The commercialisation of George Floyd: US firms look to capitalise on a movement

As protests against racism and police brutality have erupted across the United States and the world, many US companies have sought to capitalise on the moment by pledging solidarity with the protesters and speaking out against systemic racism. But some point out that firms have to go further to ensure equality within their own ranks. 

Microsoft has posted powerful quotes on Twitter from black employees describing how systemic racism takes a toll on their lives. One employee, Phil Terrill, talked about the death of George Floyd, the handcuffed black man who pleaded for air and subsequently died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee against his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

A Nike store is seen boarded up in Oxford Street, London, UK, on June 7, 2020.
A Nike store is seen boarded up in Oxford Street, London, UK, on June 7, 2020. © Hannah McKay, REUTERS

“It should not take the death of Black people at this magnitude to inspire everyone to be an ally,” Microsoft quoted Terrill as saying. 

And yet only 4.4 percent of Microsoft’s global workforce across all brands – including retail and warehouse workers – identify as black. Less than 3 percent of its US executives, directors and managers are black, according to the company’s 2019 diversity and inclusion report

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addressed the issue in an email to employees that appeared on the company’s blog on June 5, writing that Microsoft “must change first” if it wants to help change the world and pledging to invest in its talent by expanding connections with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“In order to be successful as a business in empowering everyone on the planet, we need to reflect the world we serve,” Nadella said. 

Online retail giant Amazon is prominently displaying a post entitled “Black lives matter” on its homepage, and CEO Jeff Bezos has shared on Instagram some of the emails he’s received from consumers who are unhappy with the company for taking a stance. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted this email about the company’s public anti-racist stance on his Instagram page. © Instagram screen grab

But Amazon has its own share of inequities. An AP analysis published on Thursdayfound that more than 60 percent of Amazon warehouse and delivery workers in most cities are people of colour. And Amazon’s own 2019 workforce data show that only about 8 percent of its managers in the United States are black compared to the nearly 60 percent of managers who are white.

Courtenay Brown, 29, who sorts packages at the Amazon fulfilment centre in Avenel, New Jersey, said she feels that Amazon’s messages supporting justice and equal opportunity for blacks are not entirely genuine. She noted that most of the employees she works with at the centre are people of colour but that the higher-ups are white. 

“As a black woman, I feel like it is empty words,” she told AP. “They don’t help our struggles. Everyone wants to join in and profit from us.” 

Black people account for 12 percent of the overall US workforce, but fill only 8 percent of management jobs, according to University of Virginia professor Laura Morgan Roberts. The number of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies peaked in 2002 with 12 whereas today there are just four. 

Roberts’ research looking at the careers of Harvard Business School graduates found black alumni received fewer prime opportunities, such as global assignments, than white graduates with the same degree.

“They’re saying, ‘We’ve got the qualifications but we can’t get into the inner circle,'” said Roberts.

‘The truth hurts’

After hitting the streets to protest racial injustice, Sharon Chuter was disillusioned by the number of corporate brands posting “glossy” messages spouting support for black lives.

The 33-year-old founder of Uoma Beauty, a cosmetics company that caters to black women, came up with a social-media challenge to test the sincerity of the companies. She launched the #pulluporshutup campaign on Instagram to push brands to reveal the racial make-up of their corporate workforce and executives.

The hashtag has since gone viral, amassing more than 95,000 Instagram followers in a little more than a week. Chuter said it’s a wake-up call for many businesses who couldn’t see or didn’t take seriously the silent racism and prejudices that hold black people back.

“Reflection is painful,” Chuter said. “The truth hurts and I just felt like brands didn’t want to do it.”

As of Thursday, Chuter had posted 91 responses to her request for workforce data on her @pullupforchange Instagram. Most of them came from other companies manufacturing cosmetics and skincare products.

Atop the comments section of each post, Chuter cites the company’s percentages of black management and senior-level employees and then writes, “Thank you for the transparency”. However, some subsequent commenters criticise the numbers as disappointing, potentially misleading or insufficiently clear.Sharon Chuter, the founder of Uoma Beauty, posted Cult Beauty’s response to her #pulluporshutup campaign on Instagram. © Instagram screen grab

‘Get our own house in order’

Adidas, which responded to Floyd’s death and subsequent protests by displaying the capitalised word “RACISM” with a red line through it on its Instagram, acknowledged its own shortcomings after a growing group of employees called out the company for its lack of diversity.

“The events of the past two weeks have caused all of us to reflect on what we can do to confront the cultural and systemic forces that sustain racism,” said Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted in a statement. “We have had to look inward to ourselves as individuals and our organization and reflect on systems that disadvantage and silence black individuals and communities.”

The Germany-based company didn’t provide a breakdown on the race or ethnicity of its workforce.

Its commitment to increase diversity, however, prompted Chuter to mention Adidas on @pullupforchange while acknowledging that the company hadn’t shared its data on diversity.   

Nike has long been viewed as an “insider” brand among black consumers because of its lucrative and high-profile sponsorship deals with prominent African-American athletes.

The Portland, Oregon-area company famously took on the racial injustice issue head-on with its ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the US National Anthem to protest the violent treatment of black people. Last week Nike revealed a new video advert in response to the protests that bore the words: “For once, don’t do it.” The ad, a twist on its long-time “Just do it” motto, urged viewers not to “pretend there’s not a problem in America”.

Yet a look at who is leading the firm’s corporate business shows a disconnect between what the brand projects and how it actually operates.

Though whites make up less than half – 43 percent – of its total US workforce, 77 percent of its high-ranking vice presidents company-wide are white, according to 2019 numbers on representation in its leadership. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of its vice presidents are black (although that is a nearly 2 percent improvement from the previous year).

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Nike CEO John Donahoe acknowledged that such progress wasn’t enough, saying in a memo to employees that its “most important priority is to get our own house in order”.

In a video Chuter posted on @pullupforchange, the cosmetics businesswoman also said people must do more to show they are serious about change. 

“You cannot say ‘black lives matter’ publicly when you don’t show us black lives matter within your own homes and within your organisations.”

(FRANCE 24 & AP)

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