit police a lecture on the right to protest. That’s one of the empowering messages that should have come out of the press conference, rather than platitudes on systemic racism, which has been the cornerstone of the protest. 

The Rev Martin Luther King Jr., conveyed that message in a 1966 CBS interview with Mike Wallace. 

“And I contend that the cry of  ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years,” King said. “The mood of the Negro community now is one of urgency, one of saying that we aren’t going to wait. That we’ve got to have our freedom. We’ve waited too long.” 

When Wallace pressed King about how long the riots will continue, the civil rights leader said, “I think the answer about how long it will be depend on the federal government, on the city halls of our various cities, and on white America to a large extent. This is where we are at this point, and I think white America will determine how long it will be and which way we go in the future.” 

Unfortunately, the press conference did not provide a way forward for the future, a lost opportunity for the mostly white CEO group as Detroit and other urban cities in Michigan grapple with the killing of George Floyd. 

Protesters honoring George Floyd marched on Wednesday at the Manoogian Mansion, the official residence of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Duggan’s police department arrested not only demonstrators the day before in downtown Detroit, but also the working media.

Moreover, the failure of many corporations in Detroit to speak out publicly through their representatives in previous police brutality cases in the city rendered Tuesday’s press conference to many as simply an elaborate public relations stunt. There are documented cases involving the Detroit Police Department, with a similar culture that resulted in George Floyd’s death that did not get a high profile press briefing led by Anthony, who himself has been profoundly silent on many past troubling policing issues in Detroit, including the introduction of facial recognition technology, which disproportionately targets black people. Because of Anthony’s own past failure to rise up against racist police practices in the Detroit Police Department, staying silent in his role as leader of the city’s top civil rights organization, many black people don’t trust that the thrust of his press conference would achieve anything for them. 

In fact, a leading Detroit activist, Meeko Williams, who led a police brutality protest Wednesday night at the Manoogian Mansion, the official residence of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, quickly dismissed Anthony during a press briefing attended by the local media minutes before the protest. He told the media that leaders like Anthony don’t speak for his generation. 

Williams, who was expressing deep frustration and pain as head of Hydrate Detroit, an organization vigorously fighting against water shutoffs on poor people in Detroit, views Anthony as belonging to a group of established civic leaders who are very reluctant to publicly challenge the status quo but rather tacitly and sometimes openly endorse policies from downtown that are in direct contravention to the aspirations of many Detroiters. He believes that if the companies who responded to Anthony’s call on Wednesday choose him as their emissary, he cannot credibly negotiate policies that are often in direct contravention to the corporate interest including anti-poverty policies like mandating no water shutoffs in Detroit. 

Be clear. A poverty stricken city like Detroit could  be a scene for another George Floyd. Anyone with significant investment portfolio in Detroit would be unwise not to recognize that. Any business leader who is committed to addressing the crisis facing Detroit’s perennial underclass, and has the pulse of the community would be making significant investments in the fight against inequality. 

Corporate social responsibility is more than staging a photo op in the middle of a growing national crisis. It means laying out some serious game-changing initiatives that will finally upgrade the standard of living of poor Detroiters, who are often the ones that bear the brunt of police brutality. If Detroit’s corporate leaders understand the full weight of the crisis triggered by the killing of George Floyd, they would join in full force in our push to not only honor his memory but also challenge the conscience of America towards racial justice.

That begins with these business leaders using their positions to challenge Detroit’s government represented in the mayorship of Mike Duggan and the Detroit Police Department as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to move beyond words of mere sympathies to real solutions for change, including the use of executive power to end police abuse of blacks. 

These corporations can advocate on behalf of black people and defend black humanity in the same way they vigorously lobby for their own corporate interests before government entities or in their search for tax breaks. It is even more urgent since some of the companies such as Quicken Loans are recipients of massive public subsidies. 

The cries for justice across the nation, and in all parts of the state, are too precious to be trivialized and exploited for the benefit of a simple press conference. It is a time to show respect for black life and to demonstrate such by working to end the nightmare of inequality. 

Detroit companies should lead with major investments in poor and destabilized areas in the city to change the trajectory of an immoral economy that has left many Detroiters living on the margins, while they watch some of these very corporations writing big checks to fancy and lavish dinner parties under the pretext of social justice. 

And if the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”, means anything to the corporate community, they will push to significantly expand and support the work of black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs as well as help create new ones because they are the lifeline in black neighborhoods. They are the ones in the trenches providing employment and sustaining families who are routinely maltreated by the police.  

Detroit needs action, not sweet words. 

Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a popular two-hour radio show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST. 

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