CEOs are finally talking about racism. Will it change anything?

Scene from a protest in Anaheim, California, on June 1, 2020, over the death of George Floyd.
Scene from a protest in Anaheim, California, on June 1, 2020, over the death of George Floyd.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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For too long, business leaders have shied away from talking directly about race—often because they fear screwing up or inviting blowback over their own practices. But in the wake of George Floyd’s horrifying death in police custody, it’s fast becoming impossible for America’s corporations to ignore the ways that racism continues to inflict suffering upon black people.

Many executives, who are disproportionately white, are now issuing public statements about the problems of police brutality and prejudice. High-profile CEOs including Apple’s Tim Cook, Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, and BlackRock’s Larry Fink have all weighed in, as have brands like Amazon, Nike, and Netflix.

Some commentary on the matter has been met with understandable skepticism. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, for example, was roundly accused of hypocrisy after releasing a vague pledge to stay “committed to continuing the important work to address [the] systemic issues” informing the protests. The NFL, as critics were quick to recall, ostracized Colin Kaepernick when he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

It’s reasonable to be dubious about corporate America’s commitment to standing up against racism and police brutality, particularly when the statements in question offer little to nothing in the way of plans for concrete actions.

But silence does nothing to change the status quo. And the fact that corporate America feels pressure to respond to this moment, however imperfectly, may well be a change for the better.

“If you’re not willing to talk openly, nothing changes,” says Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on issues of identity, inclusion, and diversity.

Breaking the silence

Creary fully acknowledges that some companies are making empty statements, and that many companies claiming to support the protestors have dismal track records when it comes to discrimination within their own ranks. But she says the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death are about ending not only the senseless killings of black Americans, but also America’s longstanding, painful silence on race and racism—because it is arguably this silence that allows racism to persist.

And so it is remarkable that protestors and movements like Black Lives Matter have succeeded in compelling business leaders to say, publicly, that the continued oppression of black Americans is unacceptable. And it puts employees, and the public, in a better position to hold executives and boards accountable.

“You get them to claim space in this conversation, you now get to move forward,” says Creary. “If that CEO is gonna go out there and say all that stuff, that’s your opening.”

The problem of woke-washing

There is still, of course, the problem of wokewashing, a modern-day marketing tactic in which corporations superficially align themselves with progressive causes, often while continuing to perpetuate inequality or unethical practices behind the scenes.

When Amazon posted a tweet calling for an end to the unjust treatment of black Americans, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union was quick to ask: “Will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s message of “solidarity with the Black community” was met with criticism over the company’s treatment of its own drivers, many of whom are people of color.

The pervasiveness of wokewashing at this moment is no doubt linked to the rise in the past decade of conscious capitalism—the idea that the purpose of a company is not only to turn a profit, but to do social good, or to at least do less harm. There also happens to be a real business incentive for companies to position themselves as progressive on social issues, given that young consumers tend to lean left and want their spending habits to align with their values and identities.

A company that espouses the desire to fight economic inequality or stop climate change isn’t necessarily wokewashing. But it’s unfortunately common for there to be a large rift between companies’ words and their actions.

Some CEOs and corporations have been acknowledging this rift, using their statements not only to take a public stand against racism but also to admit their own shortcomings in matters of equality. Chris Stang, the CEO of restaurant-review company The Infatuation, which also owns Zagat, wrote in a public letter, “We have not worked hard enough to see the world from points of view that differ from our own. We have not done enough to ensure that our coverage is equitable and representative of other cultures. We do not have enough diversity on our team at any level.” He announced that the company will donate $15,000 to the NAACP and hire a diversity and inclusion executive.

This kind of mea culpa is, at least, honest and accompanied by a commitment to action. But it doesn’t erase the wrongs of the past, any more than it guarantees that companies will successfully dismantle the structural inequalities they have perpetuated in the months ahead.

Beyond the jargon

So what distinguishes meaningful communication from pitfalls like wokewashing or “optical allyship”?

Committing to action is certainly a big part of the answer. For people in leadership positions who continue talking with their employees and communities racism and its impact on black Americans, Creary offers several pointers.

Be real

That means approaching the topic of racism in the US as a human being, rather than from behind the veil of corporate communications. Creary points to the powerful opening of a public letter from Citigroup CFO Mark Mason, which begins by repeating Floyd’s awful final words: I can’t breathe. “Like many of you, I have watched that video of his death with a combination of horror, disgust and anger,” he notes.

At the same time, particularly for those who benefit from white privilege, it’s important to admit there are some aspects of this moment that they cannot personally understand.

Be compassionate

Part of being compassionate, Creary says, involves specifically using the words “black” and “African-American” in internal and external communications. Even well-meaning terms like “people of color” can gloss over the particular forms of violence and discrimination that impact black people. “The more you don’t say who is differentially impacted and negatively affected, the more you’re continuing to marginalize people and make them invisible,” she says.

Be unapologetically anti-racist

Using clear and specific language also makes it harder to waffle—a common tactic for companies that fear boycotts and backlash from racist or disinterested customers. “Don’t cater to them,” Creary says. Leaders who wring their hands over the risk of losing business because they speak out against racism are prioritizing money over the lives of black people.

Commit to change

Perhaps most crucially, companies need to discuss what they plan to do differently in order to be more effective in the fight against racism. Donating to social-justice organizations, cultivating a more diverse list of vendors to do business with, and creating more opportunities for black employees within the company itself are just a few important actions to take, says Creary.

As for the rest of us…

It’s clear that the values which CEOs espouse aren’t always reflected in the way they do business. The rest of us don’t have to believe that a white-male CEO with an all-white-male management team is sincere when he suddenly claims to care deeply about diversity. But we can—as employees and consumers—use the corporate statements and conversations that emerge in these moments to push companies to do better.

Consider corporate communications about race right now as “something that’s aspirational,” Creary says. “Later, consumers and employees can push back and say, I thought you said we were an equitable, just company; you put out that statement. We need to do more work.”

It will be up to customers and employees to put pressure on leaders to follow through on their commitments after the protests have subsided, when the world isn’t watching them so closely.