‘To Be Silent Is Complicit': As George Floyd Protests Erupt Some Corporations Take a Stand

A pedestrian holding an umbrella passes in front of a closed Nike Inc. store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
Demetrius Freeman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter changed its signature photo from blue to black and added the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to its bio.

Netflix tweeted “To be silent is to be complicit.” 

An executive at T-Mobile tweeted that he would not remain quiet.

As protesters march through cities across the country, some corporations have quickly posted statements on social media taking a stand against social injustice and the deaths of black men and women killed by police officers. The most recent to die, George Floyd, was held down by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. That officer has been arrested and officials are weighing whether to also charge other officers at the scene.

“Just a few short years ago most companies would have remained silent,” said Sherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug, which reports on black tech trends and breaking news. 

For the CEOs of tech companies, at this point, "if you’re not speaking out, people are asking why,” she said.

She and two colleagues, Grace McFadden and Ashley Stewart, have been compiling a list of top tech companies and their statements on Floyd, racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. As of Tuesday, they had more than 125 companies. They are adding a link to a company’s diversity report and percentage of black employees, which was important to them because they wanted to know whether companies were doing more than posturing. Is there accountability from brands that black people are spending money on, she asked. Is there black representation in the company?

The outdoors clothing and gear company Eddie Bauer tweeted the names of other people who have been recently killed or threatened: #ahmaudarbery #breonnataylor #christiancooper.

Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was killed by an armed father and son while Arbery was jogging in South Georgia. Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old EMT shot to death while she was in bed during a police raid of her Kentucky apartment. Her family says that no drugs were found in the home, which police suspected was used to receive them, and that her boyfriend fired at officers in self-defense because they did not announce themselves. Christian Cooper was bird watching in New York City’s Central Park when a white woman whom he had asked to leash her dog called police on him.

Younger audiences, in particular, are savvy about which brands are pandering to them and which are genuine, said Adriana Waterston, a senior vice president of Horowitz Research, a consumer research company in New York. They want the companies with which they do business to support the causes they believe in, she said.

“And not just to hide behind their corporate ivory towers and try to be anonymous,” she said.

For some companies it has been a challenge to determine which causes to back, mindful of customers they might alienate, she said.

One Twitter user told Eddie Bauer that its position was a good way to lose customers, while another responded to Netflix with the phrase "All Lives Matter."

What Waterston believes is different this time is that company statements are not only about standing with the black community but about educating everyone else about structural violence and inequality and institutional racism.

“The tenor of the conversation is different for me the first time ever,” she said. 

Will Campbell, the CEO of Quantasy + Associates in Los Angeles, which bills itself as a “full service agency pushing culture in the right direction,” said he thought that some companies began taking positions on topics beyond their brands and services when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread. That willingness continues, he said.

“It’s a positive thing, that companies are seeing that they should have a stronger voice and role in a culture, speaking out, outside of just their products,” he said.

Now the question is how committed those companies are, he said, whether to closing wage gaps for people of color, to making sure that their leadership is diverse, to giving back to communities.

Verizon, for example, announced a $10 million donation to various organizations, among them the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Urban League.

Arva Rice, the president and CEO of the New York Urban League, agreed that companies were responding more quickly and with stronger statements.

“Unfortunately because they are now getting used to this,” she said, and pointed to Unite the Right rally, the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Newer tech companies, in particular, are more nimble and can respond faster, she said.

Beyond the statements, she asked the same kind of questions: how diverse is a company’s leadership, where are they spending their money?

Lauren Wesley Wilson, the founder and CEO of ColorComm, a business community for women of color, said that companies need to promote people to executive positions where they are making key decisions. 

“If your company is doing that, your statement reads stronger because you’re practicing what you preach,” she said. 

Among the statements was one from Nike, the company that stood by Colin Kaepernick, the former football quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who began taking a knee as a form of protest during the national anthem in 2016.

The company played on its iconic slogan: "Just Do It.”

“For once, Don’t Do It,” it began.

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