What Big Business Said in All Those Anti-Racism Statements: Not Much, Says Our Analysis

By Sonia Weiser Oct 08, 2020

On May 28, Chris Crane, the president and CEO of Fortune 100 energy provider Exelon sent a message to his employees. 

“Dear Colleagues,” it began. “During these extraordinary times, when many parts of our lives have changed, it’s more important than ever that we ground ourselves in the fundamental values that define us as a company.”

The memo, which was published on Exelon’s website five days later, was just one in a deluge of corporate anti-racist solidarity statements that overtook the internet after the death of George Floyd on May 25. Through the end of June, there was a frenzy of promises to do better and, according to Axios, 50 of the 100 U.S.-based companies with the highest reported revenue for the 2019 fiscal year donated a total of $2.05 billion to fight racial inequality. By the end of September, that number rose to 58 companies pledging a total of $3.33 billion.

Colorlines, with the help of data journalist John Keefe, ran 88 of these public-facing statements through a natural-language algorithm, called the Universal Sentence Encoder, which assigned individual scores to every sentence based on their syntax and content. According to the algorithm, sentences with similar scores are also similar semantically. 

By scouring all Fortune 100 companies’ corporate social media pages, profiles of their respective CEOs, press releases, and popular and industry publications, we found that from the last week of May through July 31, 2020, 90 companies shared their sentiments publicly. 

They dispatched their executives and PR departments to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, corporate blogs and TV broadcasts to present an expression of compassion and humility. For the 10 companies whose public statements were not easily located, we reached out directly to verify whether or not they had issued a statement at all. Spokespeople from Oracle and Phillips 66 confirmed that the companies’ respective executives had shared their thoughts and feelings internally. Verification requests to Energy Transfer, Exxon Mobil, Plains GP Holdings, StoneX, Tech Data Corporation, Valero Energy and World Fuel Services were not answered. We excluded two statements: one from Lockheed Martin (which was tweeted by a journalist and not the company itself) and a Merck statement that was part of a CEO interview on CNBC.

Not surprisingly, the statements are constructed from the same limited vocabulary of vetted corporate jargon, which hyped their respective companies as bastions of integrity and equality. Promoting images of solidarity and respect, none focused on their own company’s histories of racial inequity, entrenched whiteness or need to massively overhaul its policies. 

Sixty-six statements included the word “racism,” though just Pfizer, Mass Mutual, and Johnson & Johnson went so far as to call the recent spate of violence against the Black community “racist.” Despite the impetus for these statements, only 15 used the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It was more often employed as a sentiment—à la PepsiCo’s “I want to be very clear: Black Lives Matter, to our company and to me”—than in reference to the movement itself. 

Out of the 88 statements, 57 mentioned George Floyd by name, and of those, 30 also cited Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by white residents while jogging through a suburban Georgia neighborhood in February 2020. Twenty-six of the 57 statements that named George Floyd also included Breonna Taylor. Only the Humana health insurance company recognized Taylor’s murder without naming any other victims of police brutality; the company is based in Louisville, Kentucky, where Taylor lived and was killed. 

A mere 11 pointed to police brutality as a national crisis. Four quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Both Hewlett-Packard and McKesson included Dr. King’s line from “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

Collating and comparing statements, we found that many took the form of thinly veiled self congratulatory statements. They touted longtime commitments to values and actions such as inclusivity, tolerance, diversity, and openness as if to say that they’ve been fighting the good fight all along. 

Chevron declared that “diversity and inclusion are foundational to The Chevron Way and it is up to all of us to be present, be allies and be actionable in the ugly face of racism, discrimination and injustice. Exelon avers that employees’ "focus on our values of respect, diversity and inclusion cannot waver,” while American Express, ADX and Costco all “remain committed” to diversity and inclusion. Even American Airlines and Nike—companies with track records of racial and gender discrimination towards employees and consumers—“will continue” to eliminate discrimination. Over at Disney, CEO Bob Chapek, Executive Chairman and former CEO Bob Iger, and SVP and Chief Diversity Officer Latondra Newton urged employees to “further strengthen our commitment to diversity and inclusion everywhere,” without acknowledging the company’s long history of propagating racist imagery in its films and theme park rides (they have since announced that the “Splash Mountain” ride, which included visual references to “Song of the South,” will be reimagined as a “Princess and the Frog” tie-in.)

Some other examples:

Kroger: "With that in mind, now and each day, we remain guided by Our Purpose and Our Values of Integrity and Honesty, Safety and Respect, Diversity and Inclusion."

Home Depot: “Diversity and respect for all people are core to who we are as an Orange-Blooded family."

Tyson: "We believe our team members learn from, understand and ultimately grow from our inherent racial, cultural, religious and gender differences."

Caterpillar: "I ask you to reflect on your individual thoughts and actions and ensure they are consistent with Our Values."

One thing these statements weren’t: apologies for any specific prior wrongdoings. In some cases, CEOs alluded to their own naivete. Nick Warren, CEO and founder of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, revealed his own ignorance regarding the phrase “All Lives Matter.” He explained that after reading up on the issue, he “finally understood why this is offensive and that the message of the Black Lives Matter movement is that [B]lack lives, because of racism, have never mattered as much as white lives, and until that changes, no lives should matter.” 

Dave Calhoun of Boeing said he heard some of his employees’ displeasure at the company’s inaction and that “as a company and as human beings, we need to work even harder at doing something about it.” But not a single statement explicitly pointed to any specific race-centric controversy regardless of how widely publicized the issue may have been been, turning any attempt at articulating compassion into pure irony. 

The other most obvious trend was the vow to respect all employees regardless of race and to forge environments conducive to open dialogues about hard topics. “Now, more than ever, is the time for us to listen with open hearts and to lead with empathy—toward each other, toward our customers and toward our communities,” wrote Publix CEO Todd Jones. His letter, which also stated “embracing our diversity has driven us toward progress, innovation and excellence for almost a century,” was published on June 8, just  nine days before a Publix in Lehigh Acres, Florida, sent an employee home for wearing a BLM face mask.

Similarly, USAA CEO Wayne Peacock wrote, "I believe that listening to diverse perspectives and summoning the courage to start crucial conversations is the first step in fostering inclusivity and creating environments where each of us feels like we belong." Not to be confused with the words from Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who said, "My advice for each of us is to actively listen to each other, forgive well-intentioned questions or comments as we have what can be uncomfortable conversations, create a safe space for learning and be purposeful about what you read and listen to." Or, for that matter, those of Albertsons’ CEO Vivek Sankaran: “Listening with compassion and taking action when it is needed are critical to ensuring that racism and hatred have no place at our company.”

Of the 88 companies, 27 included their donation pledges and future internal actions in the original post. Nearly 50 others followed up their first statements with announcements regarding their plans to combat racism, including Wells Fargo, whose CEO came under scrutiny for recently commenting that "the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.” 

While a number of companies like GE, Citibank, Coca-Cola and Delta have noted their intention to diversify their team in the future, only a handful actually made the leap: Abbvie instated a chief equality officer, and State Farm hired its first chief diversity officer. But, as of this week, Wells Fargo, along with Microsoft, are now being investigated by the Department of Labor (DOL) regarding their efforts to expand representation. Per regulations from DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, because both companies are federal contractors, they are prohibited from discriminating based on sex and race. However, under the Trump administration, the laws set in place by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are being used to stymie diversity initiatives that would bolster racial equality in the workforce.  As the lawyers quoted in a Wall Street Journal article explain, neither company should be penalized. 

Now, more than three months later, some of the Fortune 100 companies that hadn’t included internal action plans and donation pledges in their original statements have published updates delineating concrete steps such as newly appointed chief diversity and equality officers or contributions to local organizations that directly benefit the Black community surrounding the corporation’s HQ. However, 15 of those that issued statements in May and June, including Energy Transfer, whose CEO was the only Fortune 100 head to donate to Trump’s campaign, failed to mention any concrete steps the company would take to counteract racism, either in the original memo or in any follow-up messages released in the months since—casting doubt on their corporate allyship. 

Sonia Weiser is a freelance journalist and has written for the New York Times, TIME, Boston Globe, New York Magazine, among others. More info at Soniaweiser.wordpress.com and @weischoice on twitter.