How nonprofit Color of Change applies pressure to fight racial inequality

Key Points
  • As protests against racial inequality continue, the nonprofit Color of Change is turning to major companies and police forces around the country to push for significant changes in policy, product and behavior. 
  • The organization, a Black Lives Matter partner, has been waging their own war on racial inequality for over a decade, working as a change maker within the spheres of culture and media representation of Black people and experiences.
  • "More folks have reached out wanting to support our work as they become aware of who we are," the group's executive director and president said. "And we think it's a rallying cry for us to grow our reach and deepen our efforts." 
Rashad Robinson speaks onstage during the BET "Finding Justice" Atlanta premiere at The Foundry At Puritan Mill on March 04, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Paras Griffin | Getty Images

As protests against racial inequality continue, the nonprofit Color of Change is turning to major companies and police forces around the country to push for significant changes in policy, product and behavior. 

The organization, a Black Lives Matter partner, has been waging their own war on racial inequality for over a decade, working as a change maker within the spheres of culture and media representation of Black people and experiences.

Color of Change's latest fight is with Facebook, which has received pressure from hundreds of advertisers threatening to boycott the platform because of what the organization calls the company's failure to properly prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation.

"About a thousand corporations have stood with this boycott. Many brands that no one would call social justice warriors are standing with social justice leaders in this moment because everyone recognizes the threat that Facebook provides if they are not reined in," said Rashad Robinson, president and executive director of Color of Change, in a recent interview on CNBC's "Squawk Alley."

"Corporations do not want their ads and their brands showing up to white nationalist content and to have to hear Mark Zuckerberg talk about how he's not going to be held accountable."

In defense, Facebook tasked a group of auditors to evaluate its policies, leading to an independent review with disappointing results, according to numerous leaders in the civil rights space. 

The audit zeroed in on Facebook's decision to leave up a post from President Donald Trump using the phrase "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," in response to protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, on Memorial Day. Trump's post echoed a phrase used by a Miami police chief in the 1960s, widely interpreted as a violent threat against protesters. 

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson calls for Facebook reform

"After the company publicly left up the looting and shooting post, more than five political and merchandise ads have run on Facebook sending the same dangerous message that 'looters' and 'Antifa terrorists' can or should be shot by armed citizens," the auditors wrote in an 89-page report.

The ad boycott campaign, led by Color of Change, has gained significant traction, with major brands like Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks pulling their ads from the social network. The issue has put Facebook in a precarious position and is likely to come up on July 27 when CEO Mark Zuckerberg is expected to testify before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee.

Media representation

Facebook isn't the only company feeling the heat. Color of Change, founded in 2005, is rattling large TV and streaming companies like Netflix and Fox.

Already, Color of Change has shaken up legacy media outlets. The group rallied for the cancellation of "Cops" in 2013 from Fox, one of the network's leading shows for 25 years up until that point. The show then was picked up by the Paramount Network. But last month the television channel announced it would cancel the show amid protests against police brutality in the wake of Floyd's death.

For years, Color of Change has argued that the show glorified police officers and unfairly portrayed low-income people as villains. To paint "the poor people who have been already targeted and attacked doesn't serve us," said Robinson in an interview with CNBC.

A similar battle is brewing. Up next for Color of Change is an effort to replicate their experience with "Cops," shifting their focus to other shows that also depict police officers in a flattering light without considering the practices they disproportionately inflict on people of color. 

"We are really focused on reality cop shows, which set up a relationship with police where they're only going to be shown in positive lights and sets up a world that is not actually accurate and only really targets and shows certain types of communities," Robinson said. 

A street sign of Black Lives Matter Plaza is seen near St. John's Episcopal Church, as the protests against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd continue, in Washington, June 5, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

Earlier this year, the organization put together a report, called "Normalizing Injustice," which outlines practices producers and industry executives can follow to make crime television shows more realistic.

The report found that crime TV as a genre "plays a considerable role in advancing distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture," according to the press release. "These fictitious depictions build on false perceptions of the criminal justice system and how it intersects with race and gender while ignoring many important realities."

Crime TV also has among the least diverse crews of showrunners and writers, the report found. More than 81% of showrunners of 26 shows studied are white men, and 20 out of 26 shows either have no Black writers or just one Black writer, according to the study.

Working with the police

Because much of their recent work is focused on the relationship between law enforcement and people of color, Robinson maintains that the organization's relationship with the police is complicated. 

Many forces around the country have welcomed discourse with Color of Change on the topics of police brutality and its disproportionate impact on people of color, Robinson told CNBC.

The police "is not a monolith," he said. "I've actually had very good conversations with police chiefs. And it doesn't mean that we always agree. It just means that we are having conversations and I feel like there is a sharing of perspectives."

One law enforcement body, the Fraternal Order of Police, has never been receptive to such a conversation, Robinson said. "They want more militarized policing and they want more control over our communities and have failed in their fundamental responsibility to keep us safe time and time again," Robinson said of the group, which is made up of over 330,000 sworn law enforcement officers nationwide.

Robinson recalled a surprising meeting at the White House in 2016 after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile when former President Barack Obama was in office. During this meeting, Robinson was discussing racial profiling, sharing his own experience of being stopped and frisked while walking through Central Park. Also present was Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who successfully appealed the murder conviction of Walter McMillian and wrote the book "Just Mercy," which became a movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. 

As the two spoke, "the head of the Fraternal Order of Police interrupts me and says all of this talk of racial profiling is new to me," Robinson said. In the meeting with heavyweight civil rights leaders Robinson and Stevenson, as well as "a roomful of other activists," the FOP head felt "completely comfortable with not saying, 'I don't agree,'" Robinson said. "He didn't say, 'I don't agree with your demands.' He didn't say, 'I think you guys are overstating the problem.' He gas-lit us to basically believe that the problem doesn't exist."

Robinson conceded that afterwards he heard from other police chiefs who had also been in the room when the exchange went down. They reached out to talk about what they heard, a bit of encouragement for Robinson that came out of what had become a sour meeting. 

And despite having many forces open to hearing from them, the nature of their work "makes it so that we are not a fan favorite of the police," Robinson said. 

The Fraternal Order of Police didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House factor

The silver lining is that police forces are generally under local jurisdiction, meaning that Color of Change can go from state to state talking with governors and local leaders about police reform. 

It also means that external influences like the Fraternal Order of Police and the White House do not have the power to command the police or stop reforms from happening. 

Since President Donald Trump entered office, Color of Change has not engaged the White House and there are no plans to do so in the near future, Robinson said. 

"You can't engage an institution that doesn't want to be engaged and doesn't believe in engagement," he explained.

"And this is a White House that thinks that there were 'fine people' on the other side of Charlottesville," he said, referring to the protests and clashes of 2017 in the Virginia city. "This is a grifter White House that uses issues to stoke resentment, to stoke attention, but doesn't actually want to solve problems. And it's all a reality show. And so, you know, we are trying to deal with serious issues here and trying to advance serious causes."

So much of the work happens on the ground, so Color of Change doesn't need the White House's cooperation or approval to keep their operations going. 

But if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency come November, Color of Change will "absolutely" engage the White House, Robinson said, adding that it's not a partisan issue because the group has worked with Republican lawmakers to fight for small Black-owned businesses.

Instead, the issue is with Trump himself, he said.  

"This is a president that has supported, engaged and uplifted white nationalists," Robinson said. "We wouldn't know where to start, and going hat in hand to a person who time and time again has proven themselves to not be a stable force for change would be a mistake."

The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Behind the scenes

These efforts have widened Color of Change's reach, leading to a ramp-up in fundraising and membership. The organization has quadrupled its membership count from 1.7 million to 7 million people in the last few weeks, Robinson said.

In an interview with the New York Times, Robinson said that Color of Change has received "hundreds of thousands of individual donations" in the last few weeks.

"More folks have reached out wanting to support our work as they become aware of who we are," Robinson told CNBC. "And we think it's a rallying cry for us to grow our reach and deepen our efforts." 

Color of Change has a policy against taking direct financial contributions from corporations, but corporate donations have been flooding in as the waves of protests continue nationwide. The group's board has plans to redistribute those donations to various black-led organizations, the Times reported. 

Because Color of Change doesn't accept corporate donations, "we are really continuing to rely on the support of individuals and foundations all around the country who believe in racial justice and believe that we need strong organizations to achieve it," Robinson said. 

The process begins with open conversation. To communicate with these large companies in an effort to get closer to a society where racial justice does exist, Color of Change tries to engage first before applying pressure in the form of a campaign. 

"We try to really understand what the arguments are on the other side," Robinson said. But if initial discussions don't seem pointed toward progress or understanding, Color of Change can use its vast backing to press these companies to reconsider. 

There's no one strategy that fits every company. For Facebook, the ad boycott campaign has put the social media giant on the defensive as it loses millions of dollars in advertising money. 

People participate in a march in Brooklyn for both Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

For each company and institution, Color of Change looks at gaps it can strategically use to navigate their concerns. "If a network relies on advertisers, there may be a space" to apply pressure, Robinson said. 

And while some campaigns are more visually obvious than others – like targeting shows readily available on Netflix or daytime television – more frequently, it's the employees of a company who sound the alarms and invite Color of Change to get involved. 

"Lots of times, employees of these companies are raising the same concerns we are on the outside, and oftentimes don't have the same level of power to speak up on the inside, particularly black employees and employees who see who see themselves as allies of black folks," Robinson said.