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In the month since the police killing of George Floyd, major companies have joined the national conversation on racial injustice. From social media posts to internal emails and promises of diversity initiatives, brands are rushing to prove that they support the antiracism movement.
Big brands have pledged billions of dollars to organizations, such as the NAACP, that fight racial injustice. Others are changing the names of popular products that are rooted in racial stereotypes. Nike, Twitter and Target gave employees a paid holiday for Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery.
Historically, companies tend to steer clear of social protest movements, fearing that taking sides could offend or alienate customers. However, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained widespread support in America, decreasing the risk of losing customers.
To some extent, the antiracism movement has forced companies to speak out. Activists criticize those who say nothing as complicit in systemic racism. For companies, this means that silence can no longer represent neutrality.
Editor’s note: Verizon donated $10 million to several organizations fighting for racial justice.
Why there’s debate
While the shift in corporate behavior shows the movement’s influence, many question whether brands’ vows to change are genuine.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been around since 2013, but only a few companies aligned themselves with it prior to 2020. Ben & Jerry’s, which has a history of activism, issued a widely praised, highly specific statement about dismantling white supremacy and calling for policy changes.
But the ice cream giant is a rare example of a company approaching race in a way that customers view as authentic. Most brands’ responses has been met with skepticism. Though there is a begrudging sense of acceptance that some action is more valuable than silence, critics say that companies’ statements are platitudes until they are backed up with action. It’s easy to post on social media or make a donation, but it is more difficult to confront race within a company, they say. They point to racial wage gaps, homogeneous company boards and forgotten diversity initiatives.
Other critics call companies hypocritical. There has been a long history of brands failing to deliver when it comes to issues of race. For example, Pepsi ran an advertisement that implied that racism could be solved with a can of soda. Recently, Taco Bell and Starbucks issued statements of support but barred employees from wearing Black Lives Matter gear. Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been called out for pushing products that undermine social justice movements.
Consumers and employees are watching how companies respond to calls for racial justice. To achieve lasting social change, brands must continue to be held accountable. Whether companies will follow through on promises of diversity initiatives and change remains to be seen.
Company statements might be a marketing ploy, but they show leadership
“The uptake of [political corporate social responsibility] by so many other companies in support of Black Lives Matter is significant. But it is only the start of an evolution that corporate America must make to shake accusations of tokenism.” — Bree Hurst, The Conversation
These corporate statements are empty words
“As a black woman, I feel like it is empty words. They don’t help our struggles. Everyone wants to join in and profit from us.” — Courtenay Brown to Associated Press
Corporate statements don’t carry much weight
“Many large companies in the U.S. might feel comfortable invoking the Black Lives Matter movement when there’s little else appropriate for them to say, or acknowledging that racism exists when it’s all anyone’s talking about. But in describing those things as mysterious, intractable phenomena, they pull a neat little sleight of hand. These brands set themselves outside the systems they serve, marveling at the country’s racism as though it’s an invisible pathogen for which no one is responsible, and therefore one that no one can meaningfully address.” — Amanda Mull, Atlantic
Donations are easy. Address racial injustice within your company.
“Giving money away is definitely much easier than addressing these issues internally. It’s corporate P.R., because it transfers the responsibility of solving the problem to outside organizations.” — Jamillah Bowman Williams to the New York Times
Corporate statements are complicated by products and track records
“While these shows of support were well intentioned, they didn’t address the way that these companies’ own products — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — have been successfully weaponized by racists and partisan provocateurs, and are being used to undermine Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.” — Kevin Roose, New York Times
Consumers want to give their business to brands that are willing to get political
“Customers, especially millennials and Gen Z, are holding brands to a higher social standard than before. People overwhelmingly prefer to buy from companies that share their beliefs and values, especially now, in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession when spending is limited.” — Terry Nguyen, Vox
Corporations will do whatever they can to stay profitable
“In a free society — in a nation that is capitalist not only in its laws but down to its marrow — profit-seeking organizations will do whatever is necessary to maximize their profit.” — Graham Hillard, National Review
Consumers will hold companies accountable
“I don’t think people are going to settle for just the statement. People are going to look ahead at four, six months, 12 months, three months. ‘What have you done on that statement?’” — Sekou Kaalund to CNBC
It’s impossible to be an ethical consumer in a capitalist system
“Wealth exists because of somebody’s oppression somewhere, whether it’s historic, or out of sight in a sweatshop overseas. Is Supreme hypocritical for taking money from a fund that has been plumped up by the sales of rubber bullets and teargas? Or are they putting bad money to good? Ultimately it’s up to the consumer to decide, and figure out how much ‘bad’ they are willing to accept.” — Coco Khan, the Guardian
Here’s what companies can actually do
“They could take strategic steps to recruit more black professionals, ensure black employees have equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion, routinely assess the workplace racial climate and take meaningful actions to improve it, mandate companywide professional learning experiences on a range of diversity and inclusion topics, invest considerably more financial resources into black employee network groups, ask black people for feedback and input on how to make the workplace less racist — and hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for acts of anti-blackness.” — Shaun R. Harper, Washington Post
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Ben & Jerry's, Nike, Getty Images, Rick Bowmer/AP