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Empty statements like Amazon’s show black lives only matter to big business when there’s profit to be made

Displays of so-called solidarity from otherwise indifferent corporations look like cynical attempts to capitalise on black death

Micha Frazer-Carroll
Monday 01 June 2020 17:16 BST
Black Lives Matter protesters stage marches around the world

Black people are tired. We’re tired of members of our communities being murdered at the hands of the police – in the US, the UK and beyond. We are tired of watching videos of these modern-day lynchings play out on our screens. And often, we’re also tired of the noise – the social media discourse that surrounds black death, the racism in the replies, but also, the empty statements of solidarity.

Some of this supposed solidarity comes from people we know – self-proclaimed allies who have done little to tackle racism in their own lives. But over the past decade or so, we are increasingly seeing similar sentiments come from brands and corporations. Last week, throughout the protests that have swept across America in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen this trend rear its head once again. Perhaps most absurdly to me, Amazon published a statement yesterday claiming that it “stand[s] in solidarity with the black community – our employees, customers, and partners – in the fight against systemic racism and injustice”.

In the case of Amazon, it’s hard for me to quantify how deeply hypocritical I feel the company’s supposed stance is. Amazon’s reported mistreatment of its warehouse workers is infamous; employees have reported having to urinate in plastic bottles due to lack of time for a toilet break, pregnant workers have allegedly been asked to stand for hours on end, meanwhile, 600 ambulances were called out to the company’s warehouses in three years. Simultaneously, it has been repeatedly reported that CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in modern history, pays less than he should in taxes. To understand what this has to do with the principle that #BlackLivesMatter, we must acknowledge that black people are more likely to be working in these low wage, precarious and sometimes dangerous jobs. Fifteen per cent of Amazon’s workforce are black – and of those, 85 per cent work in its warehouses.

There is more damning evidence against the company’s case: in 2016, Amazon pitched and piloted its facial recognition software with US law enforcement. Yet recognition has been widely criticised by anti-racists as it disproportionately misidentifies black faces – an issue that would undoubtedly exacerbate the racism of America’s criminal justice system that Amazon now claims to stand against. And when it comes to perpetuating racist ideology, Amazon has been subject to scrutiny for continuing to advertise on far-right news platforms like Breitbart News, selling racist literature on its website, and featuring racist abuse in its product images. From workers’ rights abuses and shady deals to selling overtly racist products on its site, as I see it, it appears definitive: Amazon does not care about black lives.

So why release a statement in support of Black Lives Matter – what’s in it for them? Put simply, many big businesses, regardless of their actual track records on race, are able to exploit social movements as an opportunity to cash in. Using social injustice as an exercise in hollow brand-building isn’t unique to Amazon – companies like Netflix, Spotify, Nike, and PrettyLittleThing, most of whom have shown no long-term commitment to the fight against racial injustice, also released statements last week expressing solidarity. Brands and corporations, which are driven by the interests of their shareholders, utilise moments where it is in their economic interests to speak up; if they can win consumer support (and crucially, consumer cash) during moments of national outrage, they will. This has become more pertinent into the 21st century, as millennials increasingly report that they are more likely to give money to brands that seem to align with their beliefs.

Capitalism in 2020 often takes on an “activist” face – think Colin Kaepernick staring down the lens on a Just Do It ad (and the consequent publicity boost for Nike). But the bare bones remain the same. As far as I'm concerned, if corporations like Amazon truly cared, they wouldn’t craft business models that exploit and dehumanise workers at the bottom, including those who are black, and when it came to racial injustice, they would open their purses rather than posting empty statements on social media.

Over the short space of four days, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a non-profit that bails out protestors, raised 20 million dollars from over 150,000 donors, most of which weren’t big businesses, but outraged individuals from all over the world. Beauty brand Glossier announced on Saturday that it would donate $500,000 to organisations combating racial injustice, which I still cynically view as somewhat of a PR move – but at least is doing something concrete.

If big businesses don’t put their money where their mouth is, their social media statements ultimately ring hollow, instead capitalising on black death to win over more consumer dollars. Black people are tired – and as a black person who is more tired than ever, I know that in the struggle against racial oppression, it is people, not corporations, who will always lead the way.

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