Corporate America Celebrating Juneteenth Is a Mixed Blessing
Twitter and Square’s CEO announced Juneteenth as an official company holiday, and Corporate America followed. What does it mean when corporations embrace cultural change?
During the past few weeks, there has been a dramatic change in the American public’s attitudes about police treatment of Black Americans. 74% of Americans say they support the protests in cities across the country. The slogan Black Lives Matter has become more than a movement’s name; it is now a call for police reform and racial equality, sweeping across predominantly Black and White communities alike.
During these civil protests, Corporate America has become the public’s beacon for social change. Companies quickly identified the shift in public opinion, and made what has become an almost mandatory response — they pledged to play a more significant role in combating systemic racism, acknowledging their roles in perpetuating inequalities. By doing that, Corporate America became the leading social actor, bringing together the public’s calls for social justice and paving the path to reconciliation.
One recent example of Corporate America’s important role in embracing the protests and driving change is Twitter and Square’s CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement that the companies are making Juneteenth (June 19) a company holiday in the US, forevermore. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced in Texas that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were free. Ever since, many African-Americans and other communities have marked Juneteenth with parties, picnics, and gatherings with family and friends. However, although the US Senate passed a resolution (2018) recognizing “Juneteenth Independence Day” as a national holiday, it has not yet been approved in the House.
Dorsey announced the holiday would become a day for celebration, education, and connection and encouraged other companies to follow suit. By doing so, Dorsey is carrying forward the justified public demand for official recognition of the historical importance of slavery in the US. Twitter’s announcement has paved the path for Corporate America, and companies like Fox Media, Nike, the NFL, and more have embraced the holiday. New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, said he will sign an executive order to make Juneteenth a holiday for NY State employees. Also, Google has recognized the holiday in its calendar as a US holiday.
Dorsey, who controls Twitter, President Trump’s favorite social network, positioned himself as an important social and political actor. His public engagement is unique among Corporate America’s CEOs, who tend to avoid taking a political or social stand in public. Announcing Juneteenth is just one in a series of impressive steps Dorsey has taken lately, including allowing employees to work from home for as long as they want, adding a new warning to a Trump tweet, promoting informed discussion by verifying that people read the articles they share online, and donating $1 billion, a third of his wealth, to fund relief efforts for Covid19 and to encourage Universal Basic Income. his donation suggests a genuinely impressive amount of awareness and willingness to act.
Corporate America’s decision to celebrate Juneteenth is in line with the current trend of employees’ view that their workplace is part of their identity, and thus their demand that their workplace is ethical and asserts moral values that correspond with their worldview. Recent examples of employees demanding ethical workplaces can be seen in Google employees’ demand to change the way the company handles sexual harassment and discrimination, Wayfair employees’ protest of furniture sales to migrant detention centers, and Amazon employees’ protest of the sale of facial recognition software to police. Lately, Amazon and Microsoft have joined the list of tech giants that decided to limit the use of their facial-recognition systems, as studies have shown the systems misidentify people of color more often than white people.
Dorsey’s move to recognize Juneteenth is an interesting example of the cultural influence of Corporate America. While American society is divided, corporate America has become the voice that unifies the masses and prescribes the cultural consensus. Similar to the LGBTQ movement, corporate cooptation of Black Lives Matter can grant it legitimization, while also commercializing it and maintaining commercial corporations’ social control. Twitter, in this case, endorsed the holiday and the communities celebrating it and maintained its status as a key social and political actor that is attentive to public opinion.
Corporate America’s endorsement of the protests is highly praised and gives corporations a halo of being socially responsible organizations. Yet, at the same time, it distracts public opinion from the existing discrimination of people of color inside corporate America, as well as from its attempt to exploit the protest for public relations needs. Take, for example, one of the largest and most prestigious banks, Morgan Stanley; its CEO announced the promotion of two black women to high ranking executive positions lately, but only 2.2 percent of its senior leaders were black in 2019. The CEO of JPMorgan Chase kneeled with staff at one of the United States’ largest banks to support social justice, yet only 4 percent of its top executives are black. Even Twitter, which read the public opinion accurately and pushed the public acknowledgment of Juneteenth, is no exception: only 5.3 percent of its senior leaders are African Americans.
Corporate America’s socially aware announcements are a mixed blessing for Black Lives Matter. On the one hand, Corporate America’s immense cultural impact gives the critical demands for equality, police reform, and the celebration of Juneteenth legitimacy, and it reinforces them as social conventions for many audiences. On the other hand, the announcements blur years of continuous discrimination. They create a popular public relations spin, in which corporations are eager to stand on the right side of public opinion. Similarly to the #metoo movement, corporate America quickly identified it has to join the public. From here, there will be a short to race to see who will create the most creative and appealing announcement to strengthen the company’s brand and win the hearts of customers and employees. However, unless corporate America commits to long-term, in-depth structural change, these announcements will just be lip-service to the cause given in the interests of quarterly profits.