Black executives call out Barra as GM pushes to be 'most inclusive' company

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. continues to stress it's working toward being the "most inclusive company," but Black-owned media company executives are calling out CEO Mary Barra by claiming she refused to sit down with them. 

Byron Allen and six other executives from Black-owned media companies signed a full-page ad that appeared in Sunday's Detroit Free Press criticizing Barra. The ad is also supposed to run in The Wall Street Journal this week, Ad Age reported. 

GM CEO Mary Barra said last week the automaker will release its equal employment opportunity report “to make clear our progress toward increasing diversity in the company.”

"We were seriously offended watching you stand on stage, after the death of George Floyd, saying, 'Black Lives Matter,' when you have refused to acknowledge us and you have consistently, over time and after multiple requests, refused to take a meeting with the largest Black Owned Media companies in America," the letter in the ad reads. "Mary, the very definition of systemic racism is when you are ignored, excluded and you don't have true economic inclusion."

The ad ran as a Minneapolis police officer's trial begins this week in the death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died May 25 last year after the officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. Floyd's death sparked national outrage — from protests in the streets to executives, like Barra, standing up to say their companies will fight systemic racism. 

GM defended its record Monday. Spokesman Pat Morrissey said the automaker spends more money on ads with Black-owned media companies than the 0.5% the ad says it does, though he didn't specify what percentage of GM's ad dollars go to those companies. 

GM intends to double its marketing investment with diverse media, just one of the efforts GM is taking to become more inclusive. Last year, GM formed an Inclusion Advisory Board to help with its goal to be the most inclusive company.

Beginning this year, GM will publicly release its equal employment opportunity report "to make clear our progress toward increasing diversity in the company," Barra said last week during an environmental, social and governance (ESG) conference sponsored by J.P. Morgan. 

"Diversity and inclusion are the foundation of a winning culture, offering perspective and insight that make our company better and more innovative," Barra said at the conference. 

Dennis Archer Jr., founding principal and president of Archer Corporate Services.

Dennis Archer Jr., who sits on GM's Inclusion Advisory Board and the GM Supplier Council, and whose company, Archer Corporate Services, has been a 16-year GM supplier, says Barra understands there's room for improvement at GM. 

"When she says she wants to be the most inclusive company in the world, she means it," he said in an interview Monday, adding that shifting a company doesn't happen quickly. 

"I believe that there is sincerity in the leadership to make a shift ... I just know it takes a long time to take a big vessel and do a course change. It's not easy," he said, acknowledging the frustration that comes with how slow progress can be. 

"On the other side of the scale is Black folks and Black entrepreneurs who have heard this many times before and are not believing," he said. "It's the responsibility of the corporate entity to instill confidence in the Black communities that they're serious."

Last week, GM announced the addition of two new board members: Meg Whitman, 64, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, the seventh woman on GM's now 13-member board and Mark Tatum, 51, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the NBA, who is of African- and Asian-American heritage. 

GM notes in its 2019 sustainability report released last summer that 10 of the 11 board members identified as White and one identified as African American. GM had a majority female board even before Whitman's addition.

The first signature on the Sunday Free Press ad is Byron Allen. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of Allen Media Group LLC/Entertainment Studios and he owns 16 ABC-NBC-CBS-FOX network affiliate broadcast television stations and other national outlets, including The Weather Channel. 

Ad Age reported earlier this month that Allen threatened legal action against major brands if they did not spend more money with Black-owned media companies. Allen specifically mentioned GM and Coca-Cola as companies he sent letters to asking for change. 

Allen could not be reached for comment Monday. Other signers of the letter are: Ice Cube, rap artist and executive at BIG3, Cubevision, CWBA; Earl "Butch" Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise; Roland Martin, CEO of Nu Vision Media Inc.; Todd F. Brown, founder of Urban Edge Networks and HBCU League Pass; Junior Bridgeman of Ebony Media; and Don Jackson, founder, chairman and CEO of Central City Productions. 

The ad points out that Allen and the other executives were asked to meet with Deborah Wahl, GM's chief marketing officer, instead of Barra. But they have "absolutely no interest in that because when Deborah was chief marketing officer of McDonald's, in our opinion, Black Owned Media was, once again, severely neglected, minimized and discriminated against."

In answering if Barra would meet with the executives, Morrissey said: "GM marketing and advertising executives have met often with Mr. Allen and his team and are committed to continuing to have an open dialogue." Morrissey added: "And we have done business with him for several years."

The executives are requesting a Zoom meeting with Barra and key members of the GM board: "Mary, true leaders must lean in and personally address the real issues in our society and in business," they write. "We are publicly asking you to stop the systemic racism by General Motors against Black Owned Media companies."

The executives end their letter by writing Barra should resign if she continues "to hold the position that Black Owned Media doesn't deserve meaningful economic inclusion and we are not worth meeting with."

In response, GM's Morrissey said the automaker has increased its "planned spending with both diverse-owned and diverse-dedicated media across our family of brands. Additionally, we continue to develop and advance initiatives like the Chevrolet 'Real Talk, Real Change' platform and support projects like 'More than That with Gia Peppers,' where we’ve partnered with the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters on a content series for Black American listeners produced and distributed by underrepresented businesses."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall