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Black consumers can hold corporations accountable

$1.1 trillion in purchasing power gives leverage, if it’s used strategically

February 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

Many of the largest U.S. corporations rely heavily on black consumers, and they know that we can vote with our dollars. In turn, these companies want to build a positive perception of their brands among black people and avoid associating themselves with things that offend and harm us.

So black consumers have a lot of power to demand accountability when corporate funding enables inflammatory rhetoric that threatens our safety or laws that threaten our rights. This dynamic fueled two of the most successful campaigns of ColorOfChange, the nonprofit I direct that seeks to strengthen black Americans’ political voice.

In 2009, Glenn Beck, the media personality who used to have a show on Fox News, called President Barack Obama a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people.” It was only the latest in a stream of race-baiting statements that Beck has unleashed during his daily TV show.

We have long campaigned against race-baiting commentary at Fox News — but Beck’s rhetoric represented a new low for the network in inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric. We were especially concerned about the way Beck was using his platform to stoke racial tension and animosity. When Beck accused the president of hating white people, we recognized that the statement could be turned against him. It encapsulated the extremity of Beck’s race baiting in a short, understandable sound bite that would likely make advertisers very uncomfortable.

We asked our members to sign a petition calling for Beck’s advertisers to stop supporting his show. At the same time, our staff reached out to the leadership of these corporations to begin a private dialogue.

We explained what Beck had said and demonstrated how it was part of a larger pattern. We made sure they knew what their advertising dollars were supporting. We told them that more than a hundred thousand people were calling on them to stop supporting Beck — and that our members were prepared to hold companies accountable that refused to act. We helped them understand what it would look like for their brand to be associated with Beck’s race baiting. Finally, we gave them a chance to act before naming them publicly.

A week into our campaign, three major advertisers left Beck’s show. Over the coming months, the number snowballed. AT&T, Walmart, CVS, Procter & Gamble and other big companies continued to abandon Beck’s show until he was left with no mainstream advertisers. His commercial breaks were now filled by obscure companies selling gold coins and exercise machines.

Eventually, more than 300 companies left Beck’s show — and Beck left Fox News.

You can’t take black peoples’ money during the day, then try to take away their vote at night.

Many of the companies we approached were unaware of Beck’s rhetoric, let alone that their ads were appearing on his show. Many were receptive to our concerns and didn’t need much convincing. Others moved quickly once they realized what a public campaign targeting their brands might look like. Only a handful of companies ignored us or refused to act, and all these holdouts changed their minds once they saw websites positioning their brand next to Beck’s rhetoric and began receiving phone calls from our members. In our experience, companies universally appreciated being approached privately and given a chance to act before becoming the target of a public campaign. 

Two years later, we used a similar strategy to drive dozens of corporate funders away from a lobbying group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a national organization that receives nearly all its funding from its corporate members. It drafts model legislation supposedly friendly to business that its state legislator members push in statehouses around the country. 

Corporations join ALEC to try to advance legislation that they think will benefit them. But we discovered that ALEC was pushing voter ID laws — legislation purporting to solve the virtually nonexistent problem of fraudulent voting but in reality designed to disenfranchise black people, other people of color, students, the elderly and the poor — all groups that disproportionately vote for Democrats. ALEC has passed such laws and a host of other legislation harmful to black people in many states.

The Center for Media and Democracy obtained leaked documents from ALEC and pieced together a large list of ALEC’s corporate members. Armed with this information, we began a similar campaign of public petitioning and private outreach to these corporations.

Our message to these companies was simple: You can’t take black peoples’ money during the day, then try to take away their vote at night. As in the Beck campaign, we made sure companies understood that we were talking about a clear civil rights and moral issue — that there were not two sides to the right to vote.

The campaign gained momentum a few months after it launched, when Florida’s “stand your ground” law — an ALEC-supported bill that authorized the lethal use of force against perceived threats of serious bodily injury — was used to justify the February 2012 murder of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kraft were the first companies to leave ALEC. As in the Beck campaign, dozens more followed over the subsequent months.

ALEC eventually disbanded its public safety and elections task force, which was responsible for both the voter ID and “stand your ground” model legislation. The organization lost nearly 90 corporate members, nearly 400 state legislators and was left with a $1.2 million budget shortfall at the end of 2013.

It can be easy to become cynical and assume that corporations are unreachable and unaccountable. But in our experience they can be more directly accountable to the public than other institutions, if they are approached the right way. When a business depends on consumers, its brand is one of its most valuable assets. In both these campaigns, we forced corporations to choose between maintaining problematic associations and protecting their brands.

As we continue the struggle for civil rights and equality, it is important to recognize that we live in a time of unprecedented corporate influence over many aspects of our lives. Demanding corporate accountability has become at least as important as pressuring the government. As consumers, we can succeed in changing what corporations do with our dollars. With $1.1 trillion in annual buying power, black consumers have a lot of leverage. We must continue to use it when corporations engage in activities that threaten our rights, our safety or our progress.

Rashad Robinson serves as the executive director of ColorOfChange, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, with more than 1 million members. His op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday and The Huffington Post, among other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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