How big business can stand up for racial justice: Show, don’t tell

Corporate expressions of concern are nice but matter less than concrete actions. It’s all about the follow-up.

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A protester in New York holds a “Black Lives Matter” poster. Demonstrations such as this are prompting companies to speak out against police brutality against black people.

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, more American companies than ever — scores of them, big and small — are calling for racial justice.

This is laudable. We suppose we should cheer. Maybe, if we were inclined to accept corporate paeans to social justice at face value, we’d say it’s a big deal.

Big corporations and Main Street chambers of commerce enjoy a loud and outsized voice in this country. Their power in Washington rivals your collective power at the ballot box.

But pardon our skepticism. Pardon our need to question whether we’re seeing a true awakening or a feigned wokeness backed up by nothing of substance.

Corporations have begun to signify their commitment to social and racial justice for a number of years now. Among the most memorable examples popped up on Twitter two years ago when Nike posted up a photo of Colin Kaepernick — the quarterback blackballed from the NFL for taking a knee to protest police brutality — along with the words “Just Do It.”

But corporate expressions of social concern, while nice, matter less than concrete actions. Where’s the follow-up?

For too many companies, the words are calculated, part of a marketing strategy. The aim is to please a certain set of customers — such as the kids of color who buy Nike shoes — or the socially conscious young employees the company hopes to hire.

Along those lines, here are three key takeaways from a survey conducted this month, immediately after Floyd’s death, by the data company Morning Consult:

  • Most Americans want companies to commit resources to help communities recover from the unrest.
  • Most Americans want their employers to make their own workplaces less racist.
  • Corporate messages on social media expressing support for racial justice were the least likely to satisfy those who were surveyed.

Americans may be wising up, looking for less talk and more action.

The power in words

Let’s give credit where it’s due.

We respect that Chicago-based McDonald’s on Thursday released a silent video that lists the names of Floyd, Trayvon Martin and others.

We admire that Netflix took to social media and said, “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter.”

We were struck by the blunt language of a tweet last week by Ben & Jerry’s, a company that has always been willing to take progressive stands: “These racist and brutal attacks against our Black brothers and sisters must end.”

There is a power in these statements, in and of themselves. Like the demonstrations, they compel the whole nation to take seriously a bitter truth: Black citizens are overwhelmingly the victims of police violence.

When heavy hitters McDonald’s and Netflix step onto the field, injustice becomes that much harder to ignore.

A corporate statement in support of peaceful demonstrations is one thing, but conducting hiring, promotions and overall business in a racially equitable way is another.

How hypocrisy works

If you’re looking for an example of hypocrisy, though, look no further than the National Football League, the same people who effectively banned Kaepernick. The NFL had the effrontery last Saturday to issue a hand-wringing statement of support for the demonstrators.

“The protesters’ reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. The police killings were “tragedies,” he continued, that “inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action.”

An urgent need for action? Sounds great.

The NFL might start by apologizing to Kaepernick and offering him work again in the profession he lost because he dared to be a man of principle.

Real test lies ahead

Businesses that really want to do their part will review their own hiring, promotion and compensation practices, with a commitment to being as racially equitable as possible.

A big step forward in the aftermath of the civil rights protests and unrest of the 1960s was the enactment of fair housing, hiring and lending laws. Banks and other corporations put the words “Equal Opportunity” right on their ads.

In the decades since then, though, we have learned the limits of this commitment. There has been only marginal improvement, for example, in the ability of black people to obtain bank loans.

Just this past week, in a remarkable report on home lending practices in Chicago, WBEZ and City Bureau found that bankers have made more loans in overwhelmingly white Lincoln Park than on the entire South Side.

Case in point is JPMorgan Chase. Between 2012 and 2018, the giant bank made 80% of its $7.5 billion in Chicago mortgages in white neighborhoods and only two percent in black neighborhoods.

Still, Chase last week, commenting on Floyd’s death, put out one of those noble corporate statements.

“Let us be clear,” Chase stated. “We are watching, listening and want every single one of you to know we are committed to fighting against racism and discrimination wherever and however it exists,” the memo said.

Chase might want to start by reviewing its home mortgage practices.

Do black lives matter — really matter — to LaSalle Street, Wall Street and Main Street?

As we say in the news business, show, don’t tell.

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