Does CSR have its roots in the American Black struggle?

I wanted this post’s headline to be a play on words using the word “roots.” But changed my mind on the premise that some (most?) blogospherians who read these posts 1 – probably aren’t from the U.S. and 2 – aren’t old enough to remember the sensational 1997 TV mini series “Roots” that made LaVar Burton famous and Alex Haley rich.black_power.jpg

Be that as it may, the headline still stands and I’d love to hear you have your say. Here’s the back story: Before I went dark on this blog – yes, it’s been a while since I posted and in true form, as my bandwidth capacity returns to normal, I will resume with provoking conjecture – I gave a speech about Intel CSR to a group of diversity practitioners here in Portland, Oregon. On hand were Diversity managers, and true to the stereotype, unfortunately, most in the audience were people of color. But there were a few representatives of the U.S.’s [brace for the new PC buzzword] “dominant culture” including New Seasons Market president Lisa Sedlar and one of the Market’s founders whose name I forget.

Anyway, I was going on and on about our commitment to this good deed and that great thing our company does when someone in the group finally asked a question and a lively, stimulating discussion ensued. The topic: what role do diversity practitioners play in CSR? I answered the question by – generally – saying that diversity is of course important, and CSR was a very broad field where diversity is a part of the conversation, but a small one compared to other issues, such as supply chain monitoring, reporting, environmental stewardship and investor relations for example.

Boy was THAT the wrong answer…

I got an earful from these folks about the importance diversity plays in a company’s health, vitality, profitability and reputation. They told me that diversity as a field plays a central role in CSR. Indeed, one gentleman insisted and several assented,hat CSR has its origins in the American Black movement of the 50s and 60s!

At first, I found that hard to swallow, but as I thought about it, I could see the reasoning. (by the way, allow me to disclose that while I’m of mixed race I classify by sight as African American) I’m not going to try to defend the position, nor offer my opinion on the matter. Rather, I’d like to hear your views. Does CSR have it roots in the American Black movements of the 50s and 60s?

Do tell.

New term copyright Intel Corporation :-)

7 Responses to Does CSR have its roots in the American Black struggle?

  1. The short answer is yes; the long answer is that most social responsibility plays a role from the American Black and Civil Rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s! Remember the movement was about two things, the major component was race but the other component was income and status.
    The argument is that in order to be completely socially responsible you must take in many other factors including race. Much like a good CSR plan, it must take in much more than just one objective.

  2. perry says:

    Ok, I get your point. But those movements were more against the government and society in general/at large, not so much against corporate institutions was it? Did corporations get involved in all of that? I’m too young to know first-hand, and I’m not assuming you aren’t. :-)
    Agree and I hope I conveyed that CSR planning is broad. But, boy, it was a tough crowd!

  3. Mike says:

    No. Companies like Rowntree and Cadbury were building entire villages for their workforce – including providing child and adult education, healthcare and leisure activities – in the mid 1800s. This is CSR by any measure, and was happening a century before the black power movement. There are very likely other examples that even pre-date that.
    The U.S. is, on many measures, behind the curve when it comes to CSR. So it seems like a bit of a stretch to claim that the idea was born there – even as a part of the undoubtedly worthy cause of racial equality. At least to this non-American reader, your argument seems like just another case of “Planet America” thinking, rather than reasonable analysis.

  4. Ed Pietkiewicz says:

    It was MLK’s famous line… Say I was a drum major for righteousness (ethical conduct) that got me into this business. Period.

  5. Perry Gruber says:

    Mike,
    Yes, I remember those cases (Cadbury and Rowntree) in business school. Quite a feat that Cadbury was doing, though their efforts, if I remember correctly, were Christian based: an attempt to help people attain a spiritual level of existence by, may I say it? – providing for their families. There were some pretty strict rules for living in the Cadbury clan. But I get your point. Oh, and please don’t mistake me: I’m agreeing with you: I thought it a bit presumptive to suggest CSR began in the black power movement. So I contested the comment…and was lambasted.
    Believe me, I’m NOT a proponent of “Planet America” thinking; my fellow citizens are doing a lot of good in the world, but my country (read, my government)….well, that’s another story. I think a new world order is in order, but that’s a topic for another post…on another blog. :-)

  6. Lucas says:

    Hi Perry- To your point on the role diversity plays in the much broader CSR field, I must agree that it plays an important part, but it remains a single part of the larger conversation. To the extent companies are (and should be) responsible to their employees and communities, they have a role in promoting diversity for its inherent value. But CSR encapsulates a broad spectrum of topics as you mentioned: environmental impact, investor relations and transparent reporting, among others. As of late, all of these topics reflect on a “company’s health, vitality, profitability and reputation”, as does diversity.
    To the idea that CSR was born from the U.S. civil rights movement, one should agree with Mike that this viewpoint seems America-centric, and doesn’t show appreciation for the much older, stronger and broader CSR movement in Europe (which coincidently, seems to be ahead of the U.S. in integrating diversity as well). The CSR movement took off when activists and companies began collaborating together to achieve common goals, something the early civil rights and environmental movements had difficulty accomplishing given their combative stance against the government and “big” business.

  7. Jim says:

    Having grown up in New Orleans during the 50s and 60s, I recall that there was a great deal of anger within the Black community and in many respects it was justified. But to suggest that one can trace the “roots” of CSR to American Black movements of the 50s and 60s I think is a considerable stretch. This isn’t to say CSR should ignore societal issues of all races today, but to make this link is a distortion of history. With the exception of very few, virtually all companies in the 50s and 60s were following Milton Freedman’s and others’ rules of free enterprise – make a product or deliver a service for a profit to satisfy shareholders. Certainly there were conversations within corporations regarding social issues of the day and some even reached out to offer help. I remember some of these companies were thanked and rewarded for their generosity, while others were punished for interfering in the community’s affairs. Today’s CSR, in my opinion, has morphed from yesterday’s sustainable development movement. A brief review of several annual corporate CSR Reports reveals a nice central focal point for a company to proudly display its activities in a broad spectrum of arenas versus the old display of incidents and emissions. Understandably, companies use their CSR activities to promote their products and services, but do these activities really address the “social responsibility” needs of the community? If corporations are going to play in this “CSR Game,” I think they need to coordinate their activities and truly focus like a laser beam on the social ills plaguing our communities today – such as addressing the soaring incidence of high school drop out rates, teen pregnancy, juvenile crime rates, etc. Otherwise, CSR is nothing more than a new corporate spin on the old public relations game. Unfortunately, we have become so PC infatuated in this country that corporate leaders find it extremely dicey to step out of their comfort zone and actually try to offer assistance to addressing community social needs. And as long as the 50s and 60s “Black Movement” leaders like Jackson, Sharpton, Farrakhan and, now Wright, continue to preach the “Victimization” mantra, these social needs will remain challenges that require attention.