The brutal killing of George Floyd on 25th May has had repercussions of a scope unmatched throughout history. Protests in over 40 countries, in the face of the dangers posed by the coronavirus, have resulted in a belated but necessary response from municipal councils, state administrations and the federal government of the US, who are introducing laws to reform policing. In the UK, the Black Lives Matter protests have led to the removal of a statue of Edward Colston, a Bristol slave trader, from the town centre. Petitions aiming to alleviate racial prejudice and discrimination have flooded change.org and the UK government website, tackling issues from the school system to maternity care. And, in a (for some) shocking about-face, big corporations are now taking on the Black Lives Matter mantle.
Some of the world’s largest brands have publicly espoused the anti-racist efforts of the NAACP, BLM and other organisations – as well as publishing more general statements condemning racism in all its forms. But, as with all hasty social media-friendly messages, their responses have sparked accusations of glossing over the problems inherent in their structures. CEOs left, centre and, occasionally, right are taking to Twitter to express shock, anger and solidarity. Amazon overlord Jeff Bezos, of all people, engaged in a righteous Twitter battle with an “all lives matter” commenter, noting with his characteristic concern for social justice: “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that black people face in our law enforcement and justice system.” Thanks, Jeff. Meanwhile, Amazon’s ties to policing in the US have been documented by the Guardian, and their treatment of low-income workers has been exhaustively covered.
Anthropologie, the “boho” fashion chain whose mid-range hippie looks have inspired long-haired Instagram posers for 27 years, faced a backlash after posting a Maya Angelou quotation on their Instagram page. Black customers recounted being followed around while attempting to browse – their reports corroborated by ex-employees who remembered the codename “Nick” being used to profile potential thieves (read: innocent black people) in store. Urban Outfitters and Free People, which are both owned by Anthropologie’s parent company URBN, have come in for similar flak.
The other major way companies are Showing They Care is via money. The website Black Enterprise reported on 10th June that American businesses have donated or pledged $1.678 billion towards civil rights agencies, bail funds and anti-racism charities so far. But while this is a good start, it makes up only around 0.06% of the combined net worth of the billionaires on the Forbes 400 list, and just 1.5% of Bezos’s personal net worth. In other words, it’s a tiny drop in the bucket of the wealth accrued by these businesses – while still constituting a number that looks impressive on the news feed.
Many corporations seem aware that popular opinion will not be in their favour if they do not take a public stand against racism. As black- and BME-owned businesses come in for increasing publicity in the wake of the protests, big companies (whose CEOs are predominantly white) may be worried about losing money to smaller competitors. But the democratic tone of social media interaction – and its publicity – means that these companies will have to do more than just a post to prove their commitment to fighting prejudice. Supporting or highlighting black-owned businesses and creatives of colour, continuing to make financial commitments and working hard to change racist workplace culture are all important steps in the movement towards a fairer world. The internet is quick to praise companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Yorkshire Tea and Glossier, which seem (emphasis on seem) to be making a sincere effort to tackle discrimination with more than just words or a donation. Let us hope that their activism continues past the lifespan of a social media trend.
For a list of black-owned businesses in the UK visit UK Black Owned here.