The Urban League of Philadelphia, which is in its own words “committed to advancing the social and economic achievement of African Americans and other underserved residents of Philadelphia,” has selected a peculiar member of the city’s business community as the recipient of its 2019 Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Award.
On Friday morning, at the civil rights organization’s 17th annual Whitney M. Young Community Empowerment Luncheon at the Loews Hotel on Market Street, the organization will present the award to Comcast/NBC Universal.
Yes, that Comcast. No. 32 on the Fortune 500 list. The second-largest media company in the world, headquartered right here in Philadelphia.
And yes, it is the same Comcast that African-American media mogul Byron Allen is suing for $20 billion. Both sides are currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, and if the court sides with Comcast, it could roll back the Civil Rights Acts of 1866. Specifically at issue is Section 1981, which ensured that newly freed slaves would be guaranteed the same opportunity to contract as whites, one of the statue’s most crucial provisions, is under direct attack.
Allen alleges that Comcast discriminated against him in its refusal to carry cable channels owned by his company, Entertainment Studios Networks — a claim Comcast denies. A victory for Comcast could make it harder for victims of discrimination to prove so, by forcing them to prove that racial discrimination was the only factor in any disputed contracting decision.
Why then, with so much hanging in the balance for Black people, would the Urban League of Philadelphia honor with a diversity and inclusion award a company that appears to prefer taking a wrecking ball to diversity and inclusion?
Could it be that Comcast Senior Executive Vice President David L. Cohen is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Urban League? Could it be that the National Urban League, as reported by The New York Times and Center for Public Integrity Investigation, received an $835,000 donation from Comcast for expressing support in 2014 of a proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner?
The National Urban League and the Urban League of Philadelphia responded with a joint statement:
“Neither the Urban League or the National Urban League has taken a position on the merits of Byron Allen’s lawsuit against Comcast. National Urban League, in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a friend of the court brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling that intentional race discrimination claims under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 are viable if the plaintiff is able to show that race played a role in the challenged discriminatory decision.”
But isn’t the Urban League of Philadelphia taking a side when it gives Comcast an award?
Allen seemed to think so, and said as much in a phone call earlier this week.
“With Comcast challenging the Civil Rights Act of 1866, section 1981, in the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hurt over 100 million minorities in America, the Urban League of Philadelphia should be ashamed of themselves for honoring Comcast in any way. As far as I’m concerned, this is a despicable act.”
Allen’s case has the support of the Los Angeles Urban League. That group’s president and CEO, Michael A. Lawson, wrote a scathing letter to Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Cohen in September, threatening a boycott over its battle the media mogul.
He accused Comcast of refusing to negotiate in good faith with Allen. He wrote that Comcast’s “only pathway to success is to eviscerate a 153-year-old civil rights statute, set back civil rights for millions of Americans, and embolden the racist elements throughout our country, which grow stronger on a daily basis.”
One wonders how it’s possible for divisions within the same national civil rights organization — representing two of its larger, more progressive cities — can have such distinctly divergent opinions of Comcast? How is it that one is honoring that organization as a champion of diversity while the other is accusing it of using the Supreme Court as a cudgel to eviscerate civil rights gains dating back to Reconstruction?
Are you confused yet? Is the Urban League of Philadelphia tone deaf in 2019?
Urban League of Philadelphia President and CEO Andrea Custis said that Comcast has a strong record of supporting diversity and inclusion, and has received a number of awards for it. She pointed to a Comcast/NBCUniversal report that said in 2018, Comcast’s overall workforce was 44% people of color, 54% of new hires were women and people of color, 21% of vice presidents were people of color, and 26% of director-level employees were people of color.
The Urban League of Philadelphia’s theme for this year’s luncheon is “Getting to Equal: United Not Divided,” a national unifying movement to promote equity and inclusion, and raise awareness about the challenges urban communities face in Philadelphia and across the country.
That sounds great. However, it could mean nothing if Comcast wins the case and the 400-year-old hurdles toward equality that have been deliberately placed in the paths of African Americans are raised. That’s something I would have thought the Urban League of Philadelphia would never fail to consider.
John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.