Many of the same companies that say ‘Black lives matter’ are involved with the systems that continue to oppress Black Americans
- In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a slew of companies have stepped up to declare that “Black lives matter.”
- However, many of these companies are invested in the exact systems that people have been protesting about, systems that hurt and endanger Black people.
- If Black lives actually mattered to these corporations, they would be sure to divest from these systems, and halt the production of products that disproportionately affect people of color.
- Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Since the death of George Floyd, corporations have seized the moment and pledged to take actions to divest from the harmful systems of American policing.
IBM said it would no longer sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement, halting the practice until further notice. Soon after, Amazon said it would not sell its facial recognition software Rekognition to law enforcement for one year. Microsoft followed suit, saying it would not sell software until there was a federal law regulating it. Taser and “smart weapons” manufacturer Axon blitzed the media with woke messaging.
“All lives cannot matter, until Black lives matter,” its CEO Rick Smith said, suggesting the company would become “actively anti-racist.” The retail giant Target said it was donating $10 million to advance social justice causes and 10,000 hours of “consulting” hours to black owned businesses.
Yet despite these gestures that have gained untold “earned” media for these companies, each one remains deeply invested in punitive systems that continue to harm Black and brown lives.
As Malkia Devich-Cyril wrote in The Atlantic, each tech company that said it would stop selling face recognition technology to law enforcement still continues to partner with police at various levels of government. Additionally, a new report by Jack Poulson of Tech Inquiry, a former Google employee, revealed the extent these companies — and others — are embedded within the military and federal law enforcement via subcontracts that help to insulate them from scrutiny.
Hypocrisy from corporations
Let’s start with IBM, which said it would stop selling the technology all together. However, according to Protocol, it still sells predictive police software to police departments, which, as Devich-Cyril notes in the Atlantic, contradicts the company’s statement saying they would divest from racist policing technology.
Microsoft also continues to sell surveillance software to law enforcement. According to Albert Fox Cahn and Will Luckman in Fast Company, Microsoft provides the NYPD with “systems” that create the “backbone of New York’s surveillance-to-prison pipeline, leading to countless stops, arrests, and acts of violence against New Yorkers of color” through its Domain Awareness System (DAS), an amalgamation of different surveillance tools such as license plate readers, cameras, and transit data.
The list continues. Target’s CEO said that “Target stands with Black families, communities and team members.” The retail behemoth, which brought in $23 billion in revenue in the second quarter of 2020, walked the talk by donating a paltry $10 million to “to advance social justice and support rebuilding and recovery efforts in local communities.”
At the same time, the company has also donated at the highest level — at least $3 million — to the creation of the National Museum of Law Enforcement and partnered with other police groups. Furthermore, the company has maintained its own forensic crime lab in Minneapolis to prosecute shoplifters and “alleviate strain on our law enforcement partners’ resources.”
Last but not least is Axon, which manufacturers Tasers and other “Smart Weapons.” The company’s CEO Rick Smith (which, again, now suggests his company will become “actively anti-racist”) claimed it would rise to the moment by “building technology that helps eradicate racism and excessive force in the justice system.” Yet the company has long been haunted by deaths involving their stun guns.
A Reuters investigation found that through the end of 2018 more than 1,081 people died after a police encounter involving the weapon. At least 32% of those who died were Black despite Black Americans making up only 14% of the US population.
In Smith’s statement lending support for Black Lives Matter, he wrote that the company stands for “transparency and accountability.” But as part of an investigation into deaths involving Tasters by Reuters in 2017, Axon declined to share an internal list of people who died due to Taser encounters, or their racial makeup, maintaining that only a few dozen people have died from Tasers. (Somewhat ironically, the company’s motto, which Smith repeats in his statement, is that the company “protects life” and “protects truth”.)
These companies only scratch the surface of corporate America’s duplicity on racial politics in the wake of George Floyd’s death. It is by no means a comprehensive list of brands saying one thing and doing another.
Still, as long as police budgets are flush with cash there will be large companies eager to get a piece of the pie. The only way to change this incentive structure is to divest from punitive systems of violence that see Black and brown lives as expendable. Legislators who write government budgets have the power to take money away from the police and other agencies that engage in foul conduct.
Corporations might say they are “listening,” but they won’t divest until they are forced to do so.
Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The New Republic, CJR, and many other publications. Find him on Twitter @willinabucket.
Pushed by employees in some cases, and in others by a fear of losing customers, corporations are being forced to examine their roles in perpetuating inequalities in hiring, pay and promotion, fostering toxic workplace cultures and consumer discrimination. Their track records have raised skepticism about whether they will indeed introduce the kind of change that would make this moment a turning point for racial equity.
“There’s a lot of performative allyship going around,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, chief executive and founder of diversity consulting firm ReadySet. “Nobody’s asking for a CEO to take a knee. You take the knee after you change your policies.”
The image of Dimon, hands clasped over his right knee, was meant to convey his “support for social justice,” said JPMorgan Chase spokeswoman Patricia Wexler. “Our leaders and our company have done a lot more than kneel, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in combined philanthropic and business resources to address some of the most persistent challenges facing the black community,” she said, highlighting the bank’s programs to help black-owned businesses, build affordable housing and hire people with criminal records.
After George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police last month, hundreds of companies blanketed social media with statements denouncing discrimination and professing their commitment to racial justice.
Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter and Square, declared Juneteenth (June 19) a corporate holiday to commemorate the end of slavery, a move more companies are making. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who is married to tennis star Serena Williams, resigned from the board to make way for the first black director in the company’s history. Bank of America promised to spend $1 billion over the next four years to address “economic and racial inequality accelerated by a global pandemic.”
Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, pledged to stop locking up “multicultural” hair and beauty products in display cases, and Sephora committed to devoting at least 15 percent of its shelf space to black-owned beauty brands. Toymaker LEGO suspended marketing for police-themed sets after video emerged showing an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Polls now show a large bipartisan majority of Americans support the protests. That’s a dramatic departure from three years ago when few of the companies speaking out now voiced support for the NFL player protests, and President Trump called for a boycott over players kneeling during the pregame national anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell now says the league was wrong for not listening to players.
But activists, employees and diversity consultants say they question how much corporate promises to “do more” will help upend a system of economic disparity in which a typical black family has just one-tenth the net worth of a typical white family.
Part of closing the racial wealth gap, they say, means ensuring opportunities for black workers to enter and rise in lucrative industries such as finance and tech, whose leadership has long been dominated by white executives and board members.
“I appreciate your Black Lives Matter post. Now follow that up with a picture of your senior management team and your board,” said Brickson Diamond, chief executive of diversity consulting firm Big Answers and former chief operating officer of the Executive Leadership Council, a nonprofit focused on increasing the number of black executives.
After watching thousands of protesters march past his Manhattan apartment, James Gorman, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, held a conference call with some of the bank’s highest-ranking black executives, and announced the promotion of two black women to positions on its operating and management committees.
This period “will not be easily forgotten in history, and it shouldn’t be,” Gorman said. “God willing, it will be seen as a turning point in race relations.”
But like many of the country’s largest and most prestigious banks, Morgan Stanley has struggled to increase diversity within its ranks. Only 2.2 percent of its senior executives were black last year.
Just 4 percent of JPMorgan Chase’s top executives are black, despite years of public, high-profile efforts to increase its diversity. Wells Fargo saw the percentage of black senior executives fall from 8 percent in 2015 to 3.5 percent in 2019.
And at Bank of America, which paid a $4.2 million settlement last year after being accused of discriminating against black, Hispanic and female job applicants, about 5 percent of senior leaders are black. The company denied allegations of discrimination.
Goldman Sachs, which just announced a fund to support groups that address racial injustice and economic disparity, had paid $9 million in 2019 to settle federal allegations of racial and gender pay bias. The firm said at the time that it disagreed with the government’s analysis and was committed to equal pay for employees.
The dearth in diversity extends across the corporate world. Of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, 187 did not have a black board member, according to a 2019 analysis by Black Enterprise magazine.
African Americans comprise a fraction of the senior leadership at the largest tech firms — 3.1 percent at Facebook, 3.6 percent at Google, 4.4 percent at Slack, 5.3 percent at Twitter and 2.7 percent of executives at Microsoft, according to company data. Amazon did not disclose the demographics of senior leadership, but their report shows that 8.3 percent of U.S. managers are black. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The numbers are lower in the world of venture capital. One percent of venture funding went to black start-up founders in 2018, according to a study conducted by Silicon Valley Bank and others. And 1 percent of decision-makers at the top 100 venture capital firms were black in 2018, according to an annual survey by the Information, a tech news site.
In addition to hiring and pay disparities, banks have come under fire for allegedly discriminating against minority customers. Some have settled claims in recent years for targeting black and Hispanic home buyers with risky, expensive loans. Homeownership, one of the most important ways to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African Americans since 1968.
“These are some of the same banks that ripped so much wealth from black and Latino communities during the foreclosure crisis,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, a nonprofit focused on racial and economic justice.
Corporate statements supporting Black Lives Matter stand empty, he said, without meaningful actions such as directing profits back into black communities, eliminating racial pay disparities, increasing hiring from black neighborhoods and promoting black employees. “All of these things would show that this is more than just platitudes.”
The American Bankers Association said in a statement that the industry “condemns discrimination of any kind in the lending market, the workplace and beyond” and that banks of all sizes are committed to “enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion within the industry” and addressing “racial injustice and inequity in the country.”
JPMorgan Chase has battled allegations of discrimination against black financial advisers and customers, most recently in recordings obtained by the New York Times in 2019. The bank has said it was reviewing how it does business “so that we could gain a deeper understanding of what more we can do to root out racism and discrimination anywhere it exists.”
At Wells Fargo, which paid $10 million last year to settle a lawsuit filed by the city of Philadelphia accusing the bank of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier, more expensive mortgages, a committee of senior executives is meeting daily to develop recommendations for addressing societal inequalities facing black employees and customers. The bank denied allegations of discriminating against minority borrowers.
“As a white man, as much as I can try to understand what others are feeling, I know that I cannot really appreciate and understand what people of color experience and the impacts of discriminatory behavior others must live with,” Charlie Scharf, chief executive of Wells Fargo, wrote to employees.
Feeling emboldened by what they hope to be a transformative moment, black employees are more willing to speak out about their experiences of discrimination in the workplace and pressure managers for change.
Black tech workers are publicly voicing complaints that their companies are relying on their “free labor” to help with hiring and recruiting. At social media platforms, employee groups set up to support members of color are asked to double as a voice for black users, an unpaid job they nonetheless feel called to fulfill.
Since the protests began, this second job has become even more fraught, according to interviews with group leaders from tech firms in the Bay Area and New York City. SoFi, the venture-backed finance company, and others have tasked black employees with deciding where corporate donations should go and attending company listening sessions about race. Asked for comment, SoFi pointed to its statement on Twitter that said it commits to “fighting for diversity and inclusion.”
“You cannot stunt on social saying that you don’t tolerate racism at your organization then leave the labor of fixing your race problem [to] fall on your black employees,” Raki Wane, who previously led Twitter’s resource group for black employees, Blackbirds, and now works in policy communications at Instagram, posted on Twitter.
To signal its support for the movement, Amazon put a “Black Lives Matter” banner on its home page and at the top of Prime Video. Later, Bezos posted angry customer emails about the banner to his Instagram account. “Dave, you’re the kind of customer I’m happy to lose,” Bezos wrote in one caption.
To critics, these public statements masked the harmful impacts Amazon’s products and practices have had on the black community, including profiting from the sale of white supremacist propaganda as well as selling facial recognition technology to police departments, which the company recently announced it would suspend for one year.
Black tech workers are even sharing stories alleging bias at Slack, which established a reputation as a welcoming environment when CEO Stewart Butterfield sent four black female engineers onstage to accept an award on his behalf for the fastest-growing tech start-up in 2016. But this month, the same black engineers confronted Butterfield on Twitter about their experiences at Slack.
Duretti Hirpa, an engineer who helped start an internal group for employees of color, shared that she had been told her work was considered an extracurricular activity when it came time for promotions, despite the company publicizing her group as evidence of its inclusive culture. When Butterfield responded that he was sorry her diversity work was not valued, Hirpa tweeted back, “Alas, you’re just a CEO in the position of power to change that!”
Black employees working for consumer brands are speaking out as well.
At Adidas, Julia Bond, a 25-year-old assistant designer for men’s apparel, said the protests helped inspire her to email senior executives on June 3 seeking a “public apology for the racism and discrimination that they have openly enabled and perpetuated across the brand.”
A couple of months after joining the sports apparel firm last year, Bond said she was given a design packet that included an image of a man wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag. Seeing that image at work “was really traumatizing,” Bond recalled. “If our highest design inspiration [includes] a Confederate flag, how are we ever going to reach black consumers?”
In an Instagram post, another Adidas designer alleged a co-worker had used the n-word. And in an email to senior leadership posted on social media, Aaron Ture, an employee who works for Reebok, which is owned by Adidas, said that he recalled Karen Parkin, head of global human resources at Adidas, dismissing a question about internal racism during a 2019 meeting as “noise we only hear in North America.”
Parkin on Friday sent a message to employees promising to improve company culture to “ensure equity, diversity and opportunity.” As the company’s human resources executive, she wrote, “it was my responsibility to make clear our definitive stance against discrimination, and this I did not. Should I have offended anyone, I apologize.”
Adidas said that the company would require at least 30 percent of all open positions in the United States to be filled with black and Latino employees and invest $120 million in programs for the black community over the next four years.
Bond said speaking out has made her “extremely nervous.” But there’s “strength in numbers,” she said. “I think everybody can feel that. The numbers are showing up, and that’s what’s emboldening this wave of change.”
Adidas said the company has promised to “continually and actively” fight racism.
After L’Oreal Paris recently posted a message saying “Speaking out is worth it,” model Munroe Bergdorf accused the cosmetics company of hypocrisy. She said L’Oreal dropped her from a campaign in 2017 for speaking out against racism and white supremacy following the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. L’Oreal responded by rehiring her to serve on its newly formed UK Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, the company posted on Instagram.
“I regret the lack of dialogue and support the company showed Munroe around the time of termination,” L’Oreal Paris Brand president Delphine Viguier wrote. “We should have also done more to create a conversation for change as we are now doing.”
Employees at other companies are pushing for the removal of leaders for behavior they say perpetuates racism — some with quick success.
More than 100 employees at Estee Lauder are demanding the ouster of the founder’s son and heir, Ronald Lauder, from the board — asserting that his political contributions to Trump are damaging the company’s relationship with its black employees and with the black community at large. In response, the company said it would double the amount it spends on contracts with black-owned suppliers and recruit and promote more black workers.
CrossFit’s founder and CEO, Greg Glassman, was forced to retire over multiple remarks he made about Floyd’s death, including a recording of him on a conference call saying: “We’re not mourning for George Floyd — I don’t think me or any of my staff are.” In a statement, Glassman said he had “created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members.”
The CEO of the Wing, a private club for women to work and socialize, and the editors in chief of Refinery29, a fashion and beauty blog, and Bon Appétit magazine, which is owned by Condé Nast, all resigned in recent days after black and brown employees described a work environment rife with pay disparities and discrimination.
“It’s a crucial moment,” Diamond said. “My biggest fear is we are going to get to a place real soon where the establishment says, ‘Well, that was uncomfortable. No more, thank you. Now let’s get back to work.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon posed for a photograph with mostly white staff. The bank said the majority of the staff in the photo were people of color, and the article has been amended.
- An attorney for Tara Reade, the woman accusing former Vice President Joe Biden of sexual assault, said on Friday that he had dropped her as a client without providing a reason.
- Doug Wigdor, a noted #MeToo lawyer whose firm has represented clients with claims against high-profile men accused of abuse such as Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said the decision was “by no means a reflection on whether then-Senator Biden sexually assaulted Ms. Reade.”
- Reade has alleged that Biden assaulted her in a Senate office building in 1993. She has called for Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, to drop out of the race.
An attorney for Tara Reade, the woman accusing former Vice President Joe Biden of sexual assault, said on Friday that he had dropped her as a client without providing a reason.
Doug Wigdor, a noted #MeToo lawyer whose firm has represented clients with claims against high-profile men accused of abuse like Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said the decision was “by no means a reflection on whether then-Senator Biden sexually assaulted Ms. Reade.” He also said he sided with the 55% of voters who believe her, citing a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll.
Wigdor, who has donated thousands of dollars to President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, in addition to some Democratic candidates, said the decision to part ways with Reade was made on Wednesday, less than two weeks after he announced that he was representing her.
A spokesperson for Reade, Maria Villena, said in a statement that Reade “does not have a statement about Mr. Wigdor’s decision to part ways.”
“When he joined Tara’s team he was not expecting the amount of victim-shaming and attacks against her credibility as he saw over the past weeks. As he said, these storylines are ‘unrelated and irrelevant matters’. Tara is currently seeking new counsel with PR support,” Villena said.
Reade has alleged that Biden assaulted her in a Senate office building in 1993. She has called for Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, to drop out of the race. Biden has denied Reade’s claims.
In his statement, Wigdor said the media had subjected Reade to a “double standard.”
“Much of what has been written about Ms. Reade is not probative of whether then-Senator Biden sexually assaulted her, but rather is intended to victim-shame and attack her credibility on unrelated and irrelevant matters,” Wigdor said. “We genuinely wish Ms. Reade well and hope that she, as a survivor, is treated fairly.”
Questions about Reade’s background surfaced in recent days after CNN reported that a spokesperson for Antioch University said that Reade did not graduate from the Seattle institution despite her claim that she earned a bachelor’s degree there.
Reade, who has said she fled an abusive ex-husband, told the outlet that she graduated in a “protected program” to conceal her identity, but the Antioch spokesperson said such a program has never existed.
Reade did take classes at Antioch, the spokesperson said. She later graduated from Seattle University School of Law in 2004 through an admissions program designed for diverse and non-traditional students.
The questions around Reade’s educational background prompted defense attorneys in California to reexamine cases in which Reade testified as an expert. Reade claimed under oath that she had received an undergraduate degree from Antioch University, according to Politico, which reviewed trial transcripts in two cases.
The allegation against Biden has put Democrats and Democratic-aligned groups that support victims of sexual misconduct in an uncomfortable position as Biden challenges Trump for the presidency.
Where Movements Go to Die: The Democrats are Draining the Resistance’s Life
For a brief, fleeting moment, it seemed that this time it might be different. Donald Trump’s inauguration was followed by the largest one-day protest in American history. The next week, spontaneous actions broke out across the country’s airports in response to the administration’s travel ban. People started talking about a general strike.
That was then. This is now. The upswell of political action that began three and a half months ago continues, of course, as congressional representatives meet with angry constituents across the nation and every weekend brings a fresh march, action, or protest. But today, unlike in the immediate aftermath of the inauguration, the protest movement is becoming branded by the big blue D of the Democratic party.
That presents a problem. The reason that there’s a saying that “the Democratic Party is where social movements go to die” is because it’s true. America’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party finds its purpose in crushing challenges to the socioeconomic order by co-option and assimilation.
The immediate rejection of Trump came as a surprise to many in the Democratic Party and the political class. In the aftermath of Trump’s election victory, then President Barack Obama told the president elect that “if you succeed, the country succeeds.” His defeated challenger Hillary Clinton told her supporters that “we owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
The Democrats were flailing after their crushing defeat last November. Their electoral machine was in shambles and they were all out of ideas, after having tried nothing.
It took a while for the party to read the mood of the electorate. Senate Democrats, with the exception of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, were mainly compliant with confirming Trump’s cabinet nominees in the first week of the new administration.
That began to change, however, as the public pressure from a genuine grassroots movement pushed back against the Trump agenda. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker stopped voting for the president’s Cabinet picks by February. They knew there would be consequences for collaboration.
Gillibrand, Warren, and Booker are each widely expected to have designs on the White House in 2020, and they each want to turn the new protest movement to their advantage. Booker showed up at an airport protest on Jan. 29. Warren and Gillibrand have popped up at rallies across their home states in the months since Trump took office. Their votes against Trump’s nominees appear, to a cynic, to be the kind of politicking that will position each well to channel the anger against Trump from the base while defanging the parts of the movement they don’t care for.
As for Clinton, she has reentered the political scene with both a new narrative and a new scheme. The failed 2016 Democratic presidential candidate has decided that she is mostly blameless for her defeat. Instead, the new narrative goes, Clinton was brought down by now former FBI Director James Comey and an unspecified but nefarious Russian hacking operation.
With that cleared up, Clinton is moving on to doing what she does best: grift. The former Secretary of State is starting a new political action committee to raise money for protest groups and, for the midterms, candidates. She’s called the PAC “Onward Together,” a play on her failed campaign’s slogan “Stronger Together.”
This move by Clinton encapsulates the problem of the Democrats coopting an organic protest movement against Trump perfectly. A real grassroots movement against the president and his administration could present a challenge to both the problems of the current administration and the problems of America as a whole. But if the movement is controlled and funded by the same party professionals that have created a brand so off-putting, and so toxic, that the American people prefer Trump, what measure of success can it realistically expect to have?
Further, a Clinton controlled PAC could allow the party machine to continue to determine the course of the movement. The Democrats have deep pockets—ask anyone who’s ever run against the party without significant financial backing. By funneling extra cash and resources to her chosen candidates, Clinton and her ilk could continue to control the direction of the party.
Sure, a few more liberal candidates would slip through the cracks in the primaries. But for the most part, we shouldn’t expect to see a Tea Party wave in the Democratic Party in 2018. They won’t allow it.
The Democrats plan to attach themselves, tick-like, to a political movement that was born from resistance. They’ll drain it of its lifeblood and infect it with a debilitating disease, rendering the movement toothless, tired, and depleted. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
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