Daunte Wright was just a year older than me. He was a father, a recent graduate, a basketball fan, and most of all, beloved by his friends and family. On April 11, Wright was fatally shot by white police officer Kimberly Potter during a traffic stop in which she claims she meant to taze him instead. Following his death, protestors took to the streets in order to demand justice for Wright, who was killed just shy of a year after George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.
Then and now, conversations around police brutality and systemic racism have moved to the forefront of the news and social media, leading to pressure on prominent leaders to condemn white supremacy in America. This trend is perhaps most visible in the business sector: in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, companies pledged 35 billion dollars towards racial equity, and many businesses also committed to increasing the diversity behind their products through initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge.
The use of private industry as a tool to benefit society has long been a cornerstone of American lore. As far back as Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth,” economic conservatives have touted charity of the rich on behalf of the poor as a solution to major social ills. As many American businesses have recently taken on a similar role by donating extensive amounts to racial justice and other charitable organizations, the present gives us a unique opportunity to test a hypothesis of the past: can private corporations create social justice?
While many businesses have answered this question with a definitive yes, the ways in which they have implemented this model vary greatly across sectors and industries. By studying three major corporations’ approaches to social justice, Americans can gain a better understanding of the triumphs and pitfalls of business-led activism efforts.
In June of 2020, Amazon, the second largest private employer in the United States, pledged $10 million to social justice organizations focused on dismantling oppression against Black Americans. Just a month later, the company went a step further in matching the $8.5 million dollars in donations raised by its employees with an additional $17 million in July of 2020. Amazon also attempts to create equity and inclusion through its twelve affinity groups for employees — ranging from the Black Employee Network to Body Positive Peers — which “play an important role in building internal networks for creating community, advising Amazon…and reaching out to communities” where employees live. Amazon aims to recruit underrepresented groups within its employee base, and even pledged to “double the amount of Black directors and vice presidents in the company.”
However, these efforts are surface-level at best and deceitful at worst. Amazon has long come under attack for its mistreatment of its workers and the massive amount of wealth it has accumulated, especially for its founders and CEOs. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, accumulated a compensation of $1,681,840 in 2020, leading him to “[make] more in one week than the median Amazon worker” makes in an entire year, according to Business Insider. The amount Amazon has pledged to racial justice organizations amounts to just 0.16% of the company’s earnings in 2019, or the equivalent of $4.17 for someone who earns the median U.S. salary of $63,179 per year. More damningly, the company has continuously blocked unionization efforts through aggressive anti-union campaigns, most recently in Bessemer, Alabama. As employees engaged in a unionization effort in Bessemer earlier this year, they experienced intense pressure from Amazon to vote no on the resolution that would have created a union for employees. The company’s tactics included “text messages to employees, leaflets, a website that urged workers to “do it without dues” and fliers posted in bathrooms that urged workers to “vote ‘NO.’” Unionization is especially important to racial justice, as 85% of Black Amazon employees participate in so-called “unskilled” jobs. As student racial justice activist Anaya Leath put it in an interview with Berkeley Political Review, “Amazon’s [talking points] about racial justice” fall flat compared to the role they played in shutting down the union, leading Leath and other racial justice activists to describe the company’s so-called racial justice efforts as “performative.”
Racial bias is further baked into Amazon’s model through the company’s evaluation system, in which “Black employees receive ‘least effective’ marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers” according to analysis by Recode. Additionally, Recode found that Amazon was more likely to accept Black employees to positions they were overqualified for, and delayed promotions of Black employees compared to their white peers.
When shareholders from the New York State Common Retirement Fund proposed that the company should conduct an audit on its internal racism and diversity, Amazon asked U.S. regulators to block this proposal in January of this year. This is a significant step back in achieving the diversity and inclusion that Amazon claims to support. Considering the resistance to creating a comprehensive racial justice strategy within the company, Amazon’s “efforts” towards racial justice appear to be hypocritical and short-sighted.
Lyft and Uber have been in a rivalry with each other since the two companies were founded, as both have offered essentially the same service, albeit with different branding techniques. In early 2017, this rivalry came to a boiling point as taxi drivers began to boycott flights to the JFK airport in New York in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban. Uber continued offering rides there, however, leading to a #DeleteUber movement on social media, with users encouraging each other to engage with the more “progressive” company, Lyft, instead. These users overlooked the fact that Lyft was also offering rides to JFK at the time.
Lyft has since capitalized on this momentum, donating one million dollars to the ACLU over the course of four years in 2017, and pledging $500,000 of rideshare credit for national civil rights organizations in 2020. The company also funds the LyftUp program, which “work[s] with organizations around North America…that promote equity and economic opportunity for communities of color.”
Despite these donations, similarly to Amazon, Lyft has come under scrutiny for its treatment of employees. From its inception, Lyft has been at the heart of several lawsuits for designating its drivers as hired contractors, not employees. This forces workers to cover their own expenses, such as gas, while also denying them minimum wage and comprehensive insurance plans.
Recently, Lyft gained a massive win under California’s Proposition 22, which exempts the company from designating their drivers as employees while providing some additional benefits to gig workers, such as healthcare subsidies and some minimum wage protection laws. The impacts of this proposition are unclear, but it still does not guarantee Lyft drivers the same benefits that are granted to employees across the state. Since 70% of rideshare drivers are people of color, and only 31% said they would be able access to $400 in the case of an emergency, it is clear that Lyft’s policies have a net discriminatory effect, and will require significant restructuring even with the marginal benefits Lyft claims Proposition 22 will provide for workers.
BEN AND JERRY’S
Ben & Jerry’s, an ice cream brand famously founded in 1978, has proven to be perhaps the largest company most dedicated to social justice for the longest amount of time. Started by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield out of a gas station in Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s has long supported progressive causes, which the company says grew from its founders’ countercultural roots.
On its website, Ben & Jerry’s highlights its efforts to produce products ethically by considering the social and environmental effects of their supply and production chains. These efforts include supporting diverse suppliers, paying all employees a liveable wage, and engaging in regenerative agriculture and extensive philanthropy work. The group has a separate Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which awards 2.5 million dollars annually to social justice organizations across the country. Some examples of groups Ben & Jerry’s has funded in the past include The Street Vendor Project, Bay Area Black Workers Center, and Release Aging People in Prison, among others. Notably, the group is recorded to have made 863.1 million dollars in sales in 2020.
While there were concerns that Ben & Jerry’s would abandon its activism in the early 2000s as the company was bought out by Unilever, it has surprisingly been able to remain committed to its social justice roots. In an interview between Katherine Klein of the Wharton School and Jostein Solheim of Ben & Jerry’s, Solheim explained that the company created an independent board of directors “responsible for the social mission, for the integrity of Ben & Jerry’s brand, and [their] policies.” Solheim cites profitability as the reason why the company was able to stay connected to their social justice mission.. He explains that Unilever saw Ben & Jerry’s activism as intrinsic to its value, which was important to Unilever’s acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s.
Ben & Jerry’s model has earned laudable praise with many racial justice activists, including Arya Desai, who works with the organizations Afro Puff Chronicles and Impact. During an interview with BPR, Desai called Ben & Jerry’s “a good model for companies [interested in supporting] Black Lives Matter and racial justice,” since the group has “allocated a significant amount of funds [to these causes] and have been vocal about [racial justice] even when it wasn’t popular to do so.” Leath agreed, and pointed to Ben & Jerry’s educational campaigns and active listening as signs that the company genuinely cares about racial justice.
While Ben & Jerry’s company model, philanthropic donations, and continuous educational campaigns help it stand apart from other corporations, the company has been criticized in the past for being slow to provide fair wages to migrant dairy workers and its lack of an ice cream named after a person of color, despite multiple flavors named after white men. Additionally, the company’s continued business in Israel and occupied territories in the region have been criticized by activists for the Free Palestine and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The pressure from these activists has resulted in Ben and Jerry’s to end their sales in occupied Palestinian territories. The BDS movement argues this is not enough, and have called on Ben and Jerry’s to remove businesses operations from the state of Israel entirely. Various Jewish advocacy groups have had a mixed response to the decision, some calling it a measured and appropriate response against Israel’s unethical policies towards Palestinians, and other arguing Ben and Jerry’s decision is antisemitic and seeks to threaten Israel’s legitimacy.
All in all, Ben and Jerry’s model as a socially responsible business has been successful because its activism is vital to the brand and its customers — had it not been profitable for the company to engage in this work, it might very well have become any other ice cream chain.
When it comes to the impact of these companies’ donations and policy changes, both Leath and Desai stated that as student activists on the ground, they have not benefited from these changes. However, Desai recognized the influence these large donations could have on racial justice organizations, allowing them to “serve [their] communities better than before.” In fact, the Candid philanthropy tracker has found that over half of all money donated to US racial justice organizations since 2008 was donated in the months following Floyd’s death. The effects of this remain to be seen, and it is important to recognize the role racial justice activists had in pressuring companies to make these changes in the first place. As Desai pointed out, “community activist organizations are the ones that [called] them out…rather than they helped us.”
From these case studies, it is easy to see that the true test of a company’s commitment to racial justice has proven to be whether or not it is willing to create justice within its own organization. When companies are motivated entirely by profit, their efforts for social justice reflect this usually in the form of one-time, large-scale donations that gain them short-term clout and boost their sales. When it comes to doing the real work of creating an environment in which people regardless of race, sex, religion, color, or any other factor of identity can thrive, most companies refuse to commit to the work of creating an equitable workplace because it is contrary to the model of exploitation that the company was founded on in the first place. Adopting a people-over profit mindset is something that is often incompatible with the free market, capitalist ideals of nearly all companies — this ultimately disproves Carnegie’s thesis. In fact, the dynamics that have played out in the real world have demonstrated the opposite.
No company will save us, the people must save themselves.
Featured Image Source: ArachOneZ/VectorStock