A law professor explains how corporations commodify people of color.
Back in 2000, Diallo Shabazz was surprised to see himself on the cover of the University of Wisconsin admissions booklet. But there he was, cheering in the stands at a football game he never attended, just behind a group of white students.
Some employees in the marketing department had decided to photoshop his face into the image; this, they thought, was a great way to project a diverse image to prospective students.
The decision might seem innocuous to many — a clumsy but well-intentioned attempt by a university to promote diversity. But according to Nancy Leong, a law professor at the University of Denver who focuses on civil rights and discrimination, it happens all the time. And it breeds even more racial resentment in society.
In 2013, Leong wrote a lengthy article in the Harvard Law Review in which she labeled this practice “racial capitalism”: the use of nonwhite people by corporations and institutions to make money or boost their brand.
Getty Images This is the sort of stock photo you’ll see in many college brochures. The message is clear: See how diverse we are!
Think of the controversial 2018 Super Bowl commercial in which Dodge used a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to peddle Ram trucks; it was one of those uniquely late-capitalist moments where an act of protest or a racially progressive speech was reduced to a bland commercial prop.
I reached out to Leong to talk about how racial capitalism exploits nonwhite people and why she believes the practice is bad for both individuals and society as a whole. A lightly edited transcript of