Detroit's largest corporations take stand against racism
Detroit's nine largest corporations on Wednesday publicly committed to rejecting all forms of racism, sexism and violence and committed to supporting reforms for a fairer criminal justice system.
"It is important for white America to hear from white America," said Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of Detroit's NAACP chapter. "It is important for the business community to engage in their citizenship. They have a stake in this. Other people listen to other people they know that are like them. They can make a difference in law enforcement, legislative bodies, the halls of Congress and the White House."
Top executives from the companies representing 600,000 employees gathered at the request of Anthony and Mayor Mike Duggan. The stand followed five days of mostly peaceful demonstrations in the city protesting racial disparities and calling for justice in the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died on May 25 after four Minneapolis police officers kneeled on his body and throat during an arrest. Similar gatherings across the country have gripped the nation's attention, especially as many have turned violent and been marred by looting.
One officer involved in Floyd's death last week was arrested and charged; three others were charged Wednesday. Still, Detroit police have made more than 410 arrests during the first five nights of protest. Most were residents from Metro Detroit and not the city.
"What we are seeing in our communities is reflective of the fact that our nation is not listening," said Wright Lassiter, Henry Ford Health System CEO, who recalled his own experience growing up as an African American in the segregated South. "At times like these, we all must choose if we are going to stand silent and turn away from the fray, choosing comfort over progress — indifference. Or will we summon the courage that exists in all of us when we’re confronted with acts that violate our sense of dignity and humanity?"
The corporations have committed heavily to the city with headquarters here or other such investments as office building renovations or manufacturing expansions. Their leaders joined the voices calling for more to be done.
"The corporate citizens that I stand here with today understand fully that a company is only as healthy as the community it serves," said Gary Torgow, a Detroit native and executive chairman of TCF Financial Corp.
Added Duggan: "There is a whole different generation of business leaders. At the time companies were bailing out of the city, going to the suburbs or other states, the nine people standing here — every one of them moved jobs and investment into Detroit. They went against the trend."
The companies jointly agreed to four commitments:
- Rejecting and eliminating all forms of bias, racism, sexism and violence within their communities and companies.
- Calling upon appropriate government officials to hold accountable all individuals involved in the deaths that have occurred.
- Supporting the calls for an independent prosecution of those accused in order to demonstrate fairness and eliminate any possible conflicts in the course of the judicial process.
- Investing in programs and policies to help transform the disparities that exist within their communities in partnership with local and national leaders.
Included among the business leaders was Christopher Ilitch, CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., which includes Olympia Entertainment Inc. that operates the city-owned Little Caesars Arena. Police Chief James Craig confirmed that demonstrators who were arrested on Tuesday were being processed there. Previously, that had taken place at a small substation.
"Chief Craig made a request to use the facility for safety reasons and we supported his needs," Ed Saenz, Olympia communications director, said in an email.
The move to the arena "allowed for safe social distancing and helped mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 for violators, officers and police staff," Craig said in a statement. "The Ilitch organization has indicated to us its strong support for the right of people to express their outrage over incidents of hatred, racism and prejudice. We are grateful to the Ilitch organization for its willingness to allow the use of their facility, so these individuals could be treated in a more compassionate manner."
In recent days, many of the companies had communicated messages against intolerance and injustice to employees. But Wednesday's news conference marked the first time addressing the issue publicly for many, including Detroit's three automakers.
"We stand up against injustice — that means taking the risk of expressing an unpopular or polarizing point of view, because complacency and complicity sit in the shadow of silence," said General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, who has told employees GM will create an inclusion advisory board by the end of the quarter.
Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co., pointed to the Dearborn automaker's 117-year legacy and how his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, hired blacks and paid them the same wages as everyone else when others wouldn't.
"It's easy to say one person, one company, or even a group of companies can’t make a difference, " Ford said. "I don’t believe that. I have seen the change we have made in Detroit."
Meanwhile, Mark Stewart, chief operating officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV in North America, pointed to the Italian American automaker's continuing investment in the city with the construction of the first new assembly plant in the city in nearly 30 years that is creating 3,850 new jobs of which Detroiters had the first chance to apply.
Other executives who joined the effort were Gerry Anderson, executive chairman of DTE Energy Co.; Jay Farner, Quicken Loans Inc. CEO; and Dan Loepp, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Staff writer Christine Ferretti contributed.