From Goldman to Apple, Companies Gauge New Calculus on Race

MTV went dark for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Goldman Sachs pledged $10 million “to help address racial and economic injustice.” And Nike reworked its well-worn slogan for these troubled times: “For Once,” it said, “Don't Do It.”

Major corporations have moved with unusual speed to position their brands and messaging for America’s latest crisis over racism and police brutality. Since May 25, when the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers ignited protests across the country, all but a half dozen of the 50 largest companies in the U.S. have responded publicly to the events.

While their responses have, predictably, varied from business to business and industry to industry, one thing is clear: Silence on race is no longer an option. Many companies worry they’ll fall out of step with customers and employees if they don't take a public stand.

Yet each social-media post can set off an online skirmish that mimics the battle lines being drawn across the U.S. as people struggle with rapidly changing events and entrenched fears. Unlike syrupy messages in support of nurses and essential workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic or a call for unity after 9/11, there is no happy medium for a position on white privilege.

“The rule of the day is just do it,” Karen Boykin-Towns, senior counselor at public-relations firm Sard Verbinnen & Co. said about engaging on the issue. “It’s about social responsibility, it’s about corporate responsibility.”

Black Americans, already ravaged by a fatal virus that is two or three times more deadly in their communities, have spread the protests from the streets to social media, contending that corporate silence is the same as complicity. Their messages have been blasted out under hashtags such as #WeAreDoneDying, urging companies and others to show support for changes.

While Starbucks, JPMorgan Chase and others responded after teenager Michael Brown was shot in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri — sparking protests that spread to other cities — engagement this time has been exponentially bigger. That’s partly because the protests have been more widespread and also because battles over LGBT rights, the polarization of the Trump presidency and Congressional gridlock on social issues were already pushing businesses to fill the void.