Leaders of several major Black-owned media companies, including Byron Allen and Ice Cube, accused General Motors CEO Mary Barra of being racist for what they described as her refusal to meet with them.
They are asking for an hour-long Zoom meeting with her or, in the alternative, her resignation.
That’s according to a full-page ad that appeared on page 3A in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press accusing Barra of refusing to meet with them “consistently, over time and after multiple requests.”
The ad was signed by the heads of the seven Black-owned media companies including rapper and actor Ice Cube, who co-founded pro-basketball league BIG3, TV and film production company Cubevision, and Contract with Black America (CWBA), which he started with the goal of initiating dialogues about racism.
Also signing the ad was native Detroiter Byron Allen, head of Allen Media Group, and former NBA player Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, who bought Ebony Media last year after bidding $14 million for it in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
In response to the ad, GM said it aspires to be the most inclusive company in the world, and that includes how it allocates its advertising expenditures.
“We have increased our planned spending with both diverse-owned and diverse-dedicated media across our family of brands,” said GM spokesman Pat Morrissey in an email. He did not provides specifics.
‘No one happy with GM’
The Black-owned media group wants GM to allocate at least 5% of its ad budget to Black-owned media companies, said Allen in an interview with the Free Press on Sunday.
The ad says “less than 0.5% goes to media companies owned” by African Americans, calling that “horrendous, considering that we as African Americans make up approximately 14% of the population in America and we spend billions buying your vehicles.”
Allen said the group could recommend 14% of the budget be spent on advertising with Black-owned media companies, “that would be economic parity, we’re not even asking for parity, we’re asking for inclusion.”
He said the men who signed the ad have known each other for years. For the past five years, they have been reaching out to Barra asking for a meeting to win more of GM’s advertising. But Barra does not respond, he said.
About two weeks ago, the group sent an email again to Barra. This time GM’s Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl responded indicating she would meet with them instead, Allen said. That was the final straw that prompted the group to collective compose the ad, which Allen said is currently running only in the Free Press.
“If you say status quo is OK, that’s wrong. That is racism. Let me be clear, that is racism. But if you get to the table and you lean in to effectuate change, then you are showing the world who you really are,” Allen said. “This is an opportunity. The numbers will never lie. You’re either doing business with Black-owned media or you’re not in a fair and equitable way.”
Right now GM is the group’s focus because it is the automaker that has shown “a great deal of institutionalized racism against Black-owned media,” Allen said.
As for Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis, formerly known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Allen declined to comment on their ad spending until he speaks to the rest of the group, but he said, “GM is where we checked all the boxes and no one is happy with GM.”
GM’s view on its cultural change
Since May 25, 2020, the day that a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of black man George Floyd, resulting in Floyd’s death, GM has been outspoken in denouncing racism.
Amid the protests that followed Floyd’s death, Barra penned a letter to all employees saying she will commission and chair an Inclusion Advisory Board made up of internal and external leaders. Its goal is to make GM “the most inclusive company in the world.”
GM has set aside $10 million to donate to organizations that will support racial equality.
In May 2020, Toyota Motor North America and GM each made the 2020 DiversityInc. Top 50 list — the only two car companies recognized. Toyota surged to No. 10 from No. 18. GM ranked No. 30.
Likewise, on June 19, a date known as Juneteenth celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, GM had all employees take 8 minutes, 46 seconds of silence to support the Black community. That was the length of time the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.
Last week, when speaking at the JP Morgan Global ESG conference Thursday, Barra said GM is making ongoing progress toward diversity. All of GM’s 250 managers worldwide are charged with changing the workplace culture, she said.
“We continue to have conversations that make people a little uncomfortable because we believe once you’re aware of a situation and understand it better, it’ll lead to change,” Barra said. “We’re very aware of changing the culture of the company. Our goal is to create an environment where people can be their true self at work. If you can’t be your true self, I would think that would be exhausting and how can you do your best work?”
Morrissey said GM is developing initiatives like the Chevrolet “Real Talk, Real Change,” a platform to promote discussions about race.
Also, it has projects such as, “More than That with Gia Peppers,” where the journalist has conversations about Black America.
“We’ve partnered with the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters on a content series for Black American listeners produced and distributed by underrepresented businesses,” Morrissey said. “In this same spirit, we will continue to have an open dialogue with Mr. Allen.”
But in the ad, the Black-owned media leaders said Barra’s talk is just that — all talk.
“You stand on stage, after the death of George Floyd, saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ when you have refused to acknowledge us,” the ad read. “The very definition of systemic racism is when you are ignored, excluded and you don’t have true economic inclusion.”
The ad said the group has no interest in meeting with Wahl, who was McDonald’s CMO from 2015 to 2018 and, “severely neglected, minimized and discriminated against” Black-owned media companies during her time in that job, the ad said.
The ad was signed by the following:
Byron Allen: Founder, chairman & CEO of Allen Media Group, a California-based media group that provides video to broadcast and cable TV, mobile devices, multimedia platforms, and the web. Roland Martin: CEO of Nu Vision Media, Inc., a Chicago-based company that produces and distributes Roland S. Martin’s daily digital show, #RolandMartinUnfiltered. Todd F. Brown, PMP: Founder, Urban Edge Networks and HBCU League Pass, which covers historically Black colleges and universities. Don Jackson: Founder, chairman and CEO of Central City Productions, a Chicago-based full service television production company. Earl “Butch” Graves Jr.: President and CEO, Black Enterprise, a magazine covering African-American businesses. Ice Cube: BIG3, Cubevision, CWBA. Junior Bridgeman: Ebony Media, the publisher of Ebony Magazine, which covers pop culture and news focusing on the African-American community.
‘Meet or quit’
In the ad, the men wrote that it was intended to publicly ask Barra to end the systemic racism and meet with them.
“We are requesting a one hour Zoom meeting with you and several of your key board members and us, the largest Black Owned Media companies in America, so we can resolve this very important issue and have a long-term partnership that’s mutually beneficial for General Motors and the African American consumers,” the ad read.
“Mary, we and others firmly believe that if you continue to hold the position that Black Owned Media doesn’t deserve meaningful economic inclusion and we are not worth meeting with, then you should resign effective immediately,” it ended.
Allen said the purpose of the ad was to promote transparency into GM’s spending given it’s a publicly owned company. He would be happy to make the Zoom call public, he said.
“Mary should get on the Zoom call and talk to us and she should pledge that a minimum of 5% of her budget will go to black owned media not to be confused with black targeted media,” Allen said. “We can’t deposit her words. There isn’t a bank who would take a deposit of her words.”
When asked if Barra will meet with Allen and the others, Morrissey said, “GM marketing and advertising executives have met often with Mr. Allen and his team and are committed to continuing to have an open dialogue.”
Diversity at the top
The ad ran three days after GM named Meg Whitman and Mark Tatum to its board of directors, the company touting in a news release the additions as an expansion of the board’s diversity. Whitman is the former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Tatum is deputy commissioner and COO of the National Basketball Association.
GM now has 13 directors, seven of whom are women, making GM the only automaker with more than half its board filled with women, according to website 50/50 Women on Boards, which tracks the gender composition of corporate boards in the Russell 3000 Index.
Of the women on GM’s board, one identifies as Hispanic, one as African American and one as Asian African American, said GM spokesman Jim Cain.
Barra said on Thursday that the diversity of GM’s board is a competitive advantage as GM works toward selling all light-duty zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.
But the ad specified that it is seeking Barra’s business as Black-owned media, “not minority owned media, because minority includes white women and large corporations like General Motors can hide behind and tout their minority records while continuing not to do business with Black Owned Media companies.”
If Barra continues to avoid meeting with the group, Allen said: “Her board should take a good look at somebody who won’t do a Zoom call and the numbers won’t be corrected. I think she’d be ill advised to not meet with us and know us and do business with us. The truth is we’re here to make GM better.”