America must finally reconcile with a history that, while full of exceptional accomplishments, is still deeply tarnished by the original sin of slavery—the act of dehumanizing and destroying Black people for profit. Corporate America has a special role to play in encouraging our nation to address this history, and a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing this week on H.R. 40 should be a moment when we make our collective corporate voices heard.
As CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, I spend my days (and some nights) thinking about how best to grow our company. Because we are a values-led company, I believe that growing our company provides value not just to shareholders, but to society. Our unique business model, which was the vision of our cofounders, has sought innovative ways to advance economic and social justice while selling ice cream. I’m proud of our approach, but I am not naive enough to think that it alone can confront the structures and systems that perpetuate racism in America.
That’s why I am calling on business leaders and CEOs to pursue the same principles we’re applying to equity and diversity inside the four walls of our companies to the public policy debate outside our businesses.
We have a special opportunity and responsibility to be heard because our collective voice is powerful. Events of the last year have shown that Americans’ expectations of corporate citizenship are changing rapidly. American consumers want companies to have a position on societal issues that includes tackling racism and advancing social justice.
Business leaders also have an obligation to address these issues because the American economy, and by extension our companies, have reaped financial reward and prosperity built on centuries of enslaving Black bodies. The most powerful and wealthy nation on Earth was built on a foundation of stolen labor. The wealth amassed by white people and passed down from generation to generation was perpetuated by a legal system of segregation and discrimination that continued long after slavery ended.
Those impacts are still with us today. Our country’s huge racial wealth gap—where the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family—is the direct result of slavery and white supremacy, and is the reason we must now commit ourselves to right the wrongs of our past.
Last summer’s uprisings in response to the killing of George Floyd and the recent insurrection at the United States Capitol are just two examples of the power that racism and white supremacy continue to hold in our nation. Many companies and brands have since sought to weigh in on issues of racial justice. We must advance economic and social justice through our day-to-day operations, so I encourage my counterparts in the business world to do more than speak up; I urge them to join me in addressing policy solutions that dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate systemic racism and produce outcomes that dramatically disadvantage people of color.
Supporting the passage of H.R. 40 would do just that.
I’ve come to understand that only through acknowledging our history of slavery, legalized segregation, and white supremacy can we address the racism that corrodes our nation from the inside out. The passage of the landmark legislation H.R. 40 would begin that long-overdue process by establishing a federal commission to study the lasting effects of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present. The commission would also recommend appropriate remedies that can be the foundation for national healing.
None of us living today owned slaves or created the legacy of our 400 years of racism. However, we are the only ones who can do anything about it. Recent events have shown us what ignoring our past means for our present.
H.R. 40 is our best chance today to finally come to terms with the full story of our country’s founding. By looking closely and honestly at slavery’s long legacy, including its direct link to our nation’s prosperity, we will finally be able to live up to our founding principle that all people are created equal.
We cannot move forward together as a nation until we begin to grapple with the sins of our past. I understand that acknowledging the structural racism that is deeply woven into the fabric of our society is difficult. It can be uncomfortable or even shaming. But H.R. 40 gives us a chance to be honest about our history and hopeful for our future. I call on other CEOs and business leaders to use our unique power and privilege to help our nation begin to heal.
Matthew McCarthy is the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s.