Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Has Something Finally Changed?

Jun 24, 2020

Has Something Finally Changed?

tags: racism,Black lives matter,Donald Trump,Corporate Social Responsibility

Steve Hochstadt is a writer and an emeritus professor of history at Illinois College.

My credit card bank, Citibank, a huge global enterprise, sent me a message on June 5, and probably to all of their millions of customers. Given the history of corporate politics, the message was surprising. The CEO of Citi’s US Consumer Bank, Anand Selva, wrote, “I hope you know that Citi is an organization that champions equality, diversity and inclusion and is willing to stand up for those values when they are threatened.” I knew that Citibank paid lip service to equality and diversity, like all major organizations, but I also knew that the only value that Citibank had been consistently willing to stand up for was its bottom line.

The message also quoted two other high executives, who clearly stated that the racial status quo is not acceptable. Mike Corbat, Citi’s CEO, said, “The tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing unrest are glaring reminders of the progress we need to make to have a truly equal and just society.” Jane Fraser, President of Citi and CEO of Global Consumer Banking said, “We must use this painful time as the turning point to a better future that embraces our common good by listening, learning and being committed to taking action to create a more equal and just society.”

Good talk, but what about action? In two surprising cases in recent days, financial giants have fired people for racist actions off the job. The story of Amy Cooper calling the police in New York’s Central Park on a black man, Christian Cooper, who wanted her to leash her dog, has become known around the world, and led to her being fired by Franklin Templeton. Less well known is a similar incident this month: a white couple saw a Filipino-American man chalking “Black Lives Matter” on a wall in front of his house and called the police. The cops recognized the man as the owner of the house and left. The white man, who had been a managing director in the public finance group at the wealth-management firm Raymond James, got fired. Raymond James issued a statement: “Raymond James has zero tolerance for racism or discrimination of any kind” and the man’s actions “were inconsistent with our values”.

Firing employees who attract national attention because of racist behavior is easy, although it seems to me to be a new phenomenon. Changing the culture that allowed those people to think that they could safely act out their racism in public is much more difficult. But perhaps Citibank and other corporate giants will actually do something “to create a more equal and just society.”

While it’s important to see that America’s white leadership seems to be shifting position, what really matters is what the rest of Americans think. Here’s my scientific study of popular attitudes. I participated in the Black Lives Matter Protest for Equality on Sunday, June 7, in Jacksonville, our very local piece of the nationwide protest movement that itself is remarkable. About 100 of us stood at a major intersection with signs, many about Black Lives Matter. I watched the stream of traffic for 2 hours. Hundreds of people displayed their approval of our demonstration by waving, giving thumbs up, flashing the peace sign, raising clenched fists, and of course honking. People in and on every type of vehicle offered support: pickup trucks, Cadillacs, motorcycles, guys driving semis, sports cars, and beaters.

I saw only five expressions of disapproval: a guy with thumbs down, 2 guys with a middle finger, and 2 guys shouting “All lives matter.” In a Republican town in the rural Midwest, that informal survey might indicate a broad shift in opinions about BLM and the larger issue of racial inequality.

Here’s a final piece of evidence for anyone who is waiting eagerly or apprehensively for November. I can’t help checking Trump’s disapproval rating on the website of 538 every day. I have written before that his levels of approval and disapproval have been remarkably steady since his election, steadier than any other postwar president. Since March 2017, his disapproval level has ranged between 52% and 57%, except for a few weeks during this March and April, when disapproval briefly dipped to 50%. His approval percentage has been between 37% and 44%, again except for those weeks, when it rocketed upwards to 46%. That was the only moment during his presidency that his approval got within 4% of disapproval.

That’s the background. Since that positive blip, his ratings have gone down, but there have been so many brief ups and downs over the past 3 years, that nothing seemed to actually change. But the fall in approval and rise in disapproval has continued for two months, and the gap is now more than 14%. During the past two years, that has only been topped during a short period in January 2019. At that level, the presidential election in November would be a landslide.

Just how much skin color does matter in America is made visual in a NYTimes article that graphs the differences between white and black lives in terms of employment, income, home ownership, college completion, and life expectancy. In Minneapolis, for example, where protests have been intense, the median household income in white neighborhoods is nearly $80,000, but only $30,000 in black neighborhoods.

Some enterprising and courageous reporters asked Trump supporters at the Tulsa rally this weekend about what they teach their children about Black Lives Matter. The usual response was some version of “The protesters are radical leftists. Trump is doing everything he can for blacks. We are color blind. All lives matter.”

The attitude that racism is not worth talking about, much less fighting, has predominated in white America for decades. It meant, among other things, that police brutality, exercised within a racist context, was broadly tolerated. Now maybe the rubber band has snapped.

We’ll see.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

June 23, 2020

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