/ 19 July 2020

Beware of Big Business bearing gifts

Black Lives Matter Protest In New York
This time seems different: A Black Lives Matter mural on a street in Brooklyn, New York, during protests against racism after the killing of George Floyd. (Photo: AFP)


After the global protests resulting from George Floyd’s public lynching, there has been a systematic neoliberal takeover of the fight against anti-black racism. After a long period of silence, some of the great bastions of capitalism in the Anglo-American world such as Big Pharma, Big Banking, Big Technology and Big Billionaires have found their voices on racism.

These corporate entities have adopted a plethora of strategies to demonstrate their seriousness in addressing anti-black injustice such as the condemnation of racism, implementation of anti-bias training for employees and committing to improving diversity. So far, corporate America has pledged $1.7-billion to anti-racist organisations. 

The sudden “wokeness” of these purveyors of neoliberalism should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are several reasons for the immediate interest in anti-black racism. With Floyd’s death, the tide of the majority opinion has now turned in favour of condemning anti-black racism. An August 2015 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports revealed only 11% favoured Black Lives Matter. Another survey conducted by the same polling organisation in June 2020 revealed 62% of likely voters had a favourable opinion of Black Lives Matter. This shift in sentiments makes it convenient to jump on to the racial justice bandwagon with little risk. 

With opinion polls bending towards racial justice, firms face the risk of losing out if their values are not in line with its customers who may refrain from buying its products. By embracing brand activism, companies can broaden their reach and increase sales. Furthermore, self-preservation is another motive. As anti-black racism is seared into our collective consciousness, the link between racism and capitalism might come to the fore.  

Black thinkers have discussed the connection between the two. Martin Luther King analysed the interrelationship between the triplets of racism, economic injustice and militarism. Ibram Kendi, in his groundbreaking book How To Be An Antiracist described racism and capitalism as conjoined twins. 

Capitalism has often thrived on a colour-coded hierarchy of winners and losers. One of the key drivers of the British industrial revolution was textile manufacturing. The input for the imported cotton came from the blood, sweat and tears of black slaves working on the plantations of America. Some commentators have described slavery as the foundation of American capitalism. 

Neoliberal tenets such as deregulation, veneration of property rights, privatisation, globalisation, automation, tax cuts, austerity, labour flexibility and free trade have led to increased inequalities which have significantly affected people of colour in the Anglo-Saxon world. There is a paradox when these bastions of neoliberalism advocate for racial justice while at the same time support an ideology that reinforces this inequality.

Big Banking has taken the lead in the clamour for racial justice. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase knelt to show his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Bank of America pledged $1-billion over four years to help communities of colour and minority-owned businesses address economic and racial inequality. Goldman Sachs established a $10-million fund for racial equity. Morgan Stanley’s chief James Gorman was so moved by the protests that he decided to promote two black women to the bank’s operating and management committees. 

Though these gestures might come across as altruistic, it is crucial to carry out a racial cost/benefit analysis. Nine years before Dimon knelt in support of black people killed by the police, JP Morgan Chase, under his leadership, donated $4.6-million to the New York City Police Foundation. Commentators described the gift (used to purchase patrol car laptops and security monitoring software) as the “largest in the history of the foundation”.

Financial institutions have long been involved in predatory lending practices, which target people of colour. In 2011, Citigroup granted loans to black Americans with rates 3.38-times more than other borrowers whereas Wells Fargo & Co and JP Morgan Chase charged blacks borrowers 2.28 times and 2.21 times higher than other borrowers. In 2017, the department of justice fined JP Morgan Chase $55-million for charging 53 000 black and Latino borrowers higher rates and fees on mortgage loans relative to white borrowers. Financial institutions spent $2-billion during the 2018 election cycle on lobbying and campaign contributions to overturn regulations meant to protect customers from predatory lending practices and risky financial decisions.

The global pharmaceutical industry is also addressing anti-black sentiments. Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca chief executives have all voiced their concern about racism. Paradoxically, Big Pharma is one of the leading lobbying industries and has been in opposition to healthcare reforms and lowering of drug prices, which could benefit people of colour who are on the wrong side of the health inequality divide.  

In its short history, Big Technology has spoken up on several social causes. Silicon Valley’s presence has been felt in the ongoing quest for black racial justice. Airbnb donated $500 000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Lives Matter Foundation. Amazon tweeted: “Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community.” It also made a $10m-contribution to 11 black human rights organisations.  

These gestures should not be used gloss over the role these organisations have played in perpetuating racial inequality. Employees at Amazon have complained about the stringent targets they face, which leads to them forgoing toilet breaks and having to urinate in bottles. Amazon has frustrated attempts by its workers to unionise. Amazon, IBM and Microsoft only recently decided to stop selling facial recognition software to the police. People of colour residing near technology hotspots, such as the broader Bay Area and Silicon Roundabout, have found themselves priced out due to gentrification.

Some billionaires have also been inflicted with the “wokeness bug”. Bill Gates has vowed to fight systematic racism and said black lives matter. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has been transformed into a race man. He made headline news when he called out a customer for racism. Gates and Bezos don’t appear to be in a hurry, however, to support the reconstruction of an economic system which has resulted in their combined wealth exceeding the total wealth of 47.8 million African Americans. Paradoxically, Gates, who now says black lives matter also sees Africa’s population growth as a challenge.

Where do we go from here? The gesture from corporations and the ultra-rich is not a vice, and it might be well intended. Those on the forefront in the fight against anti-black racism, however, need to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Activists receiving funds from these purveyors of neoliberalism need to exercise caution. There should be proper accounting for the funds from corporate and individual donors, and it should be used for its original purpose. Failure to do so would bring the struggle into disrepute.  

The anti-black racial campaign should continue to be a bottom-up mass movement as opposed to a top-down led one. Campaigners should draw the link between capitalism and racism and not allow it to be hijacked by deep-pocketed benefactors who may try to downplay the role of neoliberalism in perpetuating racial inequality. Big Pharma, Big Technology and Big Banking should collectively make a public apology for their role in championing an enabling environment that allows racial inequality and anti-black racism to thrive. 

A clear distinction needs to be made between corporate diversity and racial equality. With the ongoing protests, corporates are adopting token solutions towards racial equality by promoting a few black faces in their organisations to showcase the progress they are making. Symbolic gesture solves nothing other than creating a class of black faces in high places. Black, neoliberal-minded professionals piggybacking on Floyd’s death to further their career should question their motives and advocate for real change that benefits all across the black social strata.

Finally, campaigners should ensure that the current movement does not, in the words of Professor Cornel West, become sterilised and “Santa-Clausified” for a neoliberal audience. When Martin Luther King was alive, he was a thorn in the flesh to the racial and economic status quo. Upon his death, Big Business and politicians stripped his legacy of its revolutionary fervour and converted it to a 35-word soundbite made in Washington and now use it to justify a colourblind world. If we let down our guards, this movement could be sterilised and santa-clausified to a slogan, a hashtag, a knee, a token, a selfie and a fashion accessory.

Timeo Danaos et Dona Ferentes.