Corporate responsibility is heightened amid protests and police brutality, says two professors


Graphic for Q Talks Takeaways from
Professors Cedric Dawkins and Abe Singer discuss corporations and unions, and the duty they have to be socially responsible.

As protests continue throughout the country, many corporations are considering how they can make an impact to alleviate systemic racism. Some methods are more meaningful than others, according to Cedric Dawkins, chair of Quinlan’s Management Department and associate professor.

Dawkins joined Assistant Professor Abe Singer on the Q Talks Podcast to discuss corporate social responsibility in a moment where corporations and unions are being heavily scrutinized for their lack of effort pursuing racial justice or their contributions to racial injustice.

Below are five key insights from the discussion, which is part of a Q Talks Podcast miniseries on race and business. You can also listen to the full podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

1. Corporate statements on Black Lives Matter can be superficial or productive

Dawkins and Singer began their conversation by discussing “Black Lives Matter” statements from corporations. Singer noted that often corporations release statements on racial disparities, but lack the action to back up those statements.

“Three months ago, I found out that every single club, every single business I’ve ever been affiliated with really doesn’t want me to get COVID, they’re really concerned for me,” says Singer, jokingly. “Now they’re sending me emails that they don’t like racism. They think racism is bad. I tend to have a cynical view about statements like these. I tend to [think] this just protecting your bottom line, protecting your image.” 

According to Dawkins, unless corporations back these words up, they are useless.

“Some companies are going to make statements that are legitimate, heartfelt, backed up by policy,” he says. “But they’re superficial in my view if there aren’t any actions to follow. If there isn’t a paragraph in that statement that says, ‘And because we feel so strongly about this, here’s what we’re going to do,’ then they’re not particularly helpful.”

One example of a superficial statement, according to Dawkins, is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement on systemic racism.

“He’s making a statement about racism when the league that he leads has blacklisted a player for peacefully protesting that very racism,” says Dawkins in reference to NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem. “The players aren’t dumb. This comes across as disingenuous.” 

Dawkins compares the commissioner’s statement to Michael Jordan’s commitment of $100 million over 10 years to organizations that pursue social equity .

“You look at Michael Jordan conversely, who’s been criticized in the past for avoiding issues that he thought might potentially damage his brand, but his response to this particular circumstance is an example for his corporate peers in my view,” he says. “If the statements are part of their attempt to do something, then I think they’re useful.”

2. D&I initiatives might make an impact

One debated method of advancing the positions of minorities in corporations is diversity and inclusion initiatives. Singer is skeptical.

“It’s always about, ‘We’re going to make sure our board is going to look like America,’” he says. “It never actually ends up looking like America. A lot of people have been critical of this approach to thinking about race from corporations, that it’s a superficial way of dealing with the problem.”

However, Dawkins believes that corporations can make strides toward racial equity through diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as employee trainings on implicit bias and corporate commitments to increasing female representation on their boards and in C-suites to 30%. As female representation has risen in C-Suites, Dawkins believes this successful initiative should be extended to alleviate racial disparities as well. 

But class discussions of this “30% club” can be divisive.

“In my class, I ask the students what they think about the 30% club, and invariably, a portion of them will say it’s unfair to white males,” says Dawkins. “I leave them with the question of if I accept your premise it’s unfair to white males, which system of unfairness do you prefer? The old one or the new one? And how and why do you make that choice?”

Singer’s worry is not that such D&I efforts are unfair to white people and more that they don’t address the structures that tend to disadvantage and oppress Black people. “If you diversify your board of directors, so now you have a diverse group of Wharton graduates,” he notes skeptically, “who then can run their business in such a way that gentrifies neighborhoods and underpays workers who are largely people of color.” Does that actually address the root problem of structural racism?

3. Corporations should not be involved in public policy

Dawkins does not believe corporations should to get involved in public policy, first because of his worries about corporate voices overshadowing the perspectives of the community.

“I would argue they’re going to dwarf other voices, because that’s what corporations tend to do,” says Dawkins. “They’re big, they’re powerful, they have money.”

He’s also skeptical around corporations’ ability to care for social good. “I don’t see capitalism providing any incentives to do anything other than what corporations are already doing. If corporations step outside of purely monetary interest, I think they can have some impact. But it does worry me a little bit” to rely on corporations to define racial justice work.

4. Labor unions—including the police—must consider social responsibility

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, Singer and Dawkins argue that unions need to take social responsibility into account.

“There’s been a huge focus on police unions,” says Singer. “And this has come from the finding that once police have the ability to collectively bargain, you tend to see rises in police violence in the communities they’re supposed to protect.”

Discussions of police brutality often include the defense that there are “bad apples” but the majority of the police are “good apples.” Dawkins finds this unhelpful. 

“It doesn’t help to make this bad apple excuse because bad apples do ruin the whole bunch, because when they rot they emit gasses and that hastens the decay of apples in the barrel so bad apples do ruin the whole barrel,” he says. “Police labor unions have gone whole hog in supporting their bad apples.”

Dawkins continues, “I would like to see labor unions consider the idea of moral suasion [that is, an appeal to morality in order to influence or change behavior] they were founded on.”

Singer agrees. “Unions began not just as economic organizations but as political and social organizations, and they’ve become organizations which just think about their members, which obviously unions should do, but they’ve done that at the cost of imposing harms onto others. When you have a union like a police union, those effects are exaggerated.”

5. We shouldn't necessarily abolish police unions, but the option should be on the table

Some protesters have called for abolishing police unions. Dawkins fears that this will have dire consequences, such as the abolishment of all unions.

“We’re going to get arguments about schoolteachers, nurses, public transit workers. It’s not going to stop with police unions,” says Dawkins.

He also fears more government oversight for unions. For example, in Canada, unions can be voted back to work by legislature. “How hard are you going to bargain if you know that in the end you can simply force the striking workers back? I’m afraid of this kind of thing confronting public labor union workers in the U.S. because it wouldn’t stand strongly enough on this issue of police labor unions.” 

Despite not wanting police unions abolished, he does feel this option of abolition should be available.

“I’m glad that there are people within the labor movement calling for the abolition of police unions but I don’t want them to be successful. I just want them to make this case,” he says. “The criticism is necessary. The internal debate and internal strife are necessary. It’s a cleansing of sorts. I think the public needs to see that the labor movement is having an honest discussion about this and will make every effort to discipline its own. If the public has to do it, I think its detrimental to the labor movement writ large.”

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