Hashtags won’t cut it. Corporate America faces a higher bar in a reckoning on racial inequality

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In recent days, corporate America has made its strongest statements yet on racial inequality. But the protesters marching through small U.S. towns and gathering in large cities around the world want more than words.

Business leaders now face a reckoning that won’t be hashtagged away. Many are under pressure from activists, customers and even their own employees to demonstrate tangible actions.

“The sense of urgency is something we and many corporate leaders haven’t seen in our lifetime,” said Stephanie Creary, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and who researches identity and diversity. Creary said she and more than a dozen of her academic colleagues have been “inundated” with calls from large and small businesses “all trying to figure out what to do next.”

A shift in public opinion is pushing companies to do more. Most American voters now support Black Lives Matter, according to a survey by online polling firm Civiqs. That support has jumped to 53% from 46% since the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.

The vast majority of the public now expects CEOs to express support for racial equity and factors that in when deciding where to spend money. In a poll released Wednesday by Morning Consult, 81% of respondents said they agreed that CEOs should express or reaffirm that their company’s hiring process is equitable and accessible to diverse populations, and that they should provide specifics about how they will ensure that.

Nearly 70% of the more than 11,000 people polled in May and June said how a CEO reacts to an issue, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, would permanently affect their decision to buy from the company.

Why this time is different
Many police-involved deaths have inspired protests, but the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes struck a nerve that has catalyzed huge crowds at marches and political debates in Washington, D.C. Floyd’s death and those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans sparked a national conversation that appears to be gaining momentum rather than fading away.

Several companies are now lobbying for laws to stop police-involved deaths and hate crimes. Delta Air Lines signed a letter with dozens of companies calling for police reforms, including mandating de-escalation training to reduce the use of force. General Mills, Land O’Lakes and KPMG also signed.

“Sesame Street” teamed up with CNN on a town hall for kids. In the episode, Elmo’s Dad defined racism and explained the reason why protesters are marching in the streets. The NFL, the sports organization that shunned Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem, has had a public change of heart on the protest of players. And NASCAR drivers, who draw many fans from conservative-leaning parts of middle America, held a moment of silence before a race in Atlanta. NASCAR this week banned Confederate flags from events.

The upheaval has been fueled, in part, by the coronavirus pandemic and recession, which has laid bare Black Americans’ unequal access to education, higher-paying jobs and health care. Black Americans are dying at nearly two times the rate of white Americans from suspected virus-related cases, according to the Covid Tracking Project. As the virus spreads, many Black Americans continue to go to work at grocery stores, hospitals and nursing homes — jobs where they’re deemed essential yet get low wages. And in many major urban school districts, Black children live in homes where they don’t have internet access or a computer that allows them to attend school at home.

Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, deputy senior campaign director for Color of Change, said people aren’t just marching for racial equity, they’re calling for economic justice. She said some major companies, such as Nike and McDonald’s, that have put out emotional commercials and sharp statements still pay their workers wages so low that it’s difficult for them to feed their families.

“If you have extreme wealth inequity and extreme pay inequity, that is incompatible with this moment,” she said. “When we talk about Black Lives Matter, we don’t only mean Black Lives Matter in death. We mean that the actual quality and conditions that Black people live in matter.”

While many Black Lives Matter protests have happened before, crowds are larger, marches are scattered throughout the country and participants are more diverse, said Chris Miller, head of global activism strategy at Ben & Jerry’s. That, he said, has prompted more mainstream companies to step out and speak up.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said protests have created a distinct opportunity to bring about change.

“What we see is a moment here, a moment where we can make a bigger difference,” he said recently in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

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