If you can keep your cynicism in check, corporate displays of support for Black Lives Matter can seem admirable, sometimes even moving. When done authentically, companies are holding a mirror to themselves, deciding that they are not doing enough to address racial injustice, and committing to make change. Some of these vows are genuine and some are just public relations, but it’s a step in the right direction. A baby step.
When change feels possible, as it does right now, we can’t be satisfied with corporate responsibility. Before you know it, some savvy marketer will create a Black Lives Matter certification program for businesses. Then consumers will support the “good” businesses, the logic goes, and the “bad” ones will be punished.
Black Lives Matter must not be co-opted like “local” and “organic,” and sold to people who have the money and aligned beliefs. Change has to be much deeper than that. Counting on altruistic companies and enlightened consumers guarantees that this movement will be reduced to a marketing niche.
Our reporter, Constance Garcia-Barrio, writes in the cover story that she risked her health and marched during the protests on behalf of her long-deceased father, a college graduate who could only find work as an elevator operator, and for her son, who suffers from mental illness, who was punched repeatedly by a policeman.
I’m dismayed that, until recently, I did not know that the origins of policing in this country stemmed from capturing runaway slaves and enforcing segregation. (I also didn’t know that Wall Street was named after an actual wall that the Dutch erected to keep Native Americans, who were enraged by a colonial-led slaughter of their people that occurred in Hoboken, from attacking.)
There have been 401 years of oppression and dehumanizing of Black people—slavery, segregation and a denial of opportunity—in what is now the United States. All white people have benefited from this moral atrocity. Even if you don’t have a great fortune, modest middle class wealth has accrued over generations due to policies that intentionally and explicitly excluded Black people.
We are—at least I think we are—more ready to begin a full reckoning. In the words of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, we live in this “terribly flawed but miraculous country.” These are the two crimes we must acknowledge and address: We eradicated Native Americans and took their land, and we achieved economic success by exploiting people of color.
Hannah-Jones’ most recent article in The New York Times is called “What Is Owed,” and it makes the case for reparations—paying Black people for what was taken from them. There is a profound gap in wealth between Black and white people, exemplified in a recent study that found that “the average Black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds.”
Hannah-Jones explains why this matters. “Wealth—assets and investments minus debt—is what enables you to buy homes in safer neighborhoods with better amenities and better-funded schools. It is what enables you to send your children to college without saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and what provides you money to put a down payment on a house. It is what prevents family emergencies or unexpected job losses from turning into catastrophes that leave you homeless and destitute.”
The self-examination, and every subsequent effort made by businesses, is positive. It’s important that the business world stops making excuses and starts making plans. Doing so helps to change the present and the future. But first we need to face our past. We have a 401- year-old debt, and it’s time we paid up.