Two weeks after a racist image was posted on the website of the South Bay’s largest chamber of commerce, sparse information has been released about how the image wound up on the site and who was responsible.
In turn, community leaders tapped to address cultural problems within the organization are pushing for greater transparency and a deeper look at the group’s ignorance about systemic racism.
At a press conference arranged Tuesday to reveal the findings of a third-party investigation, SVO executive board member Kevin Surace announced that the investigation had culminated but a detailed report would not be released for another two weeks.
Surace said that the initial findings did not uncover “any specific intent to post racist material or to stoke racial divisions.”
The image, he said, was the result of a “lack of communication and breakdown of the process between several people,” according to Surace. It was published without going through the organization’s proper review and approval process and was not approved by anyone “with the authority to approve such a posting,” he added.
The organization’s board leadership could not elaborate on what the typical approval process consisted of nor where or how the breakdown occurred. The organization initially referred to the employee responsible for posting the image as a “web administrator” but will not say whether any employees have been fired as a result of the image nor clarify whether the person who posted the image was employed by the SVO or worked for a third-party company that assisted the SVO with campaign ads.
The image that sparked intense public scrutiny and an unprecedented response from the SVO was part of an attack ad against a San Jose city council candidate who supported police reform. The black-and-white image featured a group of Black men in front of a cloud of tear gas overlain with the words: “Do you really want to sign onto this?”
The SVO quickly took down the photo after facing backlash and issued an apology acknowledging that the ad was “insensitive and racist.” But the fallout from the image came down swiftly and fiercely.
Over the course of the last two weeks, former CEO Matt Mahood resigned, more than a dozen influential companies dropped their memberships and board seats and the SVO dissolved its PAC, which was the organization’s campaign arm that supported business-friendly candidates.
The SVO now plans to get back to the basics of helping businesses in the community and release itself from the problems with its PAC, which “distorted the views of the organization as a whole and distorted the community’s perception of the organization,” Surace said.
“All divisions (of the SVO) must step up efforts to do more with our community members to, in fact, overperform to make up for what has happened and not just say ‘the PAC is gone’ but use this as a catalyst to engage the community,” Surace said.
The organization is launching a nationwide search for a new CEO following the resignation of Mahood and has named Glenn Perkins of Rennaisance Executive Forums as the new board chair. The SVO is also in the process of creating a new diversity and inclusion advisory board.
But a group of community leaders approached by the SVO to be part of the diversity and inclusion board still have reservations.
In a letter to the SVO on Monday, a half of a dozen community leaders — including Poncho Guevara of Sacred Heart and Rev. Ray Montogemery of People Acting in Community Together — wrote that they were concerned that SVO is “moving too hastily to ‘resolve’ an ‘incident’ with a hastily-assembled investigation and announcement of its findings” and that the organization has “reacted with defensiveness to the community feedback about the protest image and numerous other similar incidents—misleadingly calling it a symptom of ‘cancel culture.’”
Before they join the board, they have demanded that the SVO commit to becoming an anti-racist organization, ensure community members are at the center of the process and conduct a “full and transparent examination of the pattern of racist decision-making and the enabling structures of SVO’s management, consultants, PAC donors, and board of directors.”
“They have influence in creating policies, and those policies have to be anti-racist and ones that promote equity and justice and fairness in every situation,” Mongomery said. “That doesn’t mean we’re anti-capitalist but done with ethics, the policies should be ones that promote the well-being of our entire community.”
During Tuesday’s press conference, Surace said he was hopeful that businesses that had withdrawn their membership from the SVO in protest of the racist image would reconsider their decision.
Guevara and Montgomery, however, disagreed, saying that the organization has not yet proven that it is on a path toward reconciliation and that companies that have not yet withdrawn their memberships are “complicit” in problems that exist in the organization.
“The message that we’d still direct at the members of the SVO that have not declined or revoked their memberships is that we would want other members to continue to do so,” Guevera said. “If they actually do go through a change process and do reform, then organizations should certainly consider coming back.”