Racial Rhetoric or Reality? Cautious Optimism on the Link Between Corporate #BLM Speech and Behavior

Lisa M. Fairfax is a Presidential Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law. This post is based on her recent paper, published in the Columbia Business Law Review. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance (discussed on the Forum here) by Lucian A. Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita. 

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people at the hands of police, the summer of 2020 saw a dramatic rekindling of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as cities in America and worldwide erupted in protests and calls to dismantle racist and discriminatory policies and practices both in the criminal system and throughout all levels of society.

In a move that took many by surprise, corporations and their brands responded to these calls with a virtual flood of black squares, #BlackLivesMatter signs, and corporate statements professing to support the Black community, expressing a rejection of racism, intolerance, bias, and bigotry, and pledging to help eradicate racist policies and practices both within their own institutions and the broader society. Original research done by this author reveals that by August 2020, 86% of Fortune 100 companies and 66% of Fortune 500 companies released such statements. For example, Harley-Davidson insisted: “Racism, hate or intolerance have no place at Harley-Davidson. We stand in solidarity with our Black colleagues and riders, as we condemn acts of racism and bigotry of any kind . . . . United we will ride.” Netflix stated: “To be silent is to be complicit.” Johnson & Johnson declared “we must do more. And we must do it now.”

Commentators viewed these corporate statements with severe skepticism, if not outright hostility, characterizing the statements as “cheap talk,” a marketing ploy, hypocritical, or an “outright lie.” In Racial Rhetoric or Reality?, 1 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 118 (2022), I challenge this blanket condemnation of these corporate statements. The Article uses my own original empirical surveys of Fortune 500 companies to argue that many of the corporations that issued statements in the summer of 2020 made efforts to follow through on their promise to promote diversity and work to combat racism within the corporate sphere. The Article relies on two empirical surveys to support this argument. The first is a survey of corporate statements issued by Fortune 500 companies during the summer of 2020. The second is a comparison of Fortune 500 companies that issued statements and those that did not against Fortune 500 board appointments within the months following the issuance of such statements broken down by race and gender. Those surveys reflect a strong correlation between Fortune 500 corporations that issued corporate statements and corporations that diversified their corporate board in the months following the release of such statements. The Article’s surveys suggest that the issuance of corporate statements had an impact on corporate behavior related to race and diversity.

The Article advances three important claims about the deluge of corporate statements issued in the summer of 2020. First, the Article argues that such statements can be viewed as corporate commitments to actively work against discrimination and racism, and thus can be characterized as an example of antiracism. For purposes of the Article, the terms “antiracism” or “antiracist” as applied to speech are used to capture three core concepts. First, such speech denounces racism, bigotry, and discrimination. Second, such speech repudiates silence. The final and quintessential element is that such speech embodies a commitment to actively work to dismantle discriminatory policies and practices or otherwise to actively promote diversity and inclusion. The Article’s survey of Fortune 500 corporate statements issued in the summer of 2020 reveals that many of those statements had all three of these hallmarks. In this regard, the Article intentionally uses the term “antiracist” to characterize these corporate statements in order to reflect the fact that the vast majority of corporate statements included promises by corporations to proactively work against racism and improve diversity, particularly within their own corporations.

Second, the Article offers an optimistic and contrarian perspective on these statements. In stark contrast to predictions from the many commentators who sharply criticized and dismissed the potential impact of these corporate statements, the Article uses empirical surveys to assert that such blanket denunciation has proven inappropriate. On the one hand, the Article points out that corporate statements condemning racism and affirming the importance of Black lives have important and beneficial normative implications irrespective of their behavioral impact. On the other hand, the Article draws upon my original empirical surveys to demonstrate that many corporations that issued corporate statements began to follow through on their commitments, at least with respect to increasing the presence of Blacks and other people of color on their boards. Importantly, by highlighting a divergence in board diversity behavior between corporations that issued statements and those that did not, the Article’s research suggests that the issuance of corporate statements dramatically influenced corporations’ willingness to take actions aimed at increasing diversity and ameliorating the impact of racism. Such research thereby challenges the notion that corporate statements should have been blanketly dismissed as merely cheap talk or opportunistic rhetoric.

Finally, however, the Article sounds a note of caution about the long-term impact of these statements on the corporate effort to promote diversity and eradicate discrimination within the economic sphere. While the Article’s surveys suggest real promise about corporations’ willingness to follow through on their commitments, there are nonetheless challenges ahead that could undermine or impede progress. First, it may be that corporate actions around board diversity reflected anticipation of regulation associated with board diversity such as that ultimately enacted by California and Nasdaq. Second, it may be that board diversity is not a good indicator of corporate efforts to promote diversity or otherwise tackle discrimination, particularly with respect to other aspects of the corporate and economic environment. At the very least, board diversity is just one of many actions that corporations need to take, and it is too soon to tell if corporations will focus on efforts that include other critical actions, such as working to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce or otherwise working to ensure that corporate policies do not have a negative impact on Blacks and other vulnerable communities. Third, there are serious structural and substantive limitations to enhancing board diversity that may undermine continued progress in this area. Finally, we now appear to be in a different moment. In the summer of 2020, polls revealed historically unprecedented consensus among all races about the level of discrimination faced by Blacks and other people of color as well as the need to take action to ameliorate that discrimination. As a result, corporations and society in general experienced intense internal and external pressure to make express commitments to tackle racism and follow through on those commitments. Two years later, most of the black squares, #BlackLivesMatter signs, and corporate statements are gone or otherwise have faded from view. Moreover, two years later, there appears to be growing backlash around efforts to promote diversity and dismantle racist practices, including backlash aimed at efforts to improve board diversity. This backlash begs a serious question about whether corporations will remain willing to make substantive, meaningful, and long-term change with respect to diversity and inclusion in the economic sphere.

The complete paper is available for download here.

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