The Atlanta Objective: A Boycott In Black Mecca

Atlanta's business community might be navigating a boycott, but it has a deeper fundamental problem: Atlanta's not living up to the hype. Here's what The Atlanta Objective will do about it.

A protest crowd had taken over an intersection downtown on a June night last year, blasting Ralo’s “Akh S—t Pop S—t” as the anthem of the day. A hundred people danced in the street, lighting fireworks. Then someone kicked in a window and took off running, and everyone in the crowd started running with him. I did too, one more straphanger trying to get a front-row look at how the June street protests had gone smashy smashy.

Peachtree Street downtown is the heart of the business and tourist center of Atlanta. Some of those windows are still boarded up today. And every once in a while, even now, someone breaks one for fun.

I’d seen smashy smashy before. A decade earlier, the local black bloc busted up a post office in Union City at an Occupy Atlanta protest over the police shooting of 19-year-old Ariston Waiters. Anarchists wanted to send a signal about who owned the movement. Occupy Atlanta had been fragmenting; that action effectively ended things. It has long been on my mind.

The way the public reacted to similar vandalism last year signaled a massive shift in public attitude to me. The vandals aren’t the only ones who want to send a message today. Broken windows are a metaphor for social disorder. They tend to draw a disproportionate response, for good or ill.

You can see where vandals smashed windows from the top of Peachtree Tower, in the offices of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. So when the Chamber announced a sweeping corporate racial inclusion initiative two months ago, I perked up.

Civic leaders have been wondering when the business community would start to get serious about addressing the maddening, threatening level of inequality in Atlanta. A Bloomberg report listing Atlanta as the most unequal city in America has been rolling around conference tables for years. Corporate leaders have been putting pressure on City Hall to address the increasingly-visible effects of homelessness and poverty in the city. They hired me to try to shake some sense into people about it.

With the street protests, inequality emerges as a strategic threat to Atlanta’s growth: we can’t attract international business if people think the city will shut down intermittently amid social disorder.

One can only assume that seeing windows smashed on the way to work may have been a catalyst for a return to the old-school “Atlanta Way” — the historical political alliance between the business community and civil rights leaders to keep Atlanta’s economic engine going through protests and social strife.

And then everyone lost their damned minds.

Oh, so, now you’re not for sale.

Here’s how things usually work.

People I would laughingly call “normal” Republicans are in charge in Georgia. These are the Nathan Deals and Johnny Isaksons who view politics as an extension of corporate lobbying — and I say that as a good thing. It’s not that they’re without ideological convictions, but they’re focused on a government that returns economic value. We can argue about value for whom, of course, but still.

Ideologues in government tend to be back benchers, but the Republican Party needs those back benchers to hold a legislative majority. So, normally, House Speaker David Ralston stages a bit of kabuki theater, allowing just enough hyper-partisan legislative madness to placate conservative radicals from rural Georgia. They get something they can take home to say they “owned the libs,” without provoking an actual economic problem.

Backstage, corporate lobbyists quietly advise Republican legislators about which bills will do more than just piss off liberals. In years past, groups like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Technology Association of Georgia, Central Atlanta Progress and others would whisper gently — or shout out loud when people needed to see them do it — if it became clear that the state would take an economic hit.

This year was different.

Senate Bill 202 emerged amid the same quiet conversations between corporate lobbyists and legislators. The bill’s authors probably thought they had contained all the objections one might expect from business leaders, which is why Delta and Coca Cola offered public support for the law, though voiced softly.

The next day, an old friend organized a die-in at the World of Coke and started rounding up UPS drivers for a strike.

The vehemence of the public reaction against corporate Georgia appears to have taken the lobbyists aback. Less than a week later, Delta and Coca Cola started backpedaling, describing the legislation as unacceptable. But the train had already left the station. In that moment, the business lobby stopped looking like reliable partners to Republican legislators, who absolutely could not look like they were bending to pressure.

Almost every Republican legislator — standard-issue business suit conservative or fire-breathing insurrectionist — can expect to face a primary challenge next year. Ralston’s first duty is to preserve his legislative majority, which I suspect he believes is easier to do with fewer sitting reps lost in primaries.

Consider what would have happened if the election change bill had not become law. A handful of committee chairmen barely held on to re-election last year in suburban Atlanta, never mind the others. Ralston knows a Democrat would beat a Trumpist replacement in places like Cobb and Gwinnett and Henry Counties next year.

Governor Brian Kemp did the same math. The general election will be what it will be: Kemp has to worry about losing to Doug Collins. Corporate political donations only go so far. There’s nothing that Coca Cola can do to save Kemp’s job if a majority of the Republican electorate is more loyal to Donald Trump than the Republican Party.

This leaves corporate Georgia stuck in the middle. The politics of the moment stripped them of much of their direct influence. But they’re being held politically responsible by their customers and business partners nonetheless.

What’s left to them now? Somehow, corporate Georgia needs to present some show of strength after the fact. Apple, Facebook and the rest of the tech industry have been looking at Atlanta as the escape valve from Silicon Valley and a place to diversify their industry. If the Atlanta Way doesn’t work anymore, then the gleaming tower that Google says it’s going to move into in Midtown or the expansion of Microsoft’s footprint on the Westside might turn into vaporware.

Behold, ATL Action for Racial Equity.

My question: is this the progressive version of Ralston’s legislative theater — something meant to project an image without actual substance — or a serious attempt to fix racial equity problems with the state’s economic prosperity on the line?

Because, hoo boy, do we have some equity problems.

Objective: Tell me which companies actually hire and promote Black people?

Georgia’s population grew by about 4 million people over the last 30 years – up by two-thirds. About half of that growth came from Black people moving here. Georgia’s Black population almost doubled over the same period of time, from 1.8 million to 3.5 million. And most of those Black people moved to metro Atlanta, looking for work in what they believed was a friendlier environment than where they came from.

If only it were so.

Affluent Black people live in metro Atlanta, but the inequality figures are plain: Black people here are generally doing far worse than white people. And even at the top, the inequality problem remains stark. Black executives remain fundamentally underrepresented in most of the major engines of Atlanta’s diversified economy.

The thing is, we don’t know which companies here are serious about hiring and promoting Black talent and which ones are skating under the radar.

Drill down into the executive ranks of these firms, and you find few Black business leaders, even though Microsoft, Apple, Google and other tech industry leaders appear ready to relocate major operations to Atlanta with the expressed purpose of recruiting a racially-diverse staff.

These tech firms believe that diversity and inclusion are a competitive advantage. More than 40 percent of the workforce under 40 is nonwhite, nationally. Millennials increasingly refuse to work for companies perceived as discriminatory. That perception is easy when almost everyone in charge is white. Large companies like Coca-Cola are beginning to make contracting decisions on the basis of the diversity and inclusion of partners.

Glassdoor will offer insider information about corporate culture, but it doesn’t publish diversity and inclusion statistics for each firm. We are left to rely on self-reported data and trawling through pages of LinkedIn photos to figure out how many nonwhite people work at a company.

The chamber’s initiative has a playbook for companies looking to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts. But, critically, it doesn’t require any real rigor for reporting results. Nothing about the initiative so far suggests that it will report company-level numbers. I think that’s insufficient effort.

So. Over the next year, I plan to publish this diversity information, company by company, sector by sector.

We will start with existing sources: public disclosures by firms that contract with the federal government, public declarations made in quarterly and annual reports and the figures provided by firms in their own diversity and inclusion activities. If the Chamber’s initiative pulls figures, we’ll publish them, too.

From there, we’ll look at what local recruiters, job placement firms and employment agents at Georgia State, Morehouse and the state’s workforce development agency know.

Then, we’ll start surveying firms directly. For those that aren’t interested in participating ... we’ll just go look, using a panel to classify employees by race using social media and gathering information from current employees. Once I have enough firms to provide a competitive landscape within a sector, I’ll publish findings.

The goal is to allow for comparisons between companies. If one company in a sector is a strong outlier for diversity – or the lack of it – it should be apparent.

My idea is simple. I’m not going to establish some kind of quota for nonwhite employment. I’m just going to show what’s happening now, and let the market figure itself out. Competitive herding effects should start to change firm behavior. Any firm at the bottom of the list as a statistical outlier is — at the very least — going to have to explain why it is doing so much worse than its peers. Hopefully, business partners and customers will see where a company ranks and make business decisions accordingly.

This is the nice way to get results.

It doesn’t look like it, of course. Compare it to the broken windows in the street.