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Corporate US stands up for racial justice

Sabrina Kessler New York
June 4, 2020

Since the killing of George Floyd and the eruption of mass protests across the US, companies have begun expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics have accused them of jumping on the bandwagon.

Artist AmendTDK paints a mural of George Floyd in Oakland, California
Image: picture-alliance/MediaPunch/ImageSPACE/C. Tuite

Protests over the killing of George Floyd, police violence and institutional racism have gripped cities across the United States and around the world, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand change. But the movement has now spread beyond individuals, with many companies also expressing solidarity with the protesters.

Read more: Stars show solidarity with George Floyd protesters

"Racism continues to be at the root of so much pain and ugliness in our society — from the streets of Minneapolis to the disparities inflicted by COVID-19," wrote Mark Mason, the chief financial officer of Citigroup bank, in a corporate blog post last week. Mason is one of very few black executives to have made it to the top of a global corporation. According to Boston Consulting Group, only three of the 500 biggest companies in the US are headed by an African American. One of them, Kenneth Frazier, has been CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck for nine years. "Our society is more divided than it's ever been," he said in a recent interview with CNBC.

People loot a Nike store in New York
Despite being targeted by looters, many top brands have shown their support for the protestsImage: picture alliance/dpa/Zuma Press/Bildbyran/J. Marklund

Coffee chain Starbucks, global asset manager BlackRock, sporting goods manufacturer Nike, bank JP Morgan and the Disney Channel have also spoken out against racial injustice.

"We stand with our fellow black employees, storytellers, creators and the entire black community. We must unite and speak out," Disney said in a statement posted to its various social platforms. 

Twitter changed the color of its logo from blue to black, using the hashtag # BlackLivesMatter, while Netflix issued a statement saying: "To be silent is to be complicit." Reebok, a subsidiary of German sporting goods giant Adidas, wrote on Saturday: "We are not asking you to buy our shoes. We are asking you to walk in someone else's."

Other companies have announced changes to their internal policies. Grindr, a dating app that describes itself as the "world's largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people," said it would remove the ethnicity filter from its next release.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced she would chair a new advisory board featuring top executives and external community leaders, to promote equality and make her company one of the most inclusive. "There comes a time when we are compelled to stop diagnosing what is wrong and start advocating for what is right," she said earlier this week.

Read more: African Americans face deadly endemic police violence in US

On Tuesday, gaming giant Activision said it would postpone the release of new content updates for Modern Warfare, Warzone and Call of Duty: Mobile in order to leave space for the campaign for equality and justice. And Universal Music also announced plans to set up an internal task force to counter racial injustice.

'Important change'

Wendy Melillo, an associate professor at the American University in Washington D.C. who focuses on strategic communication, said it was good for companies' images to say they would do something against inequality and injustice. She said consumers, particularly those of the younger generation who have been out en masse, expected companies to show social responsibility.

"This is an important change that's happened in American society," she said. She cited Kellogg's and Apple as just two of the companies which had been publishing reports about their corporate responsibility for years. "Many companies actually have a strategy about how to approach these needs."

However, some attempts to show solidarity have fallen flat. Louis Vuitton artistic director Virgil Abloh was widely criticized on social media for his response to the looting of shops in Chicago and Los Angeles that has accompanied some of the protests, and for only donating $50 (about €46) toward protesters' legal expenses. He later apologized on Twitter.

Melillo said department store chain Nordstrom, which has been the target of extensive looting, also hadn't struck the right tone. "Nordstrom put out a vague message in which they said, 'We continue to have conversations about these important topics'," she said. "Where is the action message, the will to change something?"

Melillo said people were sick of talk without change, and that companies that wanted to make a difference really had to follow up on their words with action.

Read more: Germany 'shocked' by George Floyd killing, calls for end to violence

Jumping on the bandwagon

Some companies have followed through with donations and pledges. On Tuesday, Bank of America announced it would commit $1 billion over the next four years to help fight racial inequality, develop workforces and improve economic mobility in local communities.

Beauty multinational Sephora has donated more than $1 million to support organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Californian tech companies have given more than $20 million and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged an additional $10 million to support civil rights groups.

But for Keni Thacker, the founder of 100 Roses from Concrete, "a network for men of color in the advertising, marketing media and public relations industries," these companies are just jumping on the bandwagon. "This money, these campaigns, this sympathy won't change society," he told DW. "It's too late for that."

Read more: Opinion: Systemic racism is the real 'American carnage'

Money cannot reverse centuries of racism in the US, he said, and society has never shown respect to black people. "And suddenly, everybody is pretending to care about us."

Thacker said a mere glance at the makeup executive boards was enough to see hypocrisy of the current debate. US companies are not proactive, they are reactive, he said, adding that first of all, something has to happen and then companies and then people finally act. He said companies were also responsible for the situation that they now wanted to change with generous donations. "That's just a PR stunt!"

Melillo was less pessimistic, citing Nike and Target as positive examples. She pointed out that Nike's new ad, which changed its famous slogan, "Do it," to "For once, don't do it!" was in line with the company's past anti-racism campaigns.

She also said retailer Target had said it would try to address the problem of inequality, despite being a target of looting in recent days.

"Standing strong although stores are being targeted: That's a way to respond in an authentic way."

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