When several black celebrities refused to attend the Academy Awards this year, their protest was initially dismissed as a futile gesture. Yet their boycott succeeded in exposing Hollywood’s subtle but deeply ingrained form of racism.
There’s a lesson to be learned in what the protest of a prominent few can achieve for the many.
In the past year, Black Lives Matter activists have taken to the streets of Boston, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and other urban centers to protest the extrajudicial executions of young black men by police who shoot first and fabricate later.
But, astonishingly, once the blue-curtain coverup gets lifted and the lies are exposed, many mayors and other officials — with the notable exceptions of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton — express a shallow remorse and offer hollow promises to improve transparency and accountability. Little changes. Black bodies continue to pile up.
Black people have been marching for more than half a century to secure the rights enjoyed by whites. It has not been enough. We need a different path. The power of economics brought our ancestors to the United States in chains to serve the interests of white people. It’s time for black people to use the power of economics to save the lives of our own.
Money talks in human affairs. Consider how money altered the political and social landscape in Arizona in 2014. State lawmakers passed a bill authorizing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and the legislation was on its way to becoming law when a number of corporate giants intervened. Southwest, Delta, American Airlines, AT&T, Verizon, Apple, PetSmart, Intel, Yelp, JPMorgan Chase, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and several chambers of commerce, to name a few, sent a clear message to then-Gov. Jan Brewer: Veto this offensive legislation.
Simply put, the business community delivered an unmistakable message that the state would be a pariah if it did not change course. Brewer, who once boldly wagged her finger at President Obama, understood what this would do to the state’s economy, budget and reputation. So she vetoed the bill.
More recently, many of the same corporations chastised North Carolina and Georgia for passing discriminatory legislation against the gay and transgender community. In Georgia recently, Gov. Nathan Deal heard that message and came to the same conclusion Brewer did.
The speed with which the LGBT community gained the support of corporate America was stunning. It has not had to take to the streets en masse to defeat state-sponsored bigotry. The National Guard and SWAT teams haven’t had to be mobilized to keep the peace.
The corporate titans who issued their démarche may truly have been offended by the denial of basic human rights to a historically oppressed segment of our society. Perhaps they know the toll the closet has taken on family members or close friends, or even upon themselves. Whatever their motivation, their intervention was a welcome act, and long overdue.
Regrettably, this corporate zeal has yet to be extended to people of color.
The human rights of millions of black people are also under attack. We face ever higher barriers to voting. Our neighborhoods lack quality housing, safe drinking water, quality health care, good schools. Lacking employment opportunities, our men (and women) are endlessly pulled into the pipeline feeding our prison-industrial complex.
And thanks to the omnipresence of cameras and the power of social media, all this is taking place in full view of people with the power to stop it. Yet they remain in denial or indifferent.
So we must force their hands. Black Americans must call on corporate America to speak out and support our right to equal protection under the law, including demanding that public officials hold police strictly accountable for the excessive and unwarranted use of lethal force against us. If we are refused, the black community should use our economic power exactly as corporate America did in Arizona and Georgia.
Specifically, we should refuse to purchase the products or services of any company that, through its silence, consents to the denial of our rights. As we demonstrated during the Montgomery bus boycott many years ago, those who are forced to live at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid have the collective economic power to affect the bottom-line profits of those at the top.
If corporate America can support the cause of people who want to love, surely it should be willing to stand with those who merely want to live.
Janet Langhart Cohen is an author and chief executive of Langhart Communications. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.