Civil rights group SCLC launches campaign against corporate racism; plans to protest Nielsen

Launching a year-long campaign against racism in corporate America, the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, is headed to Chicago for a Feb. 16 protest outside the downtown offices of Nielsen Holdings.

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America’s reckoning with racism must go beyond statements made by corporations in wake of the death of George Floyd — to actually eradicating bias in hiring and promotion — says a civil rights group launching a nationwide campaign against racism in corporate America.

Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has targeted Nielsen Holdings in Chicago for the first in a series of protests planned for a year-long campaign. SCLC supporters are headed here for a Feb. 16 demonstration outside the company’s downtown offices, at 200 W. Jackson Blvd.

The organization accuses Nielsen of racial bias in promotion and retention of executives of color, based on allegations in a blockbuster federal discrimination lawsuit filed by a well-respected, Chicago-based, Black female executive who has worked for Nielsen 17 years.

“We’re kicking off this campaign during Black History Month. Racism is a virus just like COVID. It’s transmittable and contagious. We’re not going to tolerate this kind of sickness anymore,” SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele Jr. told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Nielsen is first, because the discrimination there is so blatant, so overt,” Steele alleges.

Dr. Charles Steele, president and CEO, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Dr. Charles Steele, president and CEO, Southern Christian Leadership Conference


The October lawsuit by Cheryl Grace, Nielsen’s senior vice president of U.S. strategic community alliance and consumer engagement, alleges discrimination blocked her efforts to climb the ranks over the years, despite her consistently high performance.

Grace alleges that after sharing her concerns with Nielsen CEO David Kenny, who dually holds the title of chief diversity officer, she was marginalized and subjected to a hostile work environment at the company, which tracks and sells information on consumer habits.

“I’m glad SCLC is taking this on. It’s a huge issue right now,” said Pam McElvane, CEO of Chicago-based P&L Group Holding Co., a provider of diversity and inclusion strategies.

“Organizations are encouraging what they call courageous and authentic conversations, but you can’t fire somebody just because they said something you don’t want to hear,” McElvane said.

In the lawsuit, Grace — who is credited with founding Nielsen’s high-profile annual reports highlighting the buying power of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians — alleges that subsequent to her complaints, Nielsen tried “to push her out” with a buyout package, which she refused.

Nielsen asserts the suit by Grace, who had become the national face of the B2B firm in multicultural consumer relations, has no merit.

“Nielsen believes that fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of our workforce and products is the right thing to do and crucial to the success of our business and all businesses,” a Nielsen spokeswoman told the Sun-Times.

“The fact is that Nielsen has not discriminated or retaliated against Ms. Grace in any way, and she continues to work as a Senior Vice President at Nielsen. Ms. Grace has never been denied a promotion, as she claims. We are confident that the facts will show that Nielsen’s actions have been fair and equitable,” the spokeswoman said.

Cheryl Grace, Senior Vice President of U.S. Strategic Community Alliance and Consumer Engagement, Nielsen Holdings

Cheryl Grace, senior vice president of U.S. Strategic Community Alliance and Consumer Engagement, Nielsen Holdings


In the wake of the Memorial Day death of Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, protests began peacefully but grew violent as they unfurled across the nation, triggering a national reckoning with systemic racism.

Corporate America from Airbnb to Walmart responded with statements against racism and injustice. But many questioned whether companies were just talking the talk.

“I know this was not a claim brought frivolously, because you realize you’re risking your career,” said Janice Mathis, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., a supporter of the campaign. “I’m surprised Nielsen hasn’t been willing to reach resolution, especially at this moment when companies are striving to show how inclusive they are.”

SCLC points to a 2019 report by Good Jobs First, which found a majority of American corporations, including 99 percent of the Fortune 500, have paid plaintiffs in at least one employment discrimination or harassment lawsuit since 2000.

Most ended in confidential settlements but have not changed the culture, the report found, with 2020 bringing a wave of such lawsuits. Steele alleges that after meeting with Nielsen’s Kenny and board chair David Atwood, the firm has failed to make good on any promises.

“Protesting is never the first option,” Steele said. “The SCLC continues to follow the key principles of Dr. King, engagement and attempts to negotiate, before taking direct action.”

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