After the police killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement saw unprecedented support, and companies were all about racial justice—there was “more risk in remaining silent,” says one pollster. Now the winds have changed, but strong factors are still pushing corporations to recalibrate.
When Lululemon, purveyor of $168 leggings, trumpeted that it was supporting an effort to “unveil historical erasure and resist capitalism” earlier this month, it was mocked by the conservative edge of social media. The Woke Capital Twitter account lampooned the company’s “nonstop leftist agitation,” and commentators were quick to ask where they might collect their not-for-profit activewear. For some on the right, the Lululemon episode was emblematic of the hypocrisy of corporate virtue signaling, and they urged consumer action. Many cheered when they found signs of that customer revolt, as Charlie Kirk did when fans booed the NFL’s moment of unity before the first game of the year: “NFL Season Opener ratings were down 16.1% last night—a 10 year low for the NFL & NBC,” he tweeted. “I guess Americans don’t want to be lied to about how racist and awful their country is—especially one day before the anniversary of 9/11.”
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, hundreds of companies rushed onto social media with statements of support, sometimes with a funding commitment, sometimes with just a black square on Instagram. It was a safe moment to establish credibility on racial equity because, in our divisive times, it was an unusual moment of apparent national agreement. Public opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement, historically split along political, racial, and age lines, abruptly swung toward consensus. Polling registered a net positive of 25 points at the end of May, according to the Civiqs tracking poll, and opposition to Black Lives Matter slid to a mere 27%. Favorable views were registered in virtually every demographic group: all racial groups, ages, and every education level. Even white people without a college degree, the foot soldiers of the Trump cultural revolution, were net positive on BLM. Corporate CEOs hastened to express their personal commitment, such as when JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon publicly took a knee.
But moments of cohesion do not last long in American public life. The violence associated with protests in Kenosha, Portland, and other U.S. cities, along with a pounding propaganda campaign by Donald Trump and conservative media, seem to have taken a toll. Now, months after Floyd’s death, the number of people expressing opposition to BLM has risen to heights not seen in two years. Civiqs shows that BLM is now underwater with white people, with people over 65, and with men. In this renewed polarized environment, even modest expressions of support come with risks. After the Montauk Brewing Company in Long Island expressed its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on a chalkboard outside its tasting room, angry locals formed a Defund Montauk Brewing Company group on Facebook and gathered over 33,000 followers.
In theory, the increasing disharmony around Black Lives Matter would be enough to throttle corporate enthusiasm for social justice issues. It’s true that, following weeks of statements and gestures, most have gone relatively quiet—at least from a public-facing standpoint. But below the surface, many businesses are still being pushed toward accountability. Rick Wade, the senior vice president of strategic alliances and outreach at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told me that “this does feel like a different moment.“ In addition to “the moral imperative…this is about the business case for racial equity,” he said. Corporations now understand “that they have to be front and center on the issues of diversity and racial equality, because this is also about the market.” Perhaps you might expect to hear sunny words from the Chamber of Commerce, but they are similar to comments from the social justice sector. Arisha Hatch, the chief of campaigns for Color of Change, told me that she has seen a “sea change” in how companies are approaching issues of racial justice and a new sense of obligation to move beyond rhetoric.
The apparent continuing support, even as public sentiment shifts, reflects the fact that factors motivating corporate action haven’t changed. At the root of corporate action on issues of racial equity is pressure from employees, especially younger ones. Companies are keenly aware that they’re fighting for talent in a competitive marketplace. Increasingly, being perceived as an employer of choice among younger, educated workers who comprise the core of the long-term job market is tied to reputation on diversity, inclusion, and activism on racial equity. John Gerzema, the CEO of the Harris Poll, told me he was not at all surprised about the intensity of the corporate response to the killing of George Floyd because of how much “pressure employees were applying on organizations to speak out on social issues.… There was actually even more risk in remaining silent than there was in speaking out.” This is not a passing trend. Victoria Sakal, from the data-intelligence company Morning Consult, has been tracking attitudes on issues of racial equity for several years and notes that “Gen Z [is] also the generation to say, ‘I will be paying attention to whether there’s follow-through and I will be thinking of this in both my purchases and in my decisions of where to work.’”
The continued support also reflects changing norms around corporate activism. Not so long ago, it was popular to bemoan Citizens United and to ridicule Mitt Romney for saying that “corporations are people.” But in the intervening years, frustration with the federal government as a source of solutions has shot up, and Americans are increasingly expecting companies, particularly large ones, to fill that void. According to a Harris Poll, 72% of Americans trust companies more than the federal government to address COVID-19 and racial inequities; another recent report from Axios and Harris Poll found that 53% believe staying silent on social issues equates to indifference to what’s going on in the world and evidences a lack of integrity. And according to a recent poll from Morning Consult shared with Vanity Fair,60% of Americans believe companies should be taking action on important social issues, even if they aren’t related to their products or business. Few companies will want that kind of hit to their reputation.
All these factors were at work before the police killing of George Floyd. For many companies, therefore, the protests prompted an acceleration of what was already in the works. In early June, for instance, Bank of America announced a $1 billion commitment to address economic and racial equity. Anne Finucane, the Bank of America vice chair overseeing the program, told me it had been in progress, “but then it escalated because of the coronavirus and the disproportionate effect it had on people of color…and then George Floyd’s death of course put a punctuation here in terms of immediacy and concern.” What was initially scoped as a $500 million program quickly doubled, and over the last few weeks, Bank of America has begun rolling out elements including investments in Black-owned banks, support for historically Black colleges on job training and job creation, and increased lending to Black-owned small businesses.
Obviously, there’s only so much corporate action can do to fix a problem 400 years in the making. And there are still significant obstacles at play, such as a lack of common understanding about where the focus should be. Many companies are concentrating their efforts internally, on corporate values and diversity-and-inclusion programs. While Color of Change’s Hatch expressed support for such efforts, she also described them as “table stakes.” “We have a number of examples of how Black faces in high places, for lack of a better phrase, don’t lead to actual change. And so while diversity and inclusion are incredibly important and can be signals to wider systemic problems, we’re really focused on the real-world impact on Black people,” she said.
Hatch has pushed companies to undertake civil rights audits, to challenge their ways of doing business. A number are doing so, she says, but the jury is still out as to which are willing to change their practices in a significant way. Hatch touted some successes, such as the decision in early June by Paramount to drop the TV show Cops, but symbolic gestures are’t likely to have the systemic impact that Hatch and others are seeking. It’s fair to wonder whether, absent significant policy changes, the financial-services sector will help reverse the decline in Black homeownership, or whether soft drink companies will address the health disparities they have contributed to. Indeed, a new report this week from the consulting firm KKS Advisors accuses members of the Business Roundtable, which last year announced to great fanfare a new corporate purpose of serving all Americans, of “purpose-washing” and failing to follow through on their public commitments. Reports like these might give pause to anyone expecting rapid and systemic change, but the relentless pressure from younger employees and consumers likely means that change will still come, however haltingly. As Washington plunges deeper into the bottomless morass of partisanship, corporate America may, in fact, be the best hope for true reform.