“If we are going to talk about the total liberation of Black people, we first have to liberate ourselves from the material conditions of our oppression… [to] seize the wealth from all the giant corporations that exploit and control the lives of all working people, but particularly Black people.” (Dr. Angela Davis)
When Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors started #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, the movement faced widespread, bipartisan backlash. Conservatives called it a terrorist organization that encouraged violence against police. Liberals scolded activists for “yelling” instead of compromising. Corporations treated Black Lives Matter as a third rail—too charged to touch. Uprisings against police murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd have brought the movement back into the news. Yet something is different: Corporations are responding to protests by publishing statements of “solidarity” (see here for a list). This may feel like progress, and in some ways it is—thanks to decades upon decades of activist organizing, especially by Black queer and transgender women, Americans are being forced to acknowledge the racism of the U.S. criminal punishment system. However, as critics have been quick to point out, these are still corporations. Rising public support for Black Lives Matter has made it less risky and more rewarding for brands to hop on the bandwagon, which is why we are now hearing “Gushers wouldn’t be Gushers without the Black community,” whatever that means. Quite transparently, many of these statements only exist because someone in the marketing department saw a branding opportunity. For example, Google posted, “We stand in support of racial equality, and all those search for it,” because—get it?!—Google is a search engine. L’Oréal, which in 2017 fired a Black transgender model for speaking out about racism, posted “speaking out is worth it,” a play on its own slogan “because you’re worth it.” The bidet company Tushy quipped, “We got your back(side).”
Obviously this is not solidarity. Still, some commentators insist there is a “right way” for corporations to be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter—by tinkering with their language, or making bigger donations, or incorporating Black executives into the C-suite. But the truth is that corporations can never be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, because their existence depends on exploiting Black workers. There are no “good corporations” in a global system of racial capitalism. There are only oppressors. And these statements—even “the good ones”—are nothing but a meaningless performance meant to distract us from that reality. Consider The North Face’s statement, which says “Stop Racism. Stop Brutality.” Just “racism” and “brutality,” forces with apparently no agents, victims, or beneficiaries. This was not an oversight. It was a choice. The North Face could have named specific problems (antiblack racism) or implicated specific offenders (the police). Instead, they weighed the costs and benefits and decided to walk the tightrope, throwing a nod to justice-seeking consumers while accommodating the widest possible spectrum of political views. No corporate board would judge it wise to declare support for “racism” or “brutality.” So does it signify much to say otherwise?
Or look at Disney’s statement, which recycles a potpourri of vague, euphemistic language meant to appear courageous while, again, saying nothing of substance. Disney “stands against” racism, but whose? Where does this racism live? Does it live at Disney? (Yes, yes, and yes) What practices, processes, and ideologies are encompassed in Disney’s definition of racism? What does “inclusion,” a beloved corporate buzzword, have to do with racist state violence? And all this is to say nothing of the biggest elephant in the room: Where, in this statement, are the police? In fact, practically none of these statements name the police. Even those that say “Black Lives Matter” have this problem. Paramount says “these racist and brutal attacks must end,” with no mention of who does the attacking. Netflix proclaims “to be silent is to be complicit,” though complicit in what, exactly, we do not know. CBS denounces “all acts of racism, discrimination, and senseless violence,” with no indication of where racism comes from, how it is maintained, or whom it privileges. These statements recognize Black people as victims of violence; however, they fail to identify any perpetrators or beneficiaries of this violence. Ambiguity offers deniability, a PR strategist’s best friend.
“Disney doesn’t mean me,” a white cop can plausibly think to himself. “They are talking about racists, and I am not a racist.” It requires no risk, no sacrifice, to claim an opposition to “racism” without context or a concrete call to action. And because it requires none of these, it is not solidarity. It is easy to “stand against” an abstracted boogeyman. It is harder to call out the true culprits. Yet it is no wonder corporations refuse to criticize police even as they claim to value Black lives. Corporations rely on police to suppress resistance against a system that abets their growth at the expense of workers deemed expendable—immigrants, indigenous people, queer and trans people, women, and of course, Black people. “If you look at any factory, any plant,” said Dr. Angela Davis in 1972, “Who does the worst jobs? Who gets paid the smallest salaries? It’s Black people.” Million- and billion-dollar entities are natural opponents of Black Lives Matter because they are literally invested in racist policing.
Throughout history, the purpose of police has always been to protect white property. Slavery defined Black people as the lawful property of wealthy white men. White civilians were empowered to arrest any Black person they saw and return them to their “rightful” place in servitude. Slave patrols, organized by groups of white men, were early precursors to modern police forces. In the mid-19th century, police departments were tasked with protecting white property from undesirable “outsiders,” defined as immigrants, people of color, and labor-rights activists. Today this is still the case. Arrests for nonviolent offenses like fare evasion and theft comprise nearly all of policework. This accounts for the fiction that cops exist to “protect and serve”—historically, this is the white middle-class experience of police.
Corporate Black Lives Matter statements are not only inadequate; they are smokescreens. Speaking the language of anti-racism allows brands to deflect scrutiny from the ideologies, structures, and practices that perpetuate antiblack racism within and outside their organizations. This is why, when brands do hint at solutions, they tend to target individuals, not structures. Examples of such solutions include the hiring of Black individuals in positions of power—what Dr. Cornel West calls putting “Black faces in high places”—and the changing of individual “hearts and minds” through interracial friendships and book clubs. Brands that defy hate and call for unity promote the falsehood that what we are dealing with is a matter of individuals or groups who don’t see eye to eye. In reality, antiblackness pervades American culture, systems, and institutions so comprehensively as to eclipse the “hatred” of any one individual or group. Individualizing language goes hand in hand with neoliberal reform, which works with—not against—the forces of capitalism.
Reform is not a demand of Black Lives Matter, whose stated goal is to defund the police. By diluting this demand with depoliticized rhetoric, brands attempt to signal allyship in Black struggle without jeopardizing their access to police protection or alienating their white and/or middle-class consumers. This is not allyship. This is silence disguised as taking a stand. This is another form of All Lives Matter. Yes, the discourse has shifted, although not as much as you might think. Police unions are still accusing Black Lives Matter of terrorism. Liberals are still scolding activists for employing a diversity of tactics, in the face of clear evidence that riots and property damage work. And even if they weren’t, changing the conversation is nowhere close to enough. Tweeting about “the brutal treatment of Black people in this country” won’t stop Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, from brutally mistreating Black workers in this country and around the world. Stating “everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood” won’t stop Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, from making Black people feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. Platitudes and tearful apologies won’t stop Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, from blackballing and silencing Black players who dare speak out against the conditions of their oppression. (To no one’s surprise, the San Francisco 49ers posted a black square without so much as a word about Colin Kaepernick.) Their so-called “solidarity” is nothing more than a performance meant to conceal their own antiblackness.
Corporate Black Lives Matter statements, much like the branded Pride statements that resurface each June, accomplish nothing for racial justice. They do nothing to disrupt a system that enables white men to hoard the world’s wealth under the free protection of armed guards funded by billions of taxpayer dollars. So long as they are allowed to exist, corporations will continue to co-opt the language of “justice for all” to benefit the few white men who sit at the top. Instead, we need transformative institutional change. Transformative change means divesting from police and investing in social structures that benefit all people. It means facilitating Black people’s access to quality jobs, housing, and medical care. It means challenging an economic ideology that pays lip service to Black death while celebrating Black exploitation in the workplace.
Corporations are part of the problem. They are not engines of racial justice, but of racial oppression. They will not—they cannot—save us. Do not believe their lies.
Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on racism and sexism at work and in organizations.