In the past month, the United States, alongside various other countries, has entered into what seems to be a new, powerful civil rights movement. Protestors have marched in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and in a multitude of places worldwide demanding change and contesting anti-blackness. In response, individuals, schools, companies, and more have attempted to show their dedication to the movement in various ways. Some are flooding their social media platforms with anti-racist resources, some are protesting, and some are releasing statements against racism, while others are enacting policy or lifestyle changes. However, not all of the apparent activism is meaningful and real. In the age of technology and social media, it is easy for individuals and organizations to put forth an image of allyship and activism, while neglecting and ignoring the movement in their real lives. Significant pressure has been put on corporate America especially, as true anti-racist activists are taking a closer look into how individual companies handle the issue of race and whether their allyship is more than a performance. Since the murder of George Floyd incited this new national uprising against racism, citizens are criticizing companies for racist tendencies, lack of employment diversity, and failure to recognize black history, among other race-related flaws. In response, many companies have promised to make changes that many are impressed by, although some of these changes are merely performative and will not create systemic change the way others have the potential to.
Corporate America’s Racist Past And Present
With people like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and LeBron James having achieved so much success, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that black people now have the same opportunities for success as white people. However, in corporate America especially, this is far from the case. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only four have black CEOs. This comes out to a percentage of less than one, while blacks make up 10% of American college graduates. Why is there such a large gap between these percentages? The answer to this question lies primarily in the racial stereotypes and race-based challenges that exist for black people in corporate America. Many black employees recount that they often must work at least two times harder than their white colleagues in order to achieve the same recognition, or be put up for the same promotion. When they slip up even slightly, their white bosses and coworkers are quick to see them as lazy, forgetful, and unqualified, instead of simply human. As a result, a study conducted at the University of Chicago found that over half of black American employees, 58%, have indicated that they’ve felt racism at work. What’s worse, many companies are aware of their diversity or race-related issues; they simply choose to ignore them. The co-C.E.O. of Ariel Investments, Mellody Hobson, has spoken out about this very problem, stating, “In business we set targets on everything… Only in the area of diversity have I seen C.E.O.s chronically say, ‘We’re working on it.’”
Another problem with a variety of companies is their use of racist mascots and/or advertising to represent their products. For example, Quaker Oats’s Aunt Jemima brand/character, who appears on all of their syrup bottles and pancake mix boxes, is based on a nostalgic 19th-century song about the South prior to the Civil War. Aunt Jemima is a black woman who appears to be dressed as a maid. In other words, she is very likely a pre-war female slave. And Quaker Oats is not the only company or organization with racism in their branding. Many sports teams have racist mascots, and other food companies, such as B&G foods (owner of Cream of Wheat) and ConAgra Foods (owner of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup), still have racist brands, and are currently receiving criticism as a result.
As a result of the current movement, and all of the criticism and pressure to be anti-racist that companies are facing, almost every company is attempting to do something to show their support for black lives and their commitment to anti-racism. For example, some companies decided to make this and future Juneteenths a paid holiday, while others issued statements of support for the black community. In the case of companies like Quaker Oats, many have chosen to change their branding and/or mascots as their way of aiding the movement against racism. In addition to these actions, some are taking it a step further, pledging donations to black communities or anti-racist organizations to show their support. Because of the digital age, anti-racist statements on social media, announcements of large donations, and public pledges to pay employees to take Juneteenth off for the celebration of black freedom spread rapidly throughout the country. As a result, many people have looked fondly upon these actions, ceased their criticism, and breathed a sigh of relief knowing that they could continue to support their favorite corporations. After all, these actions of rebranding, donating money, speaking out, etc., feel very strong. How could they not be acts of true activism, performed for the sole purpose of fighting racism and creating meaningful change?
While many of these actions may be decent first steps toward a company’s goal to become anti-racist, there is one glaring problem with them; they are simply performative. If all a company does to “fight racism” is issue a statement saying that they believe in racial justice and equality, how is that actually changing anything for black people? It’s not. It is, however, making the company look supportive to the public and allowing them to check the allyship box. It allows the company’s supporters to continue their support without the guilt of buying from a racist corporation. It may be non-racist, but it is no way anti-racist, and in order for real change to be enacted in corporate America, being non-racist is insufficient. The same argument can be made for the other actions mentioned above, such as making one donation, changing a brand’s mascot, and making Juneteenth a paid holiday. While these can be important, if companies stop there, they are not doing enough to truly change anything, as these actions do not take much effort from most of the large American corporations. Many of these businesses make very large profits, so a donation or an additional paid holiday for employees barely cuts into their fortunes. Additionally, the companies whose only action is rebranding and/or removing a mascot are simply neutralizing and not going any further. By removing a racist-rooted mascot, they may be losing their racist element, but this is far from enough to actually go the other way and become anti-racist. It’s an important initial step, but, just like the companies that have stopped at a public statement, a new holiday, or a donation, corporations such as Quaker Oats must do more to be true allies to this movement. If they want to enact real change, they are going to have to give a real effort.
While some companies have made it clear that their activism will end with the performative acts discussed above, others have seemed to commit to creating real change within their corporations in various ways. One way that many plan to start is by hiring a larger number of black employees and executives and/or spending a larger portion of their funds at black-owned businesses and suppliers. For example, Adidas has promised to fill 30% of its vacant positions with black or Latinx employees, and Estée Lauder has committed to having a percentage of black employees that matches the percentage of black people making up the nation’s population. Facebook, which has often been surrounded with controversy regarding these issues, has seemed to make a strong statement as well, announcing that they will increase the number of black and Latinx people in leadership positions by 30% within the coming five years. What’s more, some companies are investing in their black employees and providing them with the training and resources that they’re not often given to thrive in the workplace. Apple is among these companies, as they’re in the process of creating a training camp for black software developers to workshop and showcase their ideas. Some corporations have also agreed to increase recruiting at HBCUs, or provide funds for college tuitions for black people in need.
The difference between these changes and those discussed earlier is that they go beyond a simple one-and-done statement or donation. While those might momentarily make a company look good or help an organization for the short-term, they lack sustainability, and again, true effort. Hiring and sufficiently training more black people, funding the education of black youth, and supporting black-owned businesses all have a much stronger long-term impact on black communities and black individuals. For example, allowing more black youth to go to college at least partially combats the systemic disadvantages that often prohibit them from doing so. What’s more, recruiting at HBCUs and hiring increasing numbers of black employees will hopefully bring more wealth to black families, allowing the coming generations to grow up with greater opportunities. It’s clear that systemic racism is intricate, deep-set, and difficult to uproot. While these actions are not nearly sufficient to completely dismantle the system and the racism that exists in corporate America, they are strong steps forward. And at the very least, they have the potential to create meaningful change; they go beyond a reputation-protecting performance.