George Floyd’s death in police custody two years ago sparked international protests that led much of the corporate world to ramp up anti-racist messaging and pledge support for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Late last year, the New York Times published an article probing this commitment’s potential. Can corporate America advance systemic justice for Black Americans?
This article was passed among members of the steering committee at Rochester’s Levine Center to End Hate, which was assembled in 2018 “to develop and amplify anti-bias efforts across Greater Rochester.”
The piece was the catalyst for the center’s upcoming event titled “Black Prosperity: Achieving the Unfulfilled Promise of Economic Equity,” which will feature a two-part panel discussion from 8 to 10 a.m. on June 15 about the history of discrimination in Rochester and the ways citizens can help to ensure equity for Black people in the economic sphere.
The New York Times article illustrated how this business-centered approach to social justice—“Black ‘community capitalism,’” in the past has fallen short of counteracting systemic issues that harm Black communities, like poverty and institutional racism. To exemplify those mixed-to-failed results, the Times used a historical case study.
That case study was set in Rochester.
In 1976, Xerox reached out to Black protest collective Freedom, Independence, God, Honor Today, or F.I.G.H.T., about setting up a company and factory run by a Black board and partially owned by its mostly Black workers, according to the New York Times. Xerox established Eltrex, initially named Fighton, which offered an eclectic array of products and services, including vacuums and snow removal.
Initially conceived with the community in mind, the money-losing company was pressured to focus more on profits over time, as the article details. Xerox and Kodak, Eltrex’s principal clients, eventually ran into their own financial hardships, and Eltrex shut down in 2011.
Despite once hosting this experiment in Black community-facing business building, Rochester’s Black population is still burdened by systemic ills. The story struck the folks at the Levine Center.
“Systemic poverty and racism continue to plague Rochester’s Black community six decades later,” says Karen Elam, director of the Levine Center. “We decided we wanted to create a program that would build off the article. In the wake of protests following the killing of George Floyd, corporate America pledged billions of dollars to help combat racism and support Black Americans.
“We wanted to engage a conversation that would answer the questions: What happened in Rochester, and how can we ensure that these promised investments achieve the desired results—economic equity for Rochester’s Black community—today?”
The poverty rate among Blacks in Monroe County is currently around 32 percent, which is 19.2 percentage points higher than the nation’s median county poverty rate, according to the 2020 figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The Black poverty rate nationwide is 19.5 percent. A Brookings Institute analysis of the survey’s 2016 figures showed the county also ranked fifth worst in the nation for median household income disparity between whites and people of color.
The current picture is not bright, but Elam says community education can set the city on a path towards a better future for Black Rochesterians.
“Understanding the history and impact of systematic racism is a critical first step to enacting bold, positive change,” she says. “Every one of us has a role to play in educating ourselves, challenging our assumptions, and committing ourselves to the work of equity, fairness, and justice.”
The event will be moderated by Adrian Hale, director of economic and community development at Foundry, a financing and advisory company focused on digital asset mining and staking. He sees potential in the event to spur tangible change.
“This is an opportunity to change the behavior for organizations, philanthropists, and individual actors to assure we have positive, lasting outcomes for Rochester’s Black community,” Hale says. “This is all of our responsibility. The broader community cannot be a spectator.”
Similarly, Elam says that, alongside building education and dialogue, positive action is an aspect of the Levine Center’s goals. The “Black Prosperity” event comes in a line of other programming, and she encourages the business community to take part as the conversation continues at future events like the center’s third annual “Brave Spaces” event in October. It is also recruiting business leaders to join its corporate council and help expand the center’s reach.
Those interested in attending should register online. Tickets are $20, but scholarships are available and “no one will be turned away due to lack of funds,” the registration site states.
The panel discussing the city’s history of discrimination will include:
■ Dennis Bassett, assistant to the corporate vice president of Kodak, who worked at Kodak when F.I.G.H.T. first sprang up;
■ Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce;
■ David Powe, president of the Greater Rochester Black Business Alliance; and
■ Former Rochester City Council President Ruth Scott, who was the first woman of color elected to the Council and the body’s first Black president.
A second panel, discussing routes to equity, will include:
■ Melissa James Geska, president of US Ceiling Corp.;
■ Christopher Santana, clothing designer and owner of RIXCH EXCHANGE; and
■ Tim Taylor, CEO and founder of Data Brilliance Software LLC.
Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. Photos courtesy of the Levin Center to End Hate.
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