From the moment Donald Trump was elected, many observers were convinced that American business leaders would rise to the occasion and speak out when they thought his beliefs and behaviors were undemocratic, corrupt or inappropriate. For the most part, such expectations have been disappointed. Over and over again, executive leadership in C-suites across America — and in other countries — have failed to speak up forcefully, cozying up to power in a way that suggests business leaders are less concerned about Trump’s threat to democracy and more about their bottom line.

That makes the wave of ads and other actions from corporate America condemning law enforcement violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis a welcome development.

Let’s hear it for McDonald’s (a favorite of Trump, who loves Big Macs and chocolate milkshakes), which offered up a silent video with the names of victims of police violence. Kate Spade and Coach stores were looted in multiple cities, but their parent company’s CEO all but said that all would be forgiven: “We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter.” Lego announced that it would — at least temporarily — cease marketing its law enforcement toys (though it has not withdrawn them from sale). Apple, YouTube and Starbucks have all chimed in.

Corporate support, of course, resonates far and wide. Many in the United States valorize corporations and the men (and occasional women) who run them. This casts business leaders as moral arbiters, with loyal customers seeking out their take on matters important and minor. Meanwhile, corporations, concerned about profits, often prioritize shareholder concerns over political ones. They worry about angering fickle customers across the political spectrum. (In the age of social media, with its nearly instantaneous boycott campaigns on both the left and the right, those pressures are more intense.) As a result, companies are frequently followers, not leaders. For them to step forward and call out police brutality against African Americans is a powerful sign that something profound is shifting in our culture and society.

While these are welcome developments, we should also consider the larger context in which they’re emerging. In many cases, the same companies decrying police violence are ones that, through off-shoring, less-than-humane working conditions and other policies, contribute to making life so hard for minorities in this country and others.

Take McDonald’s. Two high-ranking African American executives sued the company for discrimination this year, claiming “a ruthless purge” of minority corporate employees. (The company denies the allegations.) Records show that franchise locations owned by blacks earn tens of thousands of dollars less in revenue every month than those controlled by white owners. As for working conditions, employees in Chicago recently filed a class-action lawsuit saying the company refused to provide appropriate protective gear, accommodate social distancing or notify staff when co-workers tested positive for covid-19 as they worked during the pandemic. (McDonald’s denies all of this.)

I could go on. YouTube is donating $1 million to “efforts to address social justice,” but the company’s-less-than successful efforts to get a handle on white supremacist videos on the site are well known. Apple has faced allegations that it profiled African American customers. It was also sued last year by an African American former employee, who alleges that managers did not support him when he experienced racist treatment by customers.

It’s terrific that high-ranking African American executives at financial services firms such as Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase are speaking out. Let’s hope they also speak out about low pay for many entry-level bank employees or the ongoing impact of the foreclosure crisis on African American communities. Another question: Why, as Popular Information’s Judd Legum recently asked, is Citigroup making political donations to more than five dozen members of Congress whose records on civil rights votes the NAACP grades an “F”?

Yes, the corporate honchos speaking out are no doubt well-intentioned. But talk is cheap. Real change takes more than well-chosen words or heavily publicized philanthropic donations. It also requires bottom-line sacrifice and change from not only the police but also other actors within society. We’ll know what the corporate campaigners criticizing police violence against African Americans are made of when they alter their business practices — or if they don’t change their behavior at all.

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