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Neoliberal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: What the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce really practices

October 4, 2018

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce endorsement of Republican candidate for Governor Bill Schuette continues to generate plenty of controversy, particularly because of his stance over LGBT issues.

We wrote an article a few weeks ago in response to the backlash against the Chamber’s endorsement, which asked why did the endorsement of Schuette generate such controversy, when the Chamber of Commerce has a history of endorsing candidates that embrace a political vision that is part of the larger neoliberal economic platform, which disproportionately impacts communities of color, the working poor, queer and immigrant communities. 

There have been some businesses and organizations that have withdrawn their membership, but most have remained, which provides a perfect opportunity to examine the GR Chamber’s politics, especially since they are hosting their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit today in Grand Rapids

As social movements continue to challenge systems of power around racial, economic and LGBT justice, the business community has grappled with how to win social capital with these movements and not abandon their primary goal of representing the capitalist class.

The history of the US Chamber of Commerce and all of its chapters around the country has been a history that exclusively focuses on how the most powerful members of the business community can ban together to further their political agenda and expand their wealth. Lets be honest about the fact that even though a business of any size can be part of the Chamber of Commerce, the larger businesses and corporations are what driver Chamber policy. This is the case with the national US Chamber of Commerce and it is the case with the Grand Rapids Chamber. Just look at who sits on the Board of Directors and you can see who is making the decisions about the direction of this entity.  Many of the people and businesses represented on the GR Chamber board are also part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure

So, why does an entity that represents the interests of the capitalist class hold Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summits?

First, as mentioned earlier, there is a tremendous amount of social capital to be gain by embracing diversity, equity and inclusion. Having more people of color, women or members of the LGBT community as part of the business community is a buffer against accusations that the business class are racist, sexist and homophobic. However, there are significant limitations to businesses that adopt diversity, equity and inclusion language and policies, specifically if they are adopted as a form of identity politics. Businesses love having more diversity in the board room or on their staff as long as those people buy into what Crystal Fleming, author of How to be Less Stupid About Race, identifies as neoliberal inclusion. For Fleming, neoliberal inclusion is a form of tokenism that does not address larger systems of oppression like White Supremacy, Patriarchy, Homophobia and Capitalism.

Longtime educator and organizer Elizabeth Martinez says that using the word racism is problematic, since it does not name the system of racial power that exists, which is White Supremacy. Martinez’s definition of White Supremacy is: 

White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.

Contrast this definition of White Supremacy with the what the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce does, which according to their own mission is to be a champion for West Michigan business. This means that the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce primary focus and work is to look out for the interests of the business community. Some might say this is self evident, but the point here is that because this is their focus they will use whatever means they can to support that mission, even if it means to host a diversity, equity and inclusion summit.

In fact, such a strategy is smart on their part. If you can get people who have been the most marginalized by White Supremacy, Patriarchy, Homophobia to feel included in the GR Chamber, then you have won a great deal of social capital that not only diverts attention away from the primary mission  – more profits and more political influence for the capitalist class – it allows people to not have to think about the harm being done to the most marginalized in this society.

Lets be real, this form of tokenism is widely practiced and embraced by non-profits all over the country. Take for instance the Human Rights Campaign, which puts out an annual Corporate Equality Report, rating corporations that have positive policies towards the LGBTQ community. In their 2018 report they list corporations like Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Amazon as having great ratings. These are all companies that exploit their workforce and fight against labor unions. These are corporations that pillage the earth and destroy indigenous lands all across the globe. However, in the world of diversity, equity and inclusion you can exploit and pillage as long as you have LGBT-friendly policies. 

This is exactly the kind of logic that the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce embraces. The GR Chamber has OutPro, because it wins them social capital, but it simply means that those who identify as LGBT can also be part of the capitalist class and exploit and pillage as well as straight people. This is exactly why Crystal Fleming names this as Neoliberal Inclusion, because the capitalist class is more than happy to have people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community as long as they embrace the neoliberal economic model.

Any organization that cares about social justice issues and fights against systems of oppression would not only end their membership in the Chamber of Commerce, they would see them clearly as an organization inherently in opposition to social movements that fight for collective liberation.

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