Civil rights leader Rashad Robinson says that in order to enact change, he needed to "force people to be nervous about disappointing us"

For the last decade, Rashad Robinson has served as president at Color of Change, a leading civil rights organization that pushed major advertisers to boycott Facebook for mishandling hate speech and misinformation. He says that if you want to influence politics, powerful people first need to recognize that your voice can’t be ignored.

“When institutions are not nervous about disappointing you, it doesn’t matter what kind of research report you have that illustrates all the facts and figures,” Robinson said during a conversation at Unfinished Live. “And that’s what we do at Color of Change, we get the people lined up at the front door, we build strategic campaigns and we force people to be nervous about disappointing us.”

Robinson argued the way problems are framed is also incredibly important. Structural disparities and discrimination are often described passively, obscuring who is really at fault for them. “What I mean by that is we will say, Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank, instead of banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,” Robinson explained. “When we tell stories of inequality that are unfortunate rather than [unjust], we end up with charitable solutions to structural problems.”

Watch the full conversation below, and scroll for a written transcript. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Statements by these speakers have not been fact-checked by Unfinished and represent their individual opinions.

Vivian Schiller

Hello, everybody. It’s so nice to see you all here in person. It’s absolutely spectacular. My name is Vivian Schiller, and I am the executive director of Aspen Digital. We are a program of the Aspen Institute that focuses on all things at the intersection of media, technology and democracy. So this topic is very, very near and dear to our hearts. And I’m so excited to be in conversation with my friend Rashad Robinson. We were listening backstage to the previous session, and I love the question of, “What are we optimizing for? And what kind of unintended consequences does optimization yield?” So it’s really kind of a perfect setup for the conversation that we’re going to have today, which is about the optimization of injustice, frankly. We’re so lucky to have Rashad here to be able to speak to this.

I think Rashad probably doesn’t need much of an introduction, but I’ll do it anyway. He is the president of Color of Change. They are the leading racial justice organization, driven by more than 7 million members who are building power for Black communities. Knowing all too well the tie between technology and democracy, Color of Change has led with several notable campaigns, like [pushing to] change the terms to ensure that tech companies take a stand and adopt policies against hate on their platforms. Also, on a personal note, I want to just say that I had the unbelievable privilege of getting to know Rashad over the last six months as he is one of the three co-chairs of our Aspen Commission on Information Disorder. 

I have to say one of the most amazing things about this experience has been to see you in action. I mean, your smarts and your energy and just how incredible you are as a person and as a leader. So, I’m just so thrilled about this. But let’s dive in, because we want to hear from you and not me. So, how did a civil rights organization come to focus so heavily on technology?

Rashad Robinson

Well, first of all, thank you. That was generous and kind, and I feel like I can only go downhill from there. But Color of Change was founded in the digital age, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so 16 years ago. And we were founded and we talk about Hurricane Katrina as a flood that was caused by bad decision makers that turned into a life-altering disaster by bad decision makers. Black folks literally on their roofs, begging for the government to do something and left to die—and those images seared in so many of our minds. But the thing about Katrina, the thing about so many of those moments, is that they illustrate things that people already know. Geographic segregation, generational poverty, the impacts of what we’ve done to our planet, all the ways in which structural racism undergirds those things, but at the heart of it, no one was nervous about disappointing Black people—government, corporations, and media.

And when institutions are not nervous about disappointing you, it doesn’t matter what kind of research report you have that illustrates all the facts and figures. It doesn’t matter what you do in the courts, if you don’t have the power to implement it. It doesn’t matter what technology gets built—you can’t code or research or legal or nonprofit or executive-direct your way out of a problem like that. So we’ve always operated from this idea that people don’t experience issues, we experience life, and the forces that hold us back are deeply interrelated. And so a racist criminal justice system requires a racist media culture to survive. Political inequality and economic inequality go hand in hand. And so, as we were experiencing so many of these challenges of what was happening on the social media platforms, it wasn’t just about how do we become present and visible? How do we get likes and shares? How do we get people to move our content? But it was about some of the rules of the road, recognizing that power is not about presence and visibility, it’s about rules.

There was a woman by the name of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore, who had her Facebook Live cut off during an interaction with police. She was having a mental health episode, she was filming as police came, there was a back and forth, law enforcement called Facebook, they decided to turn off her Facebook Live, and Korryn Gaines ends up dead. No video. And the Baltimore police in the city has had to pay her family money, but Korryn’s not around with her family and with her child. This led us to many conversations that we were already having. And we recognize that as much as we were coming to make demands on these tech platforms about how they deal with law enforcement, how they deal with civil rights issues, we were making requests on platforms that we should be making to government for accountability.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than to go to a billionaire and have to beg them to treat your community fairly inside of laws that have already been won and fought for by the people that came before you. Part of this is what we recognize, that we will always lose in the back rooms if we don’t have the people lined up at the front door. And that’s what we do at Color of Change: We get the people lined up at the front door, we build strategic campaigns and we force people to be nervous about disappointing us.

Vivian Schiller

Amen. So specifically, what do you want the tech companies to do?

Rashad Robinson

So, we’ve built out a framework. You can go to and look at the tech framework, but it does really relate to a whole set of things that both the platforms can do and more importantly, right now, government. We spent years facing down the platforms, going back and forth at the highest levels. Last summer, being one of the four sort of main organizations behind the Stop Hate for Profit campaign. But we were doing that because we didn’t have the levers of government. We didn’t have the ability to go and pass laws and push for laws, so we were doing the work on the outside.

When the New York Times revealed, I guess it was 2018—it feels so long ago—that Facebook had hired a PR firm to attack us and to plant stories about us, even while we were going to meetings. They were in sort of deep and with doe eyes telling us how much they cared about civil rights and how hard this was, and how hard they were trying that they had this sort of firm that was placing these stories, pitching these stories, many of which had sort of both anti-Black and anti-Semitic sort of underpinnings behind them.

When we found that out, we did build out a stronger set of frameworks. Part of that was getting Facebook to actually take seriously the civil rights audit that they had committed to, not only to Color of Change, but when Mark Zuckerberg went before the Senate and … actually published publicly. And part of the outcome of that was that they started to produce these reports, that all of us got to see that while they were saying they cared about civil rights, they actually were doing nothing about the sort of civil rights, and even the audit that they paid for said that they were not doing what needed to be done.

Part of the set of demands sort of roots from that … It’s not about one piece of content or another piece of content, but it’s about the incentive structures that sort of drive the decision making inside of it. What gets to flow and what doesn’t? What’s held accountable? When does the platform have immunity? When does the platform not have immunity? How is the platform dealing with the diversity of their staff, right? If the Russians know more about Black people than the staff at Facebook, then there’s a problem with this company, and there has to be something done. No matter what the company says, we’ve always been about what does the company actually do? And I don’t want to make this just about Facebook, I think about what’s happening at Google and YouTube, I think about what’s happening at Twitter, and I think about all of these sets of policies that come out of these companies.

Sometimes they will almost admit that they can’t actually enforce the policies, and sometimes they will put forward a set of policies because they recognize that that’s how much power we have. So part of this is also about building power in government to really force the type of changes that are going to be necessary.

Vivian Schiller

So what are the obstacles to that power? I’ve heard you talk about how magical thinking gets in the way. How is that an obstacle?

Rashad Robinson

Well I think magical thinking gets in the way of so much of our activism. We want to believe that change is right around the corner if we just bring people together. I can’t tell you how many people, before a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg gets announced, will send me this email saying, “Well, you should just say it to them like this. Have you ever thought about saying this to Sheryl?” And I’m like, well, I don’t think that that’s actually how it works here. In a company where one person has 60% of the shares and is chairperson and CEO, that’s not actually how power works. And so we do have some magical thinking, wishful thinking about how we hope that if we just say the right thing or if we just get the right people in the room, that things will somehow magically shift, that the incentive structures will change, that people will give up their desire for profit and growth over everything else.

We have to create new incentives, we have to create profits, we have to create consequences. And unless we actually have guardrails around those things, we end up with a society where all of these things—we’re put in harm’s way daily, right? We don’t have safe cars and seat belts in our cars because the auto industry just suddenly woke up one day and decided that their priority was to keep us safe. We don’t trust the meat in our counters or the milk in our grocery stores because agriculture decided that, okay, this is, like, in our best interest. If profit and growth is the thing that will constantly drive businesses and corporations inside of a capitalist structure, then we absolutely need government to protect that.

The fact of the matter is so many of these things have been won and fought for, and then you go into the meetings with Silicon Valley executives who have a very libertarian mindset, and you feel like you are relitigating or re-debating whether or not voting by mail is actually a thing. And you look across the table and you’re like, I know every one of these people voted by mail. I know for a fact that they did not show up to the Palo Alto High School or whatever it was to cast their ballot, because if they did, I might have an organizer there [to] talk to them. But the fact of the matter is that there’s constantly this desire for different sets of rules, and unless we actually build power to make sure that the rules are effective, in force and implemented, then we will be in harm’s way. And the people who are most in harm’s way are the folks that are already targeted, attacked, and exploited.

Vivian Schiller

So what do we need to do now? I mean, you’ve had successes not just with Silicon Valley, but with Hollywood and seen impact there on representation, on Wall Street, your campaign around boycotts. What more needs to happen in order to really drive this change? Because to your point, there are incentive structures that are set up in these organizations, and it is around optimization very much so … What is the combination of government action, norms and changes?

Rashad Robinson

Part of the reason why I agreed to do the Aspen Commission was because we do need to continue to sort of raise the attention, focus, and energy of more people to care about this, to place this as a priority. We have to raise the floor on what’s acceptable and push up the ceiling on what’s possible in terms of change … and that means that we need more people invested involved. 

I also think that we also have to tell the story the right way. Far too often, we tell stories of what happened in Silicon Valley. Well, we tell stories about inequality in general and we talk about it like it’s unfortunate, like almost a car accident, like it kind of just happened and it wasn’t actually manufactured through a set of choices that were made. And so when we tell stories of inequality that are unfortunate rather than [unjust], we end up with charitable solutions to structural problems.

So then we will end up with everybody talking about how certain communities need to be more resilient, right? And I want to say that nobody can tell me that Black communities are not incredibly resilient. So don’t come to us and ask us to be more resilient. Don’t come to communities of color, don’t come to women and ask people to be more resilient in the face of targets and attacks. We talk about injustice in the structures behind injustice through a passive voice and the people through an active voice. And what I mean by that is we will say Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank instead of banks are less likely to give loans to Black people. And you know what that does, and it may seem like I’m in semantic land, but what it does is it leads people to say, “Well, what’s wrong with Black people? Maybe we should give them financial literacy,” instead of actually saying, what’s wrong with banks that have targeted, excluded, exploited, and redlined Black people since the very beginning.

So we don’t need to ask ourselves what’s wrong with the people who have been harmed and hurt and exploited and attacked. We actually have to focus on the systems and the structures to remove those barriers, because otherwise we continue to place people as sort of not the protagonist in their own story. If we actually believe that Black people are the protagonists in the American story of democracy, because a protagonist is someone who has fought hard, faced indignities, been exploited, but constantly have found a way to win, constantly found a way to move the ball forward. Then you get behind the protagonist, you don’t spend your time trying to figure out, how do you train or better educate the protagonist. You find your way to remove the barriers, you get behind the protagonist and that’s part of our work. It’s how do we build campaigns and strategic efforts to get more people behind the work that actually has to be done? How do we tell stories that actually build power to change rules?

Vivian Schiller

That storytelling is so critical ,and it’s something that I know you focus on a lot. Talk about what’s next for Color of Change in terms of trying to communicate these very important messages and actually try to drive change.

Rashad Robinson

Well part of why another piece of the Color of Change organization, our political action committee gets involved in elections and all those things, part of the reason why we engage on Capitol Hill through our 501(c)(4) and part of why we do all of that work is because we recognize that we have to not just walk up to the door, but sometimes kick it in. We have to hold elected officials accountable for actually doing their job. And their job is to build accountability on these corporations, to deal with companies that have become monopolies and to actually right size power to actually create accountability and to create accountability that’s not something that companies can right off and keep going, that’s like the cost of business, but actually creates the kind of guardrails, right? This country found a way to lock up an untold amount of Black people for things that white people are now getting rich on, but is allowing folks out in Silicon Valley to travel out there and create all sorts of harms to our democracy and are scratching their head about how hard it is to figure out how to fix it.

They actually know how to fix things, when they see the people who are doing it as people who are hurting our society and our community. And why is it that they do not see what’s happening in Silicon valley as people who are harming and exploiting our community. It’s because we’ve created these different ideas about crime, we can talk about gun violence in this country and blame certain communities, but then we look at how many people have died from Covid and then we don’t blame the folks that are sort of behind the sort of exploitation of people dying of Covid. We have to have a different idea of what harm is and different accountability for harm and for a community and a country that says it cares about numbers, it really doesn’t actually care about numbers, because if it did, we will be focusing on the places that are doing the most harm and far too often we’re not.

Vivian Schiller

So we’re almost running out of time here. I want to just ask you about—come back to our Commission, which you’ve been such a strong advocate and leader for the work, and so many of the things that you’ve mentioned have come up throughout our meetings, the last six months. Talk a little bit about what you hope comes out of it and how that might have an impact.

Rashad Robinson

The commission is diverse and has diverse experiences. The report is going to be incredibly important, and the report won’t look like the report that might come from Color of Change, right? It’s going to incorporate a range of perspectives and some things that we might not focus on at Color of Change. But what I hope comes out of this is an ongoing focus, both in government, in the corporate sector and in the media on prioritizing this issue and connecting it to sort of all of the various issues that we are dealing with in our country, from sort of the ways in which disinformation and misinformation has created a kind of hostile climate that doesn’t allow us to get comprehensive immigration reform. And so what we’re seeing at the border right now is a direct result of the sort of information environment we are in right now. The fact that we can’t actually deal with the fact that we are having direct attacks on our ability to express our will for a better future through voting.

And there are big lies that have traveled and we end up in these “both-sides” conversations. What’s happened with Covid deaths and what’s happening with Covid misinformation? All of these things are connected to the sort of structures which have allowed for this information to flow and for companies to sort of get away with it and profit from it. And so what I hope is that there isn’t just more outrage, there isn’t just more presence, there isn’t just more stories, but there is more strategic action from more places to force the type of change that we can look back five, 10, 15 years from now and say that we actually used this moment to move our country forward.

Vivian Schiller

Rashad. Thank you. You are incredible and I could just listen to you all day.