America’s corporate activism: The rise of the CEO as social justice warrior


Apple’s Tim Cook has called the Trump administration’s border policies ‘inhumane’ and urged it to stop. PHOTO/ Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Corporations are stepping into the moral vacuum left by Republican officials. But their motives aren’t exactly altruistic

On the heels of JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, which both divested from private prisons in March, Bank of America recently announced that it will no longer finance the operations of prisons and detention centers. While the bank has cited political disagreement as the reason for the divestment, its decision to sever ties comes after a Miami Herald article revealed that Bank of America had provided a $380m loan and a $75m credit line to Caliburn, operator of a facility that houses separated migrant children.

Bank of America claimed the decision was down to the prison industry’s lack of “needed” criminal justice and immigration reforms, though it didn’t elaborate. But it’s obvious bad PR was a factor.

Corporations have belatedly developed something approximating a social conscience. Apple’s Tim Cook has called the Trump administration’s border policies “inhumane” and urged it to stop. JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon criticized the policy in an email to employees and wrote that his “heart goes out to the impacted families”. Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein has called the situation “heart-rending”.

These CEOs are taking a stand on social issues when elected Republican officials can’t – or won’t. But even though these corporate liberal gestures are better than nothing, and sometimes even effective, they aren’t necessarily altruistic.

CEOs and companies attach themselves to ideas and policies that elevate their economic or moral status – in corporate America’s case, policies that generate profits or, at least, don’t get in the way of generating profits. Elite companies thrive by having their own cultures and thought-bubbles that ripple throughout the firm. Opposing administration policies that are antithetical to these values increases a firm’s power and cachet. As a result, entities such as Apple and Amazon transform into mini fiefdoms that dictate the political sensibilities of not only their employees, clients and those in their sphere, but sometimes the public at large.

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