NAACP Makes Wall Street History

The bell clangs, sparking an eruption of applause and boisterous cheers. It's the end of another trading day on the floor. And standing on the New York Stock Exchange's famed balcony is NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who — alongside a contingent that included Board Chairman Leon W. Russell and NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes — rang the NYSE closing bell Feb. 26 to commemorate the official launch of the NAACP's exchange-traded fund (ETF).

It was a historic day for the NAACP. With its ETF, the NAACP has now partnered with the non-profit capital lender, Impact Shares — whose backers include The Rockefeller Foundation — to promote investments in companies that possess a track record of being socially conscious via a nine-point system. The yardstick ranges from board diversity and anti-discrimination strategies to environmental policies and relationships to underserved communities. Additionally, the NAACP has expanded its index to evaluate the civic and social engagement of Fortune 500 companies.

“This is an opportunity for the NAACP to continue its legacy of advocacy,” says Johnson. “Shareholders are seeking to maximize profits, companies that have a positive approach to diversity can also benefit. Therefore, diversity has to become a business imperative too.”

In 2014, Ethan Powell – who has a 20-year history in hedge funds and private equity firms – founded Impact Shares as a platform to directly engage major corporations on a range of social justice issues. As it sought a partner, talks got underway with the NAACP by late 2016.

“Teaming up with the NAACP was really a no-brainer. We have a shared vision,” Powell says. “But they also have a clear, 100-year history in aggressively pushing for minority empowerment in the private sector. And that's especially important when it comes to determining a good corporate citizen.”

In a period that spanned the 1970s through the early '90s, Black mayors in cities nationwide — from Maynard Jackson in Atlanta to Marion Barry in D.C. — aggressively sought to expand opportunities for Black-owned firms in the post-civil rights years. But it wasn't until 1997, after Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., launched his annual Wall Street Project that activists were directly engaged with The Street for the first time. Since then, the portfolios and leverage held by several Black power players has only grown: from John W. Rogers, Jr. — whose firm, Ariel Investments, manages over $11 billion in assets — to Jim Casselberry, a veteran investor who is currently the chief investment officer for the Sarowitz Family LLC.

Nevertheless, the overtures to Wall Street has been met with skepticism among some observers, particularly in light of the 2008 economic recession. And most recently the lack of diversity on corporate boards was on full display, critics point out, during the recently concluded London Fashion Week as major brands, like Gucci and Burberry, sparked intense backlash after unveiling high-end products that also carried racially insensitive overtones to a jaw-dropping degree. Still, efforts to bring social activism to Wall Street should go well beyond trying to avoid corporate stumbles, argues economist Julianne Malveaux.

“We're not a broke people. There's $1.2-$1.3 trillion in our community. But we are under-compensated and we don't have our fair share,” she says. “There would be no Wall Street if it weren't for Black people. Our bodies were the capital that built the industry. But it hasn't done its fair share. And so, we shouldn't be looking at access through a narrow lens – it needs to be across the board.”

However, Marvin Owens, who worked on the effort to bring the ETF to fruition as the NAACP's senior director of economic programs, contends that the organization’s initiative with Impact Shares will give the organization unprecedented clout inside the global financial-services system.

“You can highlight the things that have gone wrong. But if you're not engaged in making the change happen, then you kind of missed the boat,” Owens says. “We can call folks out, but we also want to be a part of the change that needs to happen as well.”

— Curtis Stephen

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