I am often asked to name the civil rights issue of our time. As the head of one of the country’s largest racial justice organizations, I travel the country a lot and I get to hear from a lot of different people. This question always comes up.
Yet, it is hard to accept the premise of the question because there isn’t much difference between the most important racial justice issue of ourtime, and the most important racial justice issue of all time.
At any given moment in American history, the prevailing forces of racial inequity have remained the same. Our progress has always required overcoming them: unchecked hostility and violence toward black people in our culture; exclusion from the halls of political and corporate power, including the power to vote and attacks on our economic wellbeing and growth, especially the exploitation of our labor.
What goes unreported too often, however, is the role of corporations in sustaining, or worsening, the forces of racism in America. Media corporations – whether news, entertainment or social media – saturate our culture with stereotypes and racist misinformation. Corporations from every industry sponsor voter suppression by supporting politicians who need it to win, while funding policy groups like Alec that propagate it. Because that’s one way corporations make money: profitable returns on racism.
As a racial justice movement, we must rewrite the rules for how corporations make their money, so they can no longer write the rules for how we live our lives. That means changing the incentive structures that enable corporations to do what they currently do.
Right now, corporations are incentivized toward fake solutions that we allow them to pass off as real.
They are celebrated for sending bottled water to victims of poisoned public water in Flint, Michigan. But they face no consequences for dodging the taxes needed to fix the water system. Moreover, they face no consequences for supporting the politicians who allowed the water to be poisoned in the first place.
Corporations pay pennies in donations to civil rights organizations: the silence of those organizations is easily bought with no real concessions, so it’s an easy trade for corporations to avoid doing anything real – rectifying their racially targeted and exploitative practices.
The incentives for corporations to exploit our labor also go gravely unchallenged. We must prevent corporations from writing the exploitation of our labor into the law in permanent ink.
More and more, we are exposing and fighting the rampant rise of unpaid prison labor and the exploitation of fast-food workers and the service economy. We’re rallying people to ensure college basketball players share in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars they generate for their schools and corporations. We’re fighting the attack on public sector unions, as well as the exclusion of black people from the emerging cannabis industry, as unchecked power grabs that undermine black economic power.
Thanks to a new report from the National Employment Law Project (Nelp), there is light shining on another front. The report details how corporations have worked secretively to pass laws in cities that would misclassify certain types of employees as independent contractors. The effects on black workers over-represented in those jobs would be an immense step backwards for racial equity and civil rights.
As work changes, corporations are trying to change the rules of work. If you are a driver, hotel staff or a warehouse handler, they want you labeled a contractor – even if you have just one job, with just one employer, and work full-time (or more). Once that happens, you are in servitude: serving at the whim of employers, robbed of wages, put in harm’s way on the job, robbed of healthcare, sick time and more.
Having successfully introduced bills in 11 states in 2018, those behind the effort (Alec, the big tech corporations, Amazon, Uber, Handy, Marriott, Hilton) have every incentive to keep going. They have recently enlisted Trump’s Department of Labor to help them, though some states are pushing back.
It’s now on us to take what Nelp has uncovered and hold those corporations accountable: to create consequences for what they are doing, and to force them to reverse course.
The past and present of work in America has been dependent on black servitude, from domestic work to the factories and the fields. And yet progress in America has been dependent on black leadership: not just civil rights, but for progressive change across the board. We can prevent the future of work in America from returning to the past if we join together – online, on the phone, in the streets, in the voting booth – to effectively challenge corporate power. Black people and everyone – together.
Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others have taken on politics because millions of people have funded them to be able to do it, and powered them to do it by showing up online and dedicating countless volunteer hours. Imagine how we could take on the corporate establishment if we came together in the same focused way?
It’s time to tackle corporate power as the major threat to racial justice that it has been, and continues to be.