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The 2020 mass protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had a significant impact on American corporations. Several large public companies pledged an estimated $50 billion to advancing racial equity and committed to various initiatives to internally improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. While many applauded corporations’ willingness to engage with racial issues, some considered it further evidence of corporate capitulation to extreme progressivism at shareholders’ expense. Others, while thinking corporate engagement was long overdue, critiqued corporate commitment as insincere.

Drawing on historical evidence surrounding the passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this Article engages with the debate on corporate “racial” responsibility to demonstrate that corporate engagement on race is not new. Indeed, during the struggle to desegregate public accommodations, corporate social responsibility was invoked to encourage voluntary desegregation and avoid federal intervention. Segregation was good business for some; for others, maintaining white supremacy justified any pecuniary losses.

While this Article argues that corporations have a role to play in achieving racial equity, it cautions against reliance on corporate social responsibility to advance racial equality. Past and current iterations of corporate racial responsibility have often represented a market-fundamentalist, value-extractive approach to racial equity that reifies existing racial hierarchies. By valuing racial equity in terms of its potential profitability, corporate racial responsibility can subordinate human dignity to wealth maximization. This Article argues for a more meaningful corporate racial responsibility that addresses the structures and laws undergirding racial inequities within corporations and our larger society.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Social responsibility of business, Corporate governance, Racial justice, Civil rights movements