“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, please welcome president of the General Motors Foundation, Vivian Pickard.” As the audience at the 2014 Washington Auto Show applauds, Pickard, who is African American and wearing a stylish black-and-white pinstriped pantsuit, walks to the podium of a large stage that showcases General Motors’ newest vehicles. “Good afternoon everyone,” she says smiling. “It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Chevrolet exhibit at the Washington DC Auto Show.” As is routine at auto shows, Pickard reports that two GM cars were just given national vehicle awards. But soon her presentation takes a surprising turn. Pickard announces that the GM Foundation is giving a million dollars to the Smithsonian to help build its newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Like GM, corporations across the United States engage in philanthropy and sponsorships in the Black cultural sector. Open a brochure for an African American performing arts organization, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and you’ll see logos for corporations like American Express and American Airlines. Or visit the website for a Black cultural center like the Apollo Theater, and you’ll notice acknowledgments to corporations like Coca-Cola and Citigroup. Some Black cultural initiatives, such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and NMAAHC, owe their very existence to big corporate gifts. GM and the fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger were the two largest private donors to the MLK Memorial, giving $10 million and $6 million, respectively. Similarly, dozens of million-dollar grants from businesses like Microsoft and Wells Fargo were founding donations for NMAAHC. Corporate sponsors like McDonald’s and AT&T also underwrite the Essence Festival, which is the largest Black music festival in the United States. Some businesses, like Ford Motor Company, support Black cultural initiatives across various local communities. In 2019, the automaker gave or made commitments to support Black cultural nonprofits such as The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit ($120,000), the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis ($255,000), and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati ($170,000). Smaller donations and sponsorships from corporations are important sources of supplemental support for many other Black cultural institutions as well as Black initiatives at majority institutions. For instance, a $5,000 corporate grant can be used to help produce an exhibition catalogue at a Black museum, or a Black dance company can use a $2,500 corporate gift to help support an after-school program for children.
On its face, Black cultural patronage by corporations is a selfless act. Companies give generously to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage and to contribute to the public good in other ways. However, from my research drawing on an extensive array of data (such as public relations and advertising texts on corporate cultural patronage and observations at sponsored cultural events), I show how Black cultural patronage is not just altruistic: It pays for business too. In the pages that follow I describe how Black cultural patronage by corporations is a form of what I term diversity capital. Black cultural patronage allows businesses to solve problems and leverage opportunities related to race and ethnicity and other social differences. Examining Black cultural patronage sheds light on how ethnic community support (i.e., philanthropy and sponsorships related to racial and ethnic minorities) is an important cultural resource for corporations; this ethnic community support allows corporations to project an image of being inclusive and equitable while strengthening their corporate interests. By engaging in Black cultural patronage, companies such as GM not only cultivate a broadly inclusive corporate image but also the perception that they specifically value African Americans.
These insights not only deepen our understanding of corporate philanthropy and sponsorships, but they advance theory on race and cultural capital. Although there is growing research on Black cultural capital as a practice that signals Black identity,1 this scholarship focuses on individuals. By developing the concept of diversity capital, Black Culture, Inc. shows how cultural practices related to African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities are a resource for establishing and maintaining racial images at the organizational level.
Along with advancing the literature on race and cultural capital, Black Culture, Inc. also contributes to the scholarship on corporate diversity. There is increasing attention to the racial images of companies, however this scholarship centers on employment.2 For example, studies examine how workforce diversity programs, such as affirmative action and mentoring programs, signal that firms are equitable. Other research calls attention to the ways that a diverse workforce itself projects an image that companies are “diverse, modern, and open to all.”3 But by examining ethnic community support, this book provides a more comprehensive theoretical view of how companies convey to stakeholders that they are racially inclusive.4 Moreover, by focusing on specifically Black community support, this book provides important insight on the Black side of diversity branding. While Arlene Dávila’s classic text Latinos, Inc. outlines the tactics that companies use to appeal to Latinx consumers,5 with some exceptions,6 there has been little systematic analysis of African American marketing in the social sciences.7
Finally, Black Culture, Inc. also illuminates practical concerns around race-related philanthropy and sponsorships.8 Uprisings over the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans in the summer of 2020 set off an outpouring of corporate giving to racial justice causes.9 For example, retail giant Walmart, which made a $5 million donation to NMAAHC in January 2020, pledged to give away $100 million to racial equity causes after the nationwide protests. Similarly, multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs and Altria (the parent company of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris), which were both founding donors of NMAAHC in 2016, dedicated $10 million and $5 million, respectively, to support racial justice causes in the aftermath of the uprisings.
Although these donations deliver social benefits, the analysis in Black Culture, Inc. suggests that race-related corporate giving may also come at a cost. Ethnic community support conveys an image that companies are inclusive and equitable, but in reality some of these businesses have poor track records around diversity.10 Indeed, in some cases ethnic community support is strategically deployed to manage the images of companies accused of racial harm. For example, in the aftermath of racial image crises, businesses like Papa John’s, Gucci, and Denny’s announced donations to support African American initiatives.11 The history of corporate community support places all these dynamics in perspective.
1. Banks 2010b, 2017, 2018, 2019b; Carter 2003; Fleming and Roses 2007; Meghji 2019; Wallace 2017, 2019.
2. Berrey 2015; Dobbin and Kalev 2017; Edelman 2016; Skrentny 2014.
3. Skrentny 2014: 13.
4. Also see Nancy Leong’s (2013, 2021) analysis of “identity capitalism,” which describes how in-group members, including companies, accrue benefits by association with members of out-groups.
5. Dávila 2001.
6. For example, see Chambers (2009), Crockett (2008), and Hunter (2011a).
7. Johnson et al. (2019) provide wide-ranging perspectives on the ways that race structures marketplace activities.
8. A growing critique of philanthropy in general is that it is self-interested and reinforces inequality (Giridharadas 2018; McGoey 2015; Reich 2018).
9. My analysis includes philanthropic pledges made by Fortune 500 companies in response to the BLM uprisings in the summer of 2020.
10. For a broader discussion of how progress on racial diversity in corporate America has stalled, see Dobbin and Kalev (2021), Newkirk (2020), and Stainback and Tomaskovic-Devey (2012).
11. After a series of racial indiscretions in 2018, including alleged use of the N-word by founder and CEO John Schnatter, Papa John’s ousted the leader and made a $500,000 donation to Bennett College, an HBCU, in 2019 (Papa John’s 2019). That same year after widespread criticism for selling a sweater evocative of blackface, luxury fashion company Gucci announced a $5 million Changemakers Fund to help create opportunities in the African American community (Carrera 2019; Hanold Associates 2019). I discuss the Denny’s case in Chapter 3.