The Politics of Poverty

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President Trump and CEOs attend meeting of the administration's Strategy and Policy Council in April 2017. (Photo: White House Official Photo)

Why some CEOs are leading the charge on diversity and inclusion.

Over the past months and certainly the last few days, President Trump has failed to bring the country together and foster the advancement of a diverse and inclusive America. His comments this week on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia crossed a line that most politicians would dare not cross. In the past, politicians and Americans from across the political spectrum have been united in their dismissal of Nazism and white supremacy as a legitimate political view, yet President Trump has taken a different path. He has done little to denounce neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups like the KKK, and instead, many have argued, has done much to embolden them. As of this writing, only 12 of the 252 GOP members of Congress condemned the President’s remarks on the Charlottesville rally.

Since the inauguration, however, we have seen a new group step up to denounce hatred and promote diversity and inclusion: business leaders.  This is a hopeful sign, and aligns with trends we’ve seen at Oxfam in our research on the private sector. We looked at the top 70 companies in seven sectors – apparel, banks and finance, food and beverage, extractives, pharmaceuticals, retailers and technology – found that 95 percent of the companies had publicly available value statements on diversity.

In recent months, the technology sector has been particularly vocal in opposing the president’s travel ban and in some cases supported litigation opposing the ban. The sector also saw many of their leaders denouncing the ban on transgender people from serving in the military.  A diverse group of companies also urged the President to stay in the Paris climate agreement, with two companies stepping down from his advisory council after his decision to pull out of the agreement. While other sectors have been slower to respond or remained silent, the events in Charlottesville have seen company CEOs take the lead in sanctioning the President for his remarks.

Merck’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier, was the first to announce he was leaving the President’s American Manufacturing Council on Monday, quickly followed by Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Intel’s Brian Krzanich. Soon after members of both the President’s Manufacturing Council and Strategic and Policy Forum convened and made the decision to leave the groups, before they were thwarted by the President’s decision to beat them to the punch and disband them. The Councils’ CEOs represent a broad array of sectors, and the consensus of such a group to rebuke the President and distance themselves from the administration is unprecedented, but then again this President’s actions are unique as well.

Citizen activists and consumers did much to spur the private sector to take a stand through their actions on social media . With a mere tweet, consumers were able to turn a brand’s reputation into a viral nightmare. As the CEOs contemplated their decisions to stay on or leave the councils, a “#QuittheCouncil” campaign began on Twitter, pushing companies like Campbell’s to leave with thousands of tweets asking the brand to not be “#SoupNazis” and take action. Employees at these companies are factor as well. Their internal advocacy has encouraged their executives to step out front. While politicians have a grace period between elections, where voters’ minds can change or forget, consumers can react immediately by boycotting brands that fall in disfavor. Social media has so obviously enhanced the ability of disaffected consumers to spread their condemnation with a mere click, that in some cases businesses are perhaps learning to react more quickly than their political counterparts.

These recent actions show that values do matter to businesses and their leaders. It also highlights a trend toward broader social responsibility that goes beyond simply doing things that meet the “business case” or taking responsibility for impacts from companies’ own actions. But companies shouldn’t stop at denouncing the President’s comments, or leaving his councils. They and their trade associations, like the Chamber of Commerce, must call on the administration to pull back on its regressive policies, fully support diversity and inclusion, re-join the international community in the climate agreement, stop the assault on minorities, and denounce hatred wherever it exists.

With an administration that has so clearly shrugged even the veil of tolerance, equality, and inclusivity, and a Congress which has refused to take any real steps to reign in the President’s actions, the voice of the private sector standing up for American values and human rights is more vital. And while it is unacceptable for our politicians to stand on the sidelines in the face of such clear immoral impunity it is refreshing to see business leaders do the right thing. Their consumers and employees will reward them accordingly.

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