In "The Last Dance," the documentary miniseries about the 1998 Chicago Bulls that gave viewers in the spring of 2020 a weekly dose of sports that the pandemic had taken away, Michael Jordan revealed that his unforgettable line about Republican footwear was a joke.
His words were uttered during a Senate race between North Carolina incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, a stalwart of white supremacy, and challenger Harvey Gantt — a Black Democrat for whom the basketball star's mother asked her son to do a PSA. Around the same time, activists were boycotting Nike, which paid Jordan tens of millions of dollars to wear shoes bearing his name, while Southeast Asian sweatshop workers were being paid a pittance to sew expensive shoes marketed aggressively to children whose families could barely afford them. To justify his relative silence in these political frays, Jordan — who was arguably the most recognized public figure on the planet — quipped, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
He may have intended his statement in jest, but Jordan's stance was a serious reflection of the distance between the corporate and political discourse of the times. As a representative of a major corporate brand, he sought to stay away from political debate so he would not risk alienating a portion of his consumer base.
Post-2020, the expectations for corporate political activism have changed, especially for consumer brands. Those that do not take political positions on racial justice and economic inequality arguably risk alienating their consumers and investors even more than those that do. Jordan's heir as the greatest basketball player on the planet, LeBron James, refuses to acquiesce to detractors who tell him to "shut up and dribble," using criticism as an opportunity to speak out on voting rights and Black Lives Matter.
Why have the expectations of corporations and their representatives to engage in political activism changed so much in so little time? There is not a simple answer to this question, but one general trend in the past few decades has been a "value shift" from stockholder to stakeholder capitalism. The former emphasized profit maximization, whereas the latter suggests that corporations can have a socially beneficial purpose that affects a broad community interested in shared value, not just share value.
Some of the same forces underlying how stakeholder capitalism has become a more reliable path to profit maximization are contributing to corporate political activism. Those forces include a blurring of the lines between the public and private sectors, the emergence of social media technologies and a growing sense of political urgency.
For both good and ill, the public and private sectors are not as separate as these labels suggest. At its best, the relationship between them is complementary; government enacts economic and social policy that businesses carry out in the form of financing projects and providing employment to developing safe vaccines and cleaner cars. At its worst, their relationship can devolve into corruption.
As we have learned, social media can both inform and misinform. Technology companies that have let the genie out of the bottle have unexpected political power to influence public opinion and concomitant vulnerability for their platforms to be misappropriated. Corporate users of their platforms are also pulled into political debate when their steps and statements become available for immediate and universal critique.
Finally, and perhaps most important, corporate political involvement is responding to an increasing awareness that significant change is needed to right past and present wrongs. These include the mistreatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the inequities perpetuated by the structures of everyday organizational life, and also the mistreatment of the environment by industrial activity that threatens our future. Growing concern about these issues has been met by the growing audacity of some public figures to discriminate and deny, demanding responses from citizens and corporations of conscience.
What should corporations do to be part of the political and practical solution to our challenges? To begin the process of historical recovery, many organizations are looking inward first to the business behaviors that may be within their scope of control, examining implicit bias within their ranks and promoting diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices and also among the companies they choose as vendors.
As these practices suggest, political speech and activity go beyond the boundaries of the organization to participation in the market system. Moreover, the purpose of the corporation goes beyond profit to its fundamental reason for being, showing through action the ends of which profits are only the means.
Even in a politically divided society and workplace, a credible organizational purpose has the potential to transcend individual differences. Working toward a shared purpose requires the possibility for each employee to see how work that is personally meaningful to them can contribute to something bigger than themselves: to improving the work environment, to making the world around them better, and enabling the material and meaningful well-being of themselves, their families and their communities.
Both from the University of St. Thomas, Christopher Michaelson is a professor and the academic director of the Melrose and the Toro Company Center for Principled Leadership; Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative.