Melissa Harris-Perry: All month long, on our series Black.Queer.Rising, we've been talking with activists, artists, thinkers, athletes, and changemakers. Today, we speak with the emperor of them all.
Rashad Robinson: My name is Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've known Rashad for years, and he's genuinely the single most effective organizational leader I've ever had the opportunity to witness in close proximity. We started by talking a bit about the founding of the organization he now leads, Color of Change. The nation's largest online racial justice organization, which organizes campaigns and mobilizes supporters to make tangible change in communities and systems.
Rashad Robinson: Color of Change is a next-generation civil rights organization racial justice group, was founded in the aftermath of a flood, which was Hurricane Katrina. It was caused by bad decision-makers and turned into a life-altering disaster by bad decision-makers. Black folks, literally on their roofs, begging for the government to do something and left to die.
The origins that root the theory of Color of Change is that while folks were on their roofs begging for the government to do something, it illustrated things that people already knew, geographic segregation, generational poverty, and the ways in which structural racism undergirds all of that, but at the heart of it, no one was nervous about disappointing Black people, government, corporations, and media.
When institutions are not nervous about disappointing your community, it doesn't matter what kind of research report you have that illustrates all the facts and figures. If you don't have the power to actually channel energy behind it, or what you do in the courts if you don't have the power to implement it and so many other sectors.
Color of Change was built to channel those voices into strategic action everyday people to force institutions and decision-makers to be nervous about disappointing us, to deliver consequences and rewards, and along the way, to make a more human and less hostile world for Black people with a deep understanding that when Black people at the intersection of all experiences, when Black people win, the country moves in the right direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That kind of both pragmatic origin story and I think the pragmatic and strategic ways in which I watch Color of Change move and in which I hear you speak has been about being able to win victories to actually move the ball forward, not only to produce the research reports, which is part of what you all do but also to make those research reports actionable. Tell me about some of the moments that you think of as victories, maybe not the one totalizing victory, but a sense of, we made real progress in this space.
Rashad Robinson: Sometimes when I think about progress, I think about both the wins, but what are the type of wins that give us more power for the next win, that forced decision-makers to return our calls quicker, that maybe take things off the table that people thought they could previously do, raise the floor on what's acceptable, and push up the ceiling on what's possible?
I think about after Donald Trump's election and so much of the landscape around power. You had corporations speaking out about Trump as he was running for election, then quickly joining his Trump business council. You had all sorts of new energy from white nationalist and white supremacist organizations.
We really spent time building out two campaigns. One was called Quit the Council, really pushing corporations to leave the Trump business council. We would go to the companies and they would say, "We're on the business council for the previous administration and this administration." We're like, "You actually can't normalize the two, and to the extent that if you want to be enablers, we're going to hold you accountable."
We went to all of these major credit card and payment processing companies. Instead, if we go to white nationalist organizations and go to their website, you could actually put your PayPal number in or your credit card number in and make donations or buy paraphernalia. We went to those companies and they said things like, "You have to go to the banks." The banks said, "You have to go to the credit card companies."
The company at some point of us engaging them came to us. We had the Washington Post reporter call us up and say, "Hey, Rashad, I love what Color of Chang does. You always give us good quotes, but these credit card companies can't unilaterally stop processing fees for these organizations. It's really a big question. I understand what you're trying to do with this campaign, but they can't really do it."
What we recognize is the reason why they couldn't do it was once again about power, about not being nervous about disappointing our committee. We worked on the backend, using our infrastructure to build a platform called No Blood Money and Quit the Council, and started to engage these companies to create a paper trail around the back and forth, really sending them the list of groups that we want them to stop funding, and then Charlottesville happens.
Over that weekend, all of my staff starts to engage and figure out how we are going to build out and go public. We go back to PayPal and some of these other companies, and suddenly they start sending us a list of white nationalist organizations that they're going to suddenly stop processing fees for. That all of a sudden, this thing that they couldn't do the day before, they could do now.
That I think, is in many ways how I try to think about the work of Color of Change is how do we change the context of the debate? How do we shift what people believe they have to do and what is possible around racial justice? Well over 100 white nationalist organizations have been cut off since that work, from being able to process payments across Amex, PayPal, MasterCard, Apple Pay, Stripe.
We've even had some of these white nationalist groups reach out to us to try to explain to us that they're not actually white nationalist and tell us that if we kept our campaign up that they were going to have trouble paying their staff. I'm like, "Can you say that a little closer, so I can let people understand how effective we're being?"
All of that to say, for us, that next set of times we had to call these credit card companies, they responded to us much different, they responded to us quicker, they recognize that there will be consequences for how they engaged us. Along the way, what we've constantly tried to do is build campaigns and build infrastructure that channel power and that build new power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're not so good at taking, no, we just can't do that as an answer, huh?
Rashad Robinson: No, it's oftentimes that they won't do it or they don't feel like you have the necessary power to make them do it. Whether we are operating in Silicon Valley, with a whole set of unchecked power, of companies that are building the tools of the future, but in so many ways, dragging us into the past. Whether we're dealing with the images that come out of Hollywood or the decisions that are made in corporate boardrooms or the things that happen in Washington DC. This is all about folks game planning at what they believe they can and have to do around racial justice, around racial equity, and they'll do just as much as they think they have to.
In 2020, we saw so many performative statements from companies saying Black lives matter, but then thinking that that was going to be enough, thinking they could give $100,000, even seven figures to racial justice organizations, which was nothing more than a write-off for them or a counting error, and keep it moving. Along the way, what we're trying to do is change the rules because we can never mistake our presence and our visibility, the awareness of our issues, for the ability to actually change the rules. Sometimes those are the written rules of policy and other times, those are the unwritten rules of culture.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Culture. In addition to all of the work that you all do on things that are overtly political, public policy related, there's also work that you've been doing in Hollywood and recently in the fashion world. I've seen you all over the IG at New York Fashion Week. Talk to me both about the fashion work, but also why it matters. You're over here taking down the white supremacist capacity to pay their staff, why does fashion matter?
Rashad Robinson: We don't experience issues as people, we experience life, that the forces that hold us back are deeply interrelated, and media culture can do as much to keep and sustain the policy challenges that we may have. When we talk about the unwritten rules, we are talking about culture, but we're also talking about all the ways in which written rules engage in culture.
We've been working across the culture space for years, inside a writers' room to Hollywood, pushing to change the depictions in the stories that are told across corporate media but looking at crime procedurals and TV shows. After 2020, we saw as many companies were making these statements while recognizing that the work that they had to do, oftentimes was needed to be internal.
We launched something called Change Hollywood, which was a roadmap that had a whole set of different pillars that really started focusing on changes that the industry could make across the content that they produce, the hiring practices that they have, the ways in which they engage in the communities that they're in. One of the tools that we started to advance and popularize was something called the inclusion rider.
There were so many unwritten rules in the cultural spaces, whether it's fashion, or Hollywood, or music. The inclusion rider is a written rule and what it does is it holds productions and the industry accountable to actually meeting certain standards and thresholds around diversity. Really actually meeting the mark to not just talk about diversity but to land the plane and not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera and pushes an industry to do that work.
A lot of celebrities have popularized the inclusion rider. Folks like Francis McDormand and Michael B. Jordan and others have had the inclusion rider as part of how you get them on a production. As a result, they use their power to force these productions to do better. What we want to do is get these inclusion riders instituted at the system level at the level of the actual network or the studio.
This fashion week in working with IMG Models, Endeavor, Joan Smalls, a well known Black model, as well as a number of Black folks in the industry, to advance something called the inclusion rider once again, and having the first-ever inclusion rider-driven fashion show that can show that you can leverage equity and still put on a great show and do this cultural work.
What we're hoping to do is recognize that while there's been a lot of words speaking to all the changes these industries want to make, what we're trying to do is actually put action behind that word. Our Change Hollywood, Change Music, and Change Fashion programs are our opportunity or the work that we're putting into actually making things real in terms of these commitments.
Connected with that, we also have a program called Beyond the Statement. Beyond the Statement is a project that actually pushes tech companies and financial sector companies to actually meet a whole set of thresholds that look a little bit different, obviously in the cultural space, but actually to racial equity audits in these industries, speak to hiring, speak to the products that they are putting out in the world and the extraction that they oftentimes have created in our communities.
For us, all of this is how do we leverage the power of our members, their strategic action, while also the fact that in many of these places, there are Black folks and people of color and white folks, people of all backgrounds who want these industries to do better. How do we leverage this new climate, this new opportunity to make racial justice real?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go back to something you said for a moment. You talked about the crime dramas. Law & Order is rebooting, is that okay by Color of Change?
Rashad Robinson: Here's the thing about all of these shows. Crime procedural shows are going to be on TV. Just like hospital shows, just like all of these different shows that look at aspects of our society. It's how these shows are produced, how they are shown. We are obviously paying a lot of close attention to how Law & Order is coming around.
We've had engagement with some of the shows in that franchise work in some of those writers' rooms and we will have more. We will also hold advertisers and networks accountable. For us, it is not that there's never going to be shows about the criminal justice system. It's that a deep recognition that the shows that have been on the air far too often are just PR arms for a law enforcement that doesn't need PR arms but actually needs accountability.
They are doing the work that helps to further put people in harm's way. Some of the things that we learned from this big seminal report we did with the Norman Lear School at USC, was not just the things that we may think from seeing these shows off the top of our head, but some things that were just a little bit even more nefarious. One thing that I think is important is that these shows overwhelmingly are diverse on air. The cast is diverse, but the writers' rooms were overwhelmingly white.
If you look at these shows, you'll see way more Black judges than ever existed in the world. I know that I sometimes joke about this, and when I say that I'm not trying to take jobs away from those brothers and sisters playing those characters, but what's important to remember about that is that if a white writers' room is largely sending justice through the mouths of stately Black symbolic characters that have no backstory, what we are getting is this idea for the public, that justice is being served, that the system is working, that on these TV shows, you see way more trials that ever exist in the world.
You oftentimes don't see the underfunded public defender that doesn't have the resources to actually mount real defenses. You don't see the dirty police work or if you do see dirty police work, it's framed in ways that make you think that the end justified the means.
Far more often than not, you will see Black and brown police officers doing the dirty work to even show that even they understand that you've got to rough up the perp in order to make it okay. TV is making a deep political statement about how communities should be treated next to advertising dollars all while these people are saying Black lives matter.
For us, we've both done the research, we are in the writers' rooms, and then we are doing the outside advocacy all to shift. Sometimes people also say to me, " This is just entertainment. Can't you just be happy about anything Rashad?" I think like I'm happy about a lot of things as you know, Melissa, but what I will say about these shows is that imagine for a second, a hospital show, a show set in a hospital, was putting out misinformation about HIV and AIDS or diabetes or COVID. Would we say that was irresponsible or would we just say it was entertainment?
I think we would probably say it was irresponsible because this misinformation would be seen to affect society at large. Unfortunately, far too often, I think people think that this doesn't impact them and especially people who are not Black think that this doesn't impact them.
The ways in which our justice system, our injustice system gets to operate, impacts all of us. It creates a hostile climate in our society. It makes it harder for us to get the best out of all of our people. It costs far too much money. We have 4% of the world's population in the United States and 25% of the world's incarcerated population, jails and prisons don't need Hollywood to be their PR arm while Hollywood tries to lecture us during awards nights from stages.
Part of what we have to do and part of what I think of 21st-century racial justice work is, is to do that work across the cultural space, across the policy space, across the corporate space, recognizing that all of those places contribute to the hostile climate, but can also contribute to the progress that I believe we can achieve.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My last question for you is just this, this is part of our series Black.Queer.Rising. When you hear me say that, Black.Queer.Rising, what does it mean to you?
Rashad Robinson: Growing up, did not imagine that this would be a life that I could have. I knew I was different. I knew that ways in which I was different, weren't always loved, or cherished, or respected. I knew the feelings I were having and the way that adults would talk about people who were like me with even if they were celebrated and loved, they would be an asterisk next to their name.
I feel so blessed to live in the time that I'm living, where despite the challenges and barriers, and sometimes the doors that don't always open up as quickly, I am able to move in ways that I would've not been able to move a generation ago. Think about all the talent, all the creativity, and all the brilliance we lost or did not able to tap into because of that. I am so grateful for that, but at the same time, I feel such a deep responsibility to each day, wake up and recognize that the gifts that have been given to me by the people before me, who would've wanted to have it for themselves.
This is not saying that they would be happy that I get to live it. They wanted this for themselves and they didn't get to have it. I recognize that I get to have it and I've got to make the most out of, and make the most out of creating the most amount of justice in this time, of winning the most change as possible, of opening up the most spaces for opportunity as possible.
I see that just as both an incredible responsibility, but in so many ways, an incredible gift. Something that I have an opportunity to do, that so many folks with maybe so much more talent, so much more skill never had the chance to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change. Thanks so much for joining The Takeaway.
Rashad Robinson: Thanks for having me.
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