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One year after #BlackoutTuesday, what have companies really done for racial justice?

Checking in on black square-posting brands, from Starbucks to Glossier.

protestors walk in front of a mural of George Floyd
Protesters march after George Floyd’s death, in June 2020, in Colorado.
Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On May 25, 2020, footage of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis set the internet ablaze, igniting a fervor for justice among the attentive and then-quarantined online masses. In the now widely circulated video, George Floyd can be heard pleading, “I can’t breathe” — the same three words Eric Garner had yelled not six years prior — 28 times before he became unconscious and later died. What followed was nothing short of a wildfire.

Compounded by the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — and, later, the killing of activist Oluwatoyin Salau and the shooting of Jacob Blake — Floyd’s murder prompted an international wave of protests and a global dialogue surrounding anti-Blackness and racial injustice in the months following his death. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, by far the largest of its kind, would receive more than $90 million in donations while organizing over 7,750 demonstrations in the US alone between May and August 2020. Online, social media users were quick to take advantage of their digital platforms, informing followers about racial injustice through the sharing of infographics and what artist and educator Mandy Harris Williams aptly titled “critical caption essays.”

Evidently, the posts were impactful, with 23 percent of adult social media users in the US saying they changed their views about a political or social issue in 2020 due to something they saw on those platforms, up from 15 percent in 2018. Corporate commitment to racial advocacy became a necessity rather than a consideration once social media users began to take aim at specific instances of racism and unfair treatment at many companies. Hundreds of businesses rushed to release pledges committing to upholding racial justice within their organization. But did any of these companies do more than commodify a movement? A year later, have any of these companies transformed themselves for the better?

Beginning on June 2, 2020, Blackout Tuesday would merge these growing trends in online activism and calls for corporate accountability on social media. The online protest involved posting a single image of a black square to Instagram feeds, intended to quite literally black out users’ feeds and interrupt regular posting as a show of solidarity to Black victims of police violence. By the end of the day, the number of Instagram posts tagged with #BlackoutTuesday was in the tens of millions — and more than 950 brands, including ViacomCBS and Apple, had participated in some way. However, the social media protest quickly proved to do more harm than good.

What originally began as a hashtag (#TheShowMustBePaused) created by music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, to disrupt “the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard” within the music industry, quickly became appropriated by users, divorced from its original creators and intentions, and made shallow and performative. As #BlackOutTuesday grew in popularity, critiques of the initiative noted how the posting of mostly wordless black squares drowned out Black voices central to movements and obscured valuable information and updates, such as video evidence of police brutality, protest details, and donation links — a far cry from the racial uplift the posts set out to achieve. Instead, a majority of Blackout Tuesday posts were effectively one-off statements functioning as a form of virtue signaling, a public expression of an opinion or backing of an idea intended to demonstrate one’s moral or political correctness, often without much substantive action.

Before the end of May 2020, racial advocacy and anti-racism were not a priority for “socially responsible” companies, with consumers struggling to identify businesses seen as “good allies to the Black Lives Matter movement.” However, as the discussion of racial injustice and discrimination solidified the importance of anti-racism in corporate social responsibility, consumers expect more from where they shop they want donations. In a survey conducted by the public relations firm Edelman in 2020, 60 percent of American respondents said brands needed to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality. The same percentage also said they would buy or boycott a brand based on its response to the ongoing protests. How companies reacted to the BLM movement became a litmus test for how consumers would interact with them in the months to come.

Nike is no stranger to making political statements through its advertising campaigns, especially when it comes to Black Lives Matter. The multinational corporation has a long history of navigating issues pertaining to diversity and inclusion through both its sponsorship of Black athletes and its executive management: In 2018, the Wall Street Journal chronicled Nike’s “boys-club culture” and the executive exits that followed a company-wide probe. Following a 2018 partnership with ousted American football player and activist Colin Kaepernick for the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” ad campaign, Nike’s response to the growing unrest was heavily awaited.

On May 29, 2020, prior to Blackout Tuesday, Nike released a video statement on the Black Lives Matter movement in which it called on audiences to pay attention to the unrest unfolding before them. It was met with widespread support and acceptance, with many seeing the statement as a model for corporate social responsibility.

Since then, Nike has continued to restructure its executive leadership team under the stewardship of CEO John Donahoe, promoting Felicia Mayo, a Black woman executive, to the role of diversity chief in July 2020. And as part of the company’s internal goals, or Purpose 2025 Targets, Nike, with Converse, Jordan Brand, and Michael Jordan, committed a combined $140 million over 10 years in support of local and national organizations dedicated to addressing racial inequality for Black Americans, an initiative known as the Black Community Commitment. Though not a gold standard, Nike’s promise of holistic social responsibility has been matched by few companies.

The millennial-pink beauty brand Glossier’s rather diverse word-of-mouth marketing strategy has helped maintain the company’s reputation as one of the industry’s more inclusive and progressive companies. On May 30, 2020, Glossier similarly posted a statement on Instagram pledging to stand in solidarity with Black communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. It also committed to donating a total of $1 million to Black-owned beauty businesses and organizations addressing racial injustice through an inaugural grant initiative. A year later, Glossier announced it would renew the grant program for 2021 “as part of a broader $10 million commitment to bolster equity, inclusion, and representation in the beauty industry over the next five years.”

Despite this, Outta the Gloss, a collective of former retail employees of the company, shared on Instagram an open letter to Glossier in August 2020. The letter detailed a sometimes racist and inequitable working environment and included a list of demands, such as “standardized anti-racist training for management” and the hiring of an “on site HR Liaison working solely with retail.” Later, the group launched a boycott of Glossier at the urging of its followers. Other than an August blog post from Glossier CEO and founder Emily Weiss, Outta the Gloss maintains that its demands have yet to be meaningfully acknowledged by the company, leaving consumers to question Glossier’s commitment to anti-racism within its own workplace.

In contrast, the beauty company Sephora set to make right a history of racist discrimination in its retail stores. On May 30, 2020, Sephora CEO Jean-André Rougeot issued a statement committing to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; a few days later, it published its own #BlackoutTuesday post and closed its retail stores for a two-hour company-wide training on racial bias. The company’s US business also became the first major retailer to sign the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign founded by fashion designer Aurora James asking retailers to dedicate at least 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. (Retailers and brands such as Vogue, Bloomingdale’s, and Old Navy — among others — have since signed on, too.)

Sephora has also pledged to do the following in 2021: increase the seven Black-owned brands it carries to 16, focus on supporting BIPOC founders in beauty through its Sephora Accelerate program, and continue providing new training modules for in-store employees while reducing the presence of third-party security officers.

Meanwhile, the department store Nordstrom was quick to involve itself in the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the company’s more conservative customer base. It published a #BlackoutTuesday post, and later released a statement committing to “increase representation of Black and Latinx populations” in management roles and “[deliver] $500M in retail sales from brands owned by, operated by, or designed by Black and/or Latinx individuals,” both by the end of 2025. It also promised to ensure that its training resources for customer-facing employees “include anti-racism and bias content.”

Both Sephora and Nordstrom have acknowledged that in their commitment to addressing anti-racism, the work begins internally.

Other retail companies have failed to make any substantial long-term commitments.

The e-commerce retailer Fashion Nova was criticized by users and influencers alike for failing to acknowledge or respond to the Black Lives Matter movement prior to June 1, 2020, despite its large consumer base of Black women. The fast-fashion retailer — which has been called out a number of times for stealing designs from small businesses and Black designers and for underpaying garment workers in its Los Angeles factory — ultimately posted a black square with no caption on June 2. It issued a statement the following day in which it remarked, “Our actions speak louder than our words,” and pledged to donate $1 million to various “community resources and activism, awareness campaigns, and other initiatives to help in the fight for racial equality and opportunity.”

Fashion Nova has not made any other statements pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement since then, though it continues to partner with celebrities such as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in its philanthropic initiative, Fashion Nova CARES, which has provided financial support to the Breonna Taylor Foundation and emerging Black designer Tia Adeola, among others. Despite the company’s ubiquity in Black communities and its reliance on Black celebrity and culture for relevance, its Instagram page, which functions as its main form of advertising, is devoid of any mentions of anti-Black racism beyond donations, and lacks representation of Black models.

Starbucks, which also has a fraught history navigating race, pledged to stand in solidarity with its “Black partners, customers, and communities,” and to donate $1 million to organizations promoting racial equity — while simultaneously banning employees and baristas from wearing any pro-Black Lives Matter clothing or accessories. Ultimately, the company revised its decision on the dress code, making 250,000 pro-BLM T-shirts for employees in an attempt to show support for the movement, and continue to offer their elective online anti-bias classes.

And in October, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced that the company would tie executive pay to the meeting of racial diversity targets set to boost diversity in Starbucks’ workforce — by 2025, the company aims to have “people of color represented in at least 30% of roles in corporate operations and 40% of retail and manufacturing roles,” though the company declined to share details of how exactly these goals would be tied to executive pay.

Since then, the company has reached a voluntary agreement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in light of 2007 allegations of racial bias in its promotions, and has started a $100 million Community Resilience Fund that will “support small business growth and community development projects in BIPOC neighborhoods.”

In the music tech industry, companies such as SiriusXM, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music also made respective Blackout Tuesday posts. On June 2, Spotify shared a number of in-app features intended as a show of solidarity with Black creators and users, though artists were quick to criticize the lack of money being donated. This initial offering included a rather out-of-touch 8-minute, 46-second track of silence meant to memorialize the length of time that George Floyd was suffocated by Derek Chauvin, a Black History Is Now hub, and a selection of Black Lives Matter playlists. Later that week, the company committed to contributing up to $10 million in an employee match allocated to organizations addressing anti-racism and racial justice, donating an additional $1 million in advertising inventory to social justice groups (though $345,000 worth of this advertising budget was used to promote the company’s own Black History Is Now hub).

Now, the question remains: Have these companies’ pledges led to any real impact or change in the year since a national racial reckoning? Among the groups that received money from the aforementioned companies — including national organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and the Equal Justice Initiative — was the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). In a statement, LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill shared that “the most valuable gift over the past year has been the increase in pro bono support” which enabled them to “litigate and advocate with greater intensity, and to increase the pace of our work,” increasing the fund’s capacity to support Black communities.

Still, if anything is to be learned from how these companies have approached corporate accountability, it is that it pays to take a stand, even if performative. As millennial and Gen Z consumers increasingly expect brands to be actively involved in social justice movements, publicly choosing a stance has rewarded companies with consumer loyalty.

Following Nike’s BLM statement video, the company moved up 22 places on Social Chain Data’s social media leaderboard in May 2020, into the No. 31 spot. The ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s saw its social media reach grow by 35 percent on Twitter and 27 percent on Facebook, after declaring, “We must dismantle white supremacy” last June. However, #HasBenAndJerrysTweetedYet, a hashtag started by Twitter user @telushk, has been gaining traction this month in light of the company’s refusal to acknowledge its investments in Israel’s illegal settlements. If these predominantly white and men-owned companies ultimately reap the benefits of committing to anti-racism and the fight against white supremacy, is this change really a transformation? And is it substantively supporting Black Americans who confront the burden of racism and racial injustice in their everyday lives?

The range of company pledges, commitments, and statements we’ve seen indicate an ever-present truth: that no matter how impactful or effective corporate activism is, it will also always be inherently performative. Companies cannot be entrusted to be the leaders of the people’s social justice movements.

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