What Did You Do When Racial Discrimination Became the Defining Moment Across the World? | Institute for Human Rights and Business

What Did You Do When Racial Discrimination Became the Defining Moment Across the World?

Commentary, 15 June 2020

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

Black Lives Matter 

IHRB is founded on a mission of equality and dignity for all. We seek always to be as inclusive as possible – in our research, outputs, convenings, and partnerships. But we recognise that we have not done enough to contribute to breaking down the systemic racism pervading every aspect of society. There is clearly so much more that we – as individuals, as an institution, and as part of the business and human rights movement – can do in combatting discrimination and fostering racial justice around the world.

The two pieces we are publishing today are personal reflections from our team. They are the beginning, not the end, of our work. We are committed to engaging with long-standing and new allies about how we, individually and collectively, can better challenge engrained systems perpetuating inequalities. In the time ahead, we will be amplifying as many voices and inter-connected issues as we can and systematically reviewing the way we analyse and embed anti-discrimination outcomes in our mission, programming, and operations. We welcome commentary, dialogue, and reflection on how IHRB, the business and human rights movement, and the corporate sector can concretely work together to foster societies that truly value the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people – we are listening: info [at] cheguanjiapos.com


 

As my colleague Scott Jerbi argues so cogently here, we are at a historic moment. The ‘we’ here is collective, but it is of particular importance for companies. “What did you do when racial discrimination became the defining moment across the world?” – that is the question companies will get asked in the years to come. 

Such defining moments emerge periodically because fighting for justice is a never-ending game. Some companies have struggled for years battling the stigma of being associated with Nazi Germany. Some companies left apartheid-era South Africa, and how others reconciled their decisions is a topic for business school research. Companies that benefit from an unjust system and do nothing have to reckon with the fact that they will be judged. 

Such defining moments emerge periodically because fighting for justice is a never-ending game.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) has become one such issue.

Anticipating the mood, some companies have expressed support for the movement.

The management consultancy McKinsey’s 利来w66老牌home page clearly states its support for social justice and an interactive page takes the reader to the firm’s research on diversity. Citicorp’s chief financial officer spoke out in a blog titled “I can’t breathe” on the brutal killing of George Floyd. The ice cream-maker Ben and Jerry’s emphatically said that silence is not an option. Apple and Google have joined companies in donating money and pledging new measures to promote racial justice. Companies are matching their statements with money.

Over in Britain, when tea companies came together in support of the BLM movement in response to right wing YouTube commentator Laura Towler, who praised Yorkshire Tea for not supporting BLM, at which the tea company urged her not to buy its tea. When she said, fine, she would drink another brand, Yorkshire Tea’s rival PG Tips chimed in, saying she’d simply have to think of other brands, saying it was expressing Solidaritea (sic). While that was a fun moment on social media, it showed a deeper purpose and commitment – companies were willing to step up and say in public that certain ideas were more important than a consumer’s bigoted views; that the consumer is not always right. Many companies – particularly those facing consumers – are often sensitive to the smallest hint of a boycott and tend to draw away from controversy by pleading helplessness. But companies that know how to ‘read’ changes in public thinking know when to embrace some causes, even if those are controversial in some cultures (such as equality for LGBTQI people). 

While that was a fun moment on social media, it showed a deeper purpose and commitment – companies were willing to step up and say in public that certain ideas were more important than a consumer’s bigoted views; that the consumer is not always right.

However, some companies have remained cautious. 

Starbucks has sent an internal memo to its staff saying its employees should not wear insignia supporting BLM because it is ‘political’ or ‘incite violence,’ even as it tweeted its support for its black partners, customers, and communities and published supporting material in a series of tweets. Within hours of the memo going public, the company reversed its decision, offering 250,000 T-shirts to its employees, saying “Black Lives Matter” and “It’s Not A Moment, It’s A Movement.” Until then, its employees can wear their own attire or insignia supporting the movement. We trust you to do what is right, a senior official told employees. 

Before rushing to judge Starbucks, it should be noted that the company’s concern for the safety of its staff is valid. A bigoted individual could harm an employee on the company’s premises, and in a society where people have the right to bear arms, the threat of mass violence cannot be ruled out. But surely, the response to such threats is a well-thought strategy that clearly states the company’s position publicly, and protect employees and customers. An employee or customer at its premises is likely to face violence regardless of whether the employee wears a BLM badge or not, if the company has published tweets or otherwise expressed vocal support for the BLM movement, as Starbucks rightly has. Starbucks had in fact had a much-publicised internal training to deal with bias in 2018, after a manager at a Philadelphia store called the police because two black customers, waiting for a meeting to begin, had not ordered anything, and the two customers were taken away in handcuffs. It made the company aware of bias, unconscious or not; it has to tread the space carefully since. Rather than stopping its employees from sporting BLM insignia, the company should offer them support and protection and engage more forcefully in public, and state unequivocally that its commitment to racial equality is not only for public relations purposes. 

Statements are a good start, and money helps. What matters more is action. Companies need to examine their own conduct much more deeply.

Statements are a good start, and money helps. What matters more is action.

While many have praised Adidas for its prompt statement supporting racial justice, its workforce expects the company to do more. Companies need to examine their own conduct much more deeply. The fact that so many companies are speaking in public is a good thing. But what’s more important is how they act.

Are companies recruiting employees without bias?

Are they taking affirmative action to ensure that the composition of their workplaces looks like the society outside their offices?

Does a company’s hierarchical pyramid reflect merit, and are steps taken to make sure that individuals from historically underprivileged backgrounds have the opportunity to rise within an organisation?

Have banks taken care to ensure that their lending practices do not discriminate against blacks?

Are consulting firms, advising companies to downsize during the pandemic, also making sure that companies that lay off employees are not disproportionately letting people of colour go?

Early, emerging evidence suggests that while unemployment has risen to record numbers, job losses are proportionately higher among blacks and other minorities. Are companies making sure that its black customers are not at a disadvantage if they are not able to pay bills or meet their loan commitments?

Other programmes, including those funded by the government, need to look at effects. The US Government’s paycheck protection program, for example, has disproportionate adverse effects for black-owned businesses.  

Companies that sport BLM logos and issue well-intentioned, sincerely-believed statements in the aftermath of the cataclysmic events of the past week will need to work harder, and examine their own conduct.

The tools that companies deploy to pursue ‘efficiency’ are often blunt. They rely on numbers and quantifiable targets. Those targets do not distinguish between the individuals who are being affected. Human rights due diligence requires assessment of impacts – who is getting hurt and why, and what steps a company can take to mitigate harm. Companies that sport BLM logos and issue well-intentioned, sincerely-believed statements in the aftermath of the cataclysmic events of the past week will need to work harder, examine their own conduct, and take immediate steps to change policies and practices that perpetuate injustice, if they are serious about their belief that black lives matter.  

 

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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