Never underestimate the American business community’s capacity for hypocrisy.
That’s one of the lessons to be drawn from the explosive reaction to George Floyd’s murder. As demonstrators began flooding streets, corporate PR departments flew into rapid response mode, issuing a flurry of agonized, apologetic pledges to do more to combat racism and inequality.
Such statements may, on a personal level, be sincere: the depth of righteous pain and anger expressed by African Americans has induced widespread soul-searching, even in executive suites. Yet this high-profile hand-wringing is used to uncouple the outpouring of outrage from capitalist practices that are now, and always have been, at the intertwined roots of racial and economic injustice.
As they nimbly co-opted the language of the protests, moreover, corporate leaders offered up “solutions” to structural racism that won’t diminish managerial control or redistribute power in the workplace, meaning their proposals won’t promote actual structural change of any sort. With a few well-publicized contributions and some new rounds of diversity training, business elites hope to emerge from the present crisis with their privilege, and their profits, intact.
“Tragic, painful and unacceptable,” so Walmart CEO Doug McMillon described George Floyd’s death. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” an Amazon tweet proclaimed. “We do not tolerate inequity, injustice or racism,” McDonald’s announced, with
CEO Joe Erlinger insisting, “when any member of our McFamily hurts, we all hurt.”
To address this “hurt,” McDonald’s announced it will donate $1 million to the NAACP and the National Urban League and promised “tangible goals related to diversity.” Many corporations made similar commitments. Amazon said it will give $10 million to “organizations supporting justice and equity,” and Walmart pledged $100 million over five years to create “a new center on racial equity” aimed at promoting “economic opportunity and healthier living.”
But such contributions, publicized with much fanfare, in fact are chump change to these immensely powerful corporations. For Walmart, $100 million over the next five years represents less than 1/250 of one percent of the nearly $3 trillion in income it expects to rake in during that period. Put another way, its gift would translate to a mere $13 extra a year, for the next five years, to each Walmart employee in the United States.
And American CEOs are wealthy almost beyond imagination: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, is worth $150 billion, a figure so much larger than the average median household income of $63,000 that it requires special graphics just to illustrate it.
A FIX IS AT HAND
If these companies really want to address inequality and improve opportunities for African Americans, there’s a fix readily at hand: they could simply give more money to their own employees, a substantial percentage of whom are Black and largely concentrated in low-wage occupations. African Americans, in general, earn less than white workers in this country do, and the jobs they hold are more unstable and less likely to offer benefits, all crucial factors that contribute to our persistent racial wealth gap.
Walmart, with a U.S. workforce of one and a half million, is both the nation’s largest employer overall and the largest employer of African Americans; nearly half of Walmart workers are people of color. Yet Walmart, Amazon, and McDonald’s don’t pay livable wages. Benefits, when offered at all, are paltry (the lack of paid sick leave has become especially visible in COVID times). Schedules are unpredictable and job security tenuous. Working conditions are onerous.
How much do Black lives matter to America’s leading corporations? Not enough to put any real money on the table.
THEY WANT A ‘DIALOGUE,’ NOT A UNION
Also not to be taken seriously: the desire for “dialogue” expressed by these big business titans and all that “listening” they say they’ll do. There is one meaningful and time-honored way to ensure that workers will truly be heard: through a union. Unions democratize workplaces, giving employees the collective voice necessary to put them on a more equal footing with management, to ensure their concerns are heeded.
For people of color, unions are especially valuable, literally. While unions are financially advantageous for all workers, “the gains from union membership in terms of pay, benefits, and stability are more pronounced among nonwhite families than among white families,” one recent study notes. African Americans who are unionized make more money and are more likely to have benefits like health care and employer-supported retirement plans, translating to greater savings and home ownership levels. Union membership, in other words, is critical to narrowing the racial wealth gap.
So unions clearly empower African Americans—yet Walmart, Amazon, and McDonald’s are unabashed union-busters. In order to crush organizing efforts (very often led by people of color), these companies invest far more in lawyers, consulting firms, and employee surveillance than they’ll ever dish out to promote “diversity.”
For Bezos, Erlinger, and McMillon, and the other CEOs who follow their lead, genuine “justice and equity” for their workers would come at too high a cost: allowing unions in would require them to relinquish the total control that they now exert over their enterprises.
THE MEDIA FALL FOR IT
This particular form of hypocrisy may not be much scrutinized by mainstream media, which are, after all, also corporate enterprises. Much recent coverage of business initiatives to address inequity has omitted issues like fairer compensation or union representation. A lengthy New York Times article—“Corporate America Has Failed Black America”—doesn’t mention unions at all and allots only a few sentences to low-wage workers; the main focus is the dearth of African Americans in top management.
And in a stunning act of appropriation, the New York Stock Exchange observed a moment of silence to honor George Floyd. This took place just as the stock market roared back into full recovery, thus alleviating the real anxieties of the 1%, an irony that drew little notice.
Will corporate executives get away with this sleight-of-hand, purporting to be troubled by the structural racism and economic inequality that they, in fact, perpetuate and benefit from? It’s through this sort of misdirection, and by narrowing the “legitimate” terms of debate, that capitalists, as the early labor historian Selig Perlman once noted, exert their “effective will to power” and “convince other classes that they alone, the capitalists, know how to operate the complex economic apparatus of modern society.”
After George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter activists and their allies refused to allow business as usual, and through massive protests and direct action achieved the extraordinary: exposing to the world the brutality and racism that define American policing. For the moment, though, it seems that CEOs are maintaining their authority over the “complex economic apparatus of modern society.”
Union supporters must stand up and assert their own “effective will to power,” to ensure that the practitioners of economic oppression are called to account—and forced to make concessions—as well.
Toni Gilpin is the author of the new book The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland.