Do Companies Care More About Black Lives or Their Bottom Line?
Definition: Lip Service
Insincere expression of friendship, admiration, support, etc.; service by words only: Companies are paying lip service to Black communities.
On the evening of February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin went to his neighbourhood corner store to buy snacks — fuel for a late-night video game binge. He bought a pack of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. On his way home he was stalked, shot, and killed by a neighbourhood watchman— George Zimmerman. The watchman — the murderer, would be acquitted; Trayvon would become yet another name, a hashtag, on the long list of Black lives taken without consideration or consequence.
In the wake of Trayvon’s death, as thousands marched — demanding justice, neither Wrigley nor Arizona Beverage Co. — the companies who make Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea — made statements in support of their pleas. Neither called for the arrest of Zimmerman. Neither tweeted or posted messages in support of Black communities.
Eight years later, what’s changed?
For black people — not much. We still cannot go for a run, walk in a park, or be in our homes without our lives being threatened. The acquittals continue, the list gets longer, the hashtags are too many to count. But, for companies — their complacency now equates to complicity. A growing number of people expect companies to speak out against anti-Black racism – failure to do so results in boycotts and bad publicity.
While there is relief amongst Black people in finally having our voices heard. It would be naive to believe that companies using their platform to amplify our voices are doing so because they care. Companies are more often callous than caring.
Many of the companies speaking in support of Black communities have a history of discriminating against Black people. Others — although they may not actively contribute to our strife — do nothing to alleviate it. In each case, the words of companies are just that — words — statements more likely made to protect bottom lines than protect Black lives.
Inauthentic statements are more than lip service, they are a form of oppression — signal switching, a deflection technique. By publicly sharing their support of Black communities, companies seek to shift the focus away from their continuous mistreatment of Black people.
When Target speaks in support of Black communities they hope Black people will forget about the surveillance partnership they have with the Minneapolis Police Department. That they have a history of placing security devices on products designed for Black people. That over the past three years there have been several incidents of Target employees racially profiling Black customers.
As more companies speak out, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between authentic and performative allyship. Black people risk applauding our oppressors if we are not thoughtful in our analysis of who is, and who is not our ally.
So, how can you tell if a company cares more about Black lives or their bottom line? Consider these six questions.
1. Do they use #BlackLivesMatter in their statement?
Companies that use platitudes about injustice and discrimination, or diversity and inclusion, are signal switching. By not publicly acknowledging that #BlackLivesMatter, a company is choosing to ‘not take sides’ or worse, are trying to avoid ‘offending others’. When in fact, the only thing offensive at this juncture in time is the systemic disregard for the life and liberty of Black people.
#BlackLivesMatter is a factual statement, not a political one. Companies who do not acknowledge this, do not stand with Black communities.
2. Do they acknowledge that anti-Black racism is systemic?
Messages about individual responsibility suggest there is no need to address racism in our organizations and institutions. Only by acknowledging that racism is systemic, are companies able to evaluate how their business practices may contribute to, or uphold, anti-Black racism. Failure to do this suggests an unwillingness to critically engage in the change required to achieve true equality.
3. Are Black employees represented in the company?
Racial bias is deeply ingrained into the hiring practices of many organizations. Qualified Black candidates are often screened out before the interview stage — despite identical or greater experience and qualifications.
If a company does not employ at least enough Black people to reflect the communities in which they operate, they cannot — in good conscience — speak in support of Black lives.
4. Do Black employees feel safe and celebrated at work?
Diversity is not inclusion and hiring Black people is not enough. Ensuring that the work environment is inclusive requires that individuals feel safe and celebrated. A company cannot position itself as an ally to Black communities if they fail to build a community for their Black employees.
5. Are Black people represented in the company’s leadership?
The absence of Black leadership is the absence of Black perspectives. A company cannot expect a seat at the table for Black emancipation if they do not provide a seat at the executive table for Black leaders.
6. Have they made substantial commitments to community action?
External commitment is a necessary complement to internal action.
Large corporations have directly contributed to the economic disparity of Black communities. Companies seeking to support Black communities must acknowledge this and make substantial investments, in time and resources, to rectify the imbalance. This is more than writing a cheque equivalent to 0.25% of their market value— it is a continuous fiscal and operational commitment to invest in Black communities, Black businesses, and Black people. A complete re-evaluation of their corporate priorities.
So few companies will meet this basic threshold — and that’s the point. Allyship is not easy, it’s not as hard as a lifetime of anti-Black Racism, but it’s not easy. Companies who think otherwise — who believe their statements, their hiring, and their donations are enough — are woefully short-sighted. This moment is different. Geroge is not Trayvon, 2020 is not 2012. What’s changed in eight years? For Black people — everything. Finally #BlackLivesMatter.