The nation’s top Black business leaders are calling out Fortune 500 companies for not speaking up against new laws restricting Black people from voting across the country.
Kenneth Frazier: “We don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines when these kinds of injustices are happening all around us.”
Kenneth Chenault: “You can publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote.”
Kenneth I. Chenault, former Chairman of the Board, American Express and board member of Berkshire Hathaway; Kenneth C. Frazier, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Merck & Co., were among the 72 Black executives who signed a letter released Wednesday, March 31, challenging corporate leaders to condemn voter suppression by Republicans.
This action was in response to bills passed two weeks ago in Georgia which limited the Black vote in key states.
Most major corporations appeared indifferent to the new legislation, and in some instances to publicly support the voter suppression efforts.
“There is no middle ground here,” Mr. Chenault said to the New York Times, last week. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”
The Times went on to report that Mr. Chenault said, “This impacts all Americans, but we also need to acknowledge the history of voting rights for African-Americans. “And as African-American executives in corporate America, what we were saying is we want corporate America to understand that, and we want them to work with us.”
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, GOP leaders in several states, including Georgia, have come under fire for passing laws that create new voter ID requirements for absentee ballots and grant control over local election boards to state officials. This was in response to a majority of Georgians voting for a Democratic president for the first time in a generation and electing its first Black senator.
The Georgia bill Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law on Thursday also restricts the use of ballot drop boxes in parts of the state more-heavily populated by Black Americans and makes it a crime to give food and water to voters standing in line at the polls.
“Many people died for the right of Blacks being able to vote,” Chenault told CNN Business on Wednesday. “What we’re calling on corporations to do is not just say they believe strongly in the right to vote. It’s to publicly and directly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit any individuals ability to vote.”
The letter recounts the history of efforts to restrict African Americans’ voting rights during and prior to the Civil Rights movement and calls on the larger business community to use its influence to stop efforts to limit voting.
Additional signatories include Ursula Burns, a former chief executive of Xerox; Richard Parsons, a former Citigroup Chair Time Warner chief executive officer; and Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer.
“As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation’s democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again,” the letter reads. “We call upon our colleagues in Corporate America to join us in taking a non-partisan stand for equality and democracy. Each of us stands ready to work with you on what can and must be done.”
Chenault and Frazier said this is the first time Black corporate executives have come together so forcefully to comment on a social justice issue.
“As African-American business executives, we don’t have the luxury of being bystanders to injustice,” Mr. Frazier said. “We don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines when these kinds of injustices are happening all around us.”
Coca-Cola and Home Depot, with headquarters in Atlanta have been threatened with boycott for not being more forceful in condemning Republican lawmakers in the companies› home state.
Other top execs who signed on included: Citigroup CFO Mark Mason, Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments. Hobson earlier this month became chair of Starbucks’ board. She’s the only Black chairwoman of an S&P 500 company. Tony West, chief legal officer at Uber, and Vista Equity Partners founder and CEO Robert Smith also signed the letter organized by Frazier and Chenault, which was published as an ad in the March 31st edition of The New York Times.
“As African-American business executives, we don’t have the luxury of being bystanders to injustice,” Mr. Frazier told the New York Times. “We don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines when these kinds of injustices are happening all around us.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 69 major corporations have signed the Business Statement Opposing Anti-LGBTQ State Legislation stating their clear opposition to harmful legislation aimed at restricting the access of LGBTQ people in society. Chenault finds it “bizarre” that the same companies are not standing up for Black voting rights.
“This is not new,” Mr. Chenault told reporters. “When it comes to race, there’s differential treatment. That’s the reality. People ask, ‘What can I do?’ Mr. Chenault said. “I’ll tell you what you can do. You can publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote.”