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Organizational Change
The Role of Business in the Racial Equity and Justice Movement

Every problem that confronts the US today can be traced back to racist ideology. Businesses cannot survive on just the small percentage of the very wealthy buying goods. Mass incarceration, poverty, healthcare disparities — all of these issues affect your bottom line and profits.

The following is taken from the keynote address delivered by Dolita Cathcart, Associate Professor of History at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, at our Just Brands virtual event on August 18, 2020 (full video below).

Institutional racism permeates every aspect of our culture. The United States was founded on political principles of freedom and equality, but not for all — not for women, Native Americans, enslaved or free Africans and African Americans, or for anyone one else who was not an Anglo Saxon. Politics and economics shaped the US from the very beginning, and they remain intertwined today. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution rest on the understanding that the only free Americans were wealthy, white males. Our economy is based on a slave economy and continues to be based on racial capitalism — a capitalism that was shaped by slavery — and after emancipation, continued to be influenced by the tenets of slavery regardless of skin color. The following is a brief history of institutional racism, the systemic discrimination of marginalized groups, and how white Americans suffer collateral damage from these principles of discrimination.

We are facing three major crises today: ongoing racism and discrimination, a pandemic, and an economic apocalypse. Racism and its intersectional -isms — sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, and classism — affect all of these crises. In other words, white male Americans suffer collateral damage from past and current racist policies in America. But before we get to that, let us first dive into a brief history of racism in the United States.

Summary: African American history


The first Africans sold into slavery in the British colonies happened in Virginia in 1619. Slavery in those early days resembled indentured servitude. Enslaved Africans were not necessarily enslaved for life, were referred to as servants, intermarried with white indentured servants and Native Americans, and frequently rebelled together against slave-owning whites in the South. The result of these rebellions was a stiffening of what were called Black Codes, the ending of white indentured servitude, and the killing or removal of Native Americans. By the mid 1700s, slavery as we know it today was in place. Black Codes were used to separate white workers from blacks and Native Americans to prevent a permanent coalition of the poor from forming. White Southern politicians even changed the long tradition of having a child follow the father’s condition to following the mother’s condition, because the former meant that when a white man raped a black woman, their child would be free. This made it possible for slave-owning whites to naturally increase their enslaved population through rape, because their brown children would now be chattel — the slaves of their white fathers.


During slavery, the Slave Patrol were the police. They arrested and kidnapped African Americans throughout the nation and re-enslaved them in the South. The use of police forces to control Black and brown people begins during slavery and continues to this day. The police do not make the laws or policies, but they carry out the preferences of the white political elite who make the laws.


The enslavement of Africans and African Americans was a boon to those wealthy enough to own people, and a psychological boost to those too poor to buy a person. The growing economic inequities among different economic classes of whites required giving something to poor whites, and that something was “whiteness.” Servant, serf or peasant — none of that mattered in this new nation; because though these Americans might be poor, their white skin color immediately elevated them above those of a darker hue. In other words, at least in the US, poor whites would not be at the bottom of the political, social and economic ladder. This psychological boost was important because poor whites did not get much more. Prior to slavery being abolished in the Northern states, for example, only those white males who owned significant property could vote. In order to keep the majority of white America in line after slavery was abolished in the North, the franchise was opened to poor white males; and the idea of whiteness, of white superiority, was spread among those who had little else. And it was from this group that our nascent police forces would be formed. They may not have had much, but they could take out their frustrations on the bodies of Black people.


By the early to mid 1800s, some middle class white women began to agitate for the end of slavery. Free blacks in the North and the South had been agitating for the end of slavery for at least a century by then, but the interesting thing about these white women activists was that as they fought to end slavery, they realized they were not free like their brothers — they were essentially owned by their fathers and husbands. This moment of realization created the first intersection between race or skin color and gender, but not class. So, poor people of all skin colors remained marginalized.


The end of the Civil War, unfortunately, tore apart the coalition of white and Black abolitionists because women were not granted the franchise like black men. So, 19th-century feminists turned to Southern white women, thus cutting their ties with black women and dissolving their united front.


Three Amendments were ratified after the Civil War — the 13th, the 14th and the 15th Amendments. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in prisons. Prisoners remain legal slaves under the Constitution. The 14th Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws. And the 15th Amendment granted black men the franchise. Fifty years later, women won the franchise with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the reconstruction of the South was left to former slave holders who were looking for ways to regain their property and power. So, for the first two years after slavery, the South reinstated a type of slavery — an apprenticeship — where the apprentice could be an apprentice for life. To make matters worse, the 13th Amendment also gave these former slave owners a way to regain their “property,” through the prison system. As a result, new Black Codes were passed that essentially made it illegal to be Black. African Americans — who did not yet have jobs, homes, and in some cases, even clothing (because many former slave owners took back the clothing slaves wore) could be arrested and forced into the convict lease system, aspects of which still exists today. Conditions were worse than slavery. They could be killed with impunity, or starved and beaten or just disappeared. The prison industrial complex became the new plantation, and poor whites were also abused in this system. If more workers were needed, then more black males were arrested. In 1898, for example, 78 percent of Alabama’s state revenue was derived from convict leasing. So, there was little impetus to focus on other methods of accumulating state funds.


Throughout the rest of the 19th century, former slave holders and their sons controlled the south politically, socially and economically; and continued to control national politics in Washington, as well. Black Codes became Jim Crow laws that segregated the South and constrained voting by Blacks and poor whites. Poor whites still had white skin privilege, but that privilege did not add much money to their pockets. At every moment of the day, African Americans were treated like second-class citizens, and that was on good days! African Americans fought this discrimination through the courts and frequently won, but the laws were not enforced. Organized Blacks protested and sued throughout the 1920s through the 1950s; and this action — protesting lynching, segregation and entrenched discrimination — would galvanize action leading to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Change, though, was slow and incremental — more dramatic perhaps in the South — but it made little to no difference in the lives of Black Americans everywhere else in the nation. So, the cities erupted, white support began to wane, protests against the Viet Nam war were ramped up; and President Richard Nixon promised Law and Order, and used his Southern strategy of stoking racism to appeal to a new market of voters to the Republican party, working-class white males or lunch-pail Republicans, whose racial resentment became a tool of the Republican party.

White men had to compete with women and men of color for jobs for the first time in American history because of programs created to mitigate sexism and racism. Their identity was further threatened as more women began to join the women’s liberation movement, and as more people of color were able to attend college and enter the job market. What good is masculinity and white skin if it no longer afforded an advantage over women and people of color? Republicans continue to use this Southern strategy to link racists and misogynists to the party to this day. The Republican party has become the party of the rich and of poor whites, white nationalists, the Klan and their friends, religious Christian extremists, and gun rights advocates. These are not necessarily bad people, but they are often people whose focus on their singular issue of white male straight Christian supremacy prevents them from recognizing that they are pawns in a rich man’s game of divide and conquer.


Nixon’s War on Drugs became part of an ongoing war on African American liberty and freedom, and fed the mass incarceration of Black America and privatized prisons for profit. In an interview with Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine in 1994, John Ehrlichman — Nixon’s White House Counsel, Chief Domestic Advisor and creator of the Watergate Plumbers with H.R. Haldeman — stated:

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”


The mass incarceration of African Americans began in earnest under President Ronald Reagan. In 1980, .2 percent of the population, about 500,000 people, were incarcerated; by 2008, .8 percent of the population, 2.3 million people, were in prison. Reagan, like Nixon, also used the Southern strategy to link drugs and poverty to black Americans. According to the FBI, 75 percent of all drug users are white. According to the US Census Bureau, of the 46.2 million people living in poverty in 2017 (the latest figures available), 31.7 million are white and white children make up the largest percentage of America’s poor.

Imagine the uproar if white suburban kids were treated like Black urban kids for the same crimes. Drug addiction would have been treated differently decades ago. Money would have gone to education, mental health care, job training, or housing instead of over-policing Black and brown communities. As a result, the police become untrained de facto social workers, which is not fair to them or to civilians in trouble. They receive negligible training on issues of race and de-escalation techniques, leaving residents of color to deal with the unconscious and conscious biases of many of these officers. But it gets worse. According to a 2006 FBI report, white supremacists have been infiltrating police departments across the country. These are the issues that the “Defund the Police” movement is trying to address.

Though Africans Americans and other marginalized folks are the target of over-policing, poverty-inducing government policies, and poor healthcare delivery; white America suffers collateral damage from these policies, a slow national apocalypse that is the result of blowback from racial discrimination and industrial automation.


In the 1990s, a new and cheaper form of heroin was introduced to whites in the Southern and Western US. The dealers did not sell to Blacks because they were taught to fear them. So, this was a case where being Black and discriminated against ended up being a net positive for Black America. At the same time, Purdue Pharma introduced and pushed OxyContin — falsely claiming it was not habit forming. OxyContin mostly affected middle class and wealthier white America because of the disparities in healthcare delivery in the US. Again, racial discrimination favored Blacks. Medical students are still being taught that Black people have tougher and thicker skins and a higher tolerance for pain, among other myths. The result of these biases and stereotypes is that white Americans are three times more likely to be treated for pain with an opioid than Black Americans. Again, this proved to be another net positive for Black Americans regarding getting hooked on opioids, though they are still three times less likely to be treated for their actual pain. More recently, whites hooked on OxyContin have turned to heroin because it is cheaper, and that heroin is cut with fentanyl and carfentanyl. The result, according to the CDC, is that since 1999, 750,000 Americans have died from overdosing on drugs; two-thirds of those deaths were from heroin, and the majority are male and white. But now the nation is beginning to recognize that addiction is a medical disorder, and not a race-based moral failing. Meanwhile, that slow apocalypse is speeding up.

We are witnessing a repeat of this racial affect with the coronavirus; that more essential workers are dying who happen to be Black and brown Americans harkens back to how HIV/AIDS was tied solely to gay men in the 1980s and thus ignored by the Reagan administration until Reagan’s Hollywood friend and actor, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. Conservative policies favor the wealthy, with a little left over to fight the culture wars to keep aggrieved poor and middle class whites happy. But racism and classism are directed at constraining the aspirations of Black Americans while maintaining generational poverty among poor whites who are taught to blame Blacks for all of their troubles, thus preventing both from recognizing they need one another to make real positive change.

The primary victims of racial capitalism are folks of color, but economic policies designed under an ethos of racial capitalism affect everyone — as COVID-19 is showing us.

All of this might seem to have nothing to do with race and the business community, but these are some of the issues that have sustained systemic racism — which is why it is so hard to address. We have been taught these lessons for hundreds of years, without even knowing it was happening. It is a slow apocalypse. We are like the frogs in a pot of water slowly heating to the boiling point. The frogs don’t register the temperature change until it is too late and they die. Our slow apocalypse is happening now, and we are nearly to the boiling point.

What can businesses do?

What do your Boardrooms look like? A representation of the nation today, or more like a plantation? How many people of color and women do you have in executive positions that do not include Human Resources? Are your workers paid equally, or do white men make significantly more? What kind of mentorship programs do you have that focus on those employees on the social/political/economic margins? Do you have internship programs that focus on welcoming people of color? Do you have any program that connects with marginalized communities in the communities where you are based? Where do you recruit employees? Do you lobby Washington to do some good or just to get tax breaks?

The business community has muscle in this game. If we double the current poverty numbers from 46.2 million to 90-100 million, what happens to your companies?

Every problem that confronts this nation today can be traced back to racist ideology. Every single one. The US is a consumer-based economy. Businesses cannot survive on just the small percentage of the very wealthy buying goods. Mass incarceration, poverty, healthcare disparities — all of these issues affect your bottom line and profits.