A day has come and gone since Silicon Valley’s regional chamber of commerce posted—and then promptly removed—a campaign ad decried as racist.
But the fallout is far from over.
The Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) today convened an urgent board meeting where leaders decided on three things: to place CEO Matt Mahood on paid leave, hire an independent investigator to figure out who’s responsible for publishing the offending image and suspend all campaign activities.
In an announcement today, SVO Vice President Madison Nguyen said there was “no excuse” for the ad, which featured a monochromatic image of Black men in clouds of tear gas or smoke along with the question, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”
“An image was recently posted on the SVO website that was blatantly racist, completely inappropriate and unacceptable,” she wrote in an email. “We are horrified by this image as it does not represent the values of the organization, the leadership, the board of directors or our members. For that, we apologize. There is no excuse.”
The SVO said it already identified a third-party firm to determine how and why the image was posted. But it said nothing of when those findings will be made public—if at all.
“Their investigation will explore all levels of the organization starting with leadership and will include inherent cultural issues in the organization that might have contributed to this disgraceful post, along with recommendations for necessary changes,” Nguyen’s Wednesday morning statement went on to say.
On Thursday, she said, the SVO will host a press conference to further address the issue.
“The board of directors is moving quickly and effectively to understand how this could have occurred, and to ensure it never happens again,” Nguyen concluded. “We understand that swift, effective action is required so that the other positive work and community support of the SVO is not impacted.”
For something so divisive, of course, swift action won’t necessarily beget swift amends.
In the past 24 hours, the SVO drew denouncements from scores of nonprofit leaders, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and longtime chamber members Joshua Howard and Anil Babbar of the California Apartment Association.
— Bobby G (@bobby21g) October 29, 2020
“This action and its message were never discussed or vetted by SVO PAC members,” the latter two wrote in a letter explaining their departure. “It does not reflect the values of our community or that of the California Apartment Association and its goals of promoting all local, state, and federal fair housing laws for all residents without regard to color, race, religion, sex, marital status, mental or physical disability, age, familial status, sexual orientation, or national origin.”
Liccardo echoed the sentiment, calling the SVO’s use of the image “morally wrong.”
“Clearly, that’s an atrocious use of an image in a political campaign that we know has racial undertones,” the mayor said in a Facebook Live stream today, “and that’s exactly what we do not want to see anywhere in the United States of America.”
As I stated earlier, SVO’s use of a photo conveying an implicitly racist campaign message was abhorrent. Racial fear-mongering has no place in our city. Though CEO Matt Mahood took down the photo as soon as he became aware & publicly apologized, SVO cannot let this happen again
— Sam Liccardo (@sliccardo) October 29, 2020
Joining the chorus of condemnation were the two candidates in the City Council race that inspired the ad in the first place.
“I just became aware of the horrific web page posted by SVO showing rioters in the streets,” District 6 Councilwoman Dev Davis wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “I am angry and shocked by the horrible graphic and truly disappointed by the very poor judgment and racist picture the SVO posted. I denounce this in the strongest terms and am ashamed of the past support I have received from them.”
Both D6 contenders are white, but Davis’ Green Party challenger Jake Tonkel’s public support for protests against police brutality redirecting local law enforcement funding to safety-net services has drawn a number of well-funded, inflammatory attacks from the incumbent’s institutional backers.
On Twitter, Tonkel slammed the SVO for “blatantly stoking fear and racism,” and urged the organization to “take a step back and take a good look at themselves before they can be a part of the political discourse.”
The SVO needs to take a step back and take a good look at themselves before they can be a part of the political discourse. (2/2)
— Jake Tonkel for SJ D6 (@Jake4D6) October 28, 2020
To date, the SVO Political Action Committee has spent a record -breaking $500,000-plus on campaign ads supporting business-friendly incumbents and attacking their progressive, labor-backed challengers in San Jose’s District 6 and District 4 races.
In addition to the ad at the center of a public reckoning for SVO, the business group’s campaign arm sent out anti-Tonkel mailers criticized for invoking stereotypes hearkening back to the nation’s redlining era of racially segregated neighborhoods.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation Nicole Taylor, San Jose SPUR Teresa Alvarado and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County CEO Gregory Kepferle co-wrote an op-ed published Wednesday afternoon in the Mercury News that lambasted the housing fliers as “false, misleading and racist.”
“The housing hit piece employs abhorrent tactics like showing large gray-scale residential ‘towers’ next to cheerily-colored single-family homes—bringing to bear all the false and racist stereotypes about rental housing and more affordable housing as well as the individuals and families who live there,” the piece reads.
The co-authors note how such “racist tactics were highlighted” in Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, which they note was “ironically, a book recently recommended by Matt Mahood, CEO of SVO, as well as by the National Association of Realtors).”
The online ad with the image of Black protesters takes it a step further, they go on state, suggesting “a disturbing pattern of racist tropes.”
Alvarado, Taylor and Kepferle close their piece by urging other organizations to boycott SVO. “If we want to create a community that is anti-racist, we must start now,” they declare. “The day of reckoning is here.”
Valley Water CEO Rick Callender, a longtime NAACP leader, didn’t need much convincing. The water executive announced that he’s joining the exodus from the chamber by ending his agency’s 44-year SVO membership.
“As an African American CEO, I am disgusted, hurt and deeply offended by [SVO’s] racist attempt in a political campaign to use a civil rights era picture of African American men to stir up racial fear and hatred,” Callender said. “Using these images to suggest there should be something to fear or distrust or other stereotypical issues associated with African American men should not be allowed in political campaigns, in the community, or from those who purport to represent us as industry associations.”
The issue transcends the present election, he added.
“This is about trying to incite people to be fearful of me, an African American man, in my own community, in which I live and work,” he wrote. “This racist act is unacceptable.”