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Tina Casey headshot

Responding to George Floyd Murder, Ben & Jerry’s Targets the Elephant in the Room

By Tina Casey
Ben & Jerry’s

Among all the businesses responding to the murder of George Floyd, the ice cream purveyor Ben & Jerry’s is one of the few to face the truth. “Taking a stand” against racism is easy enough for CEOs who can command expert writers to articulate their thoughts, all the more so for those who can back their words with hefty donations to worthy organizations. That can only go so far, however, when one political party controls the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and all the powerful machinery that goes along with them.

Ben & Jerry’s outlines the solution — and that’s the problem

Ben & Jerry’s has won widespread praise for its response to the George Floyd murder, and it’s easy to see why. In a brief statement, the company goes straight to the heart of the problem.

“First, we call upon President Trump, elected officials, and political parties to commit our nation to a formal process of healing and reconciliation,” the company states.

Insofar as President Donald Trump is the source of the problem, that is a rather big ask — and one that is obviously not going to be realized, considering Trump’s history both before and during his time in office.

As part of that demand, Ben & Jerry’s follows up with another equally impossible request. “The president must take the first step by disavowing white supremacists and nationalist groups that overtly support him,” the company states, while also calling upon the president to cease “using his Twitter feed to promote and normalize” white supremacists and nationalist groups.

None of this, of course, is even remotely possible considering how Trump and his supporters have behaved during his entire time in office.

And so on. Ben & Jerry’s lists three other demands that involve federal legislation and Department of Justice policy. Each of them is impossible to achieve without replacing the current occupant of the White House and changing the majority leadership of the Senate, while also retaining the current majority in the House of Representatives.

In short, Ben & Jerry’s has issued a call to political action aimed squarely at Election Day in November, without mentioning any political party by name.

Why are other businesses coming up short?

To be clear, the murder of George Floyd is a single flashpoint in a history of violent, often lethal oppression that predates the Trump presidency by almost 400 years. It is just as clear that the president is not responsible for events that took place before he was born.

However, Trump is the first president in modern history to use the power of his office to exacerbate racial inequality in the U.S., celebrate white supremacy, and all but cheerlead for armed insurrections of the kind not seen since the lynch mobs of the early 20th century.

Every point in the Ben & Jerry’s statement aims directly at Trump’s personal responsibility.

In contrast, almost every other CEO on record is treating the George Floyd murder and its aftermath as a civic problem alone.

Reporter Jessica Snouwaert of Business Insider surveyed leading companies from Netflix to GM and Glossier earlier this week. While she found some companies are more committed to concrete action than others, none has addressed the political elephant in the room.

On one end of the scale, GM expressed its intent to form an advisory board, McDonald’s pledged to hold a town hall, Disney released a statement on inclusion, Jeff Bezos of Amazon recommended reading an essay, and Starbucks is “having conversations with its partners.” None of these companies have articulated any particular action, let alone political action.

On a more concrete but similarly ineffectual level, Target has donated food, medical supplies, and other forms of assistance to its workers and community in Minnesota, where one of its stores was looted.

Glossier and several other companies have also taken the donation route in a more meaningful way by providing funds to leading nonprofit organizations in the civil rights field.

Finally, Facebook

Glossier’s approach is clearly one that will have a more significant and lasting impact than essays, letters, conversations and the like. However, donations can also serve to mask a company’s responsibility for enabling hate.

In particular, Snouwaert draws attention to the tens of millions donated annually through the Chan Zuckerberg InitiativeEstablished by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan in 2015, the CZI portfolio includes racial justice work. However, its efforts in that field have been rendered all but meaningless by Zuckerberg’s dogged insistence on a hands-off approach to the ideas expressed on Facebook.

In a report on Facebook released last month, the organization Tech Transparency Project (an offshoot of the Campaign for Accountability) criticized Facebook for failing to deal effectively with hate groups.

“Whats more, Facebooks algorithms create an echo chamber that reinforces the views of white supremacists and helps them connect with each other,” TTP stated.

Earlier this week, the National Whistleblower Center cited the TTP report in a supplement to a 2019 report submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The NWC stated: “Facebook was not engaged in meaningful efforts to remove content from hate and terrorist groups, but in fact was assisting such groups through its algorithms and its auto-generation of web pages for such groups, effectively assisting them with networking and recruiting.”

As of this writing, Zuckerberg has refused to change Facebook’s policy on hate groups.

Meanwhile, though, other social media platforms have begun to take action.

Twitter recently placed warning labels on misleading presidential tweets about elections and racial equity protests, and this week Snapchat announced that it will no longer promote the president’s posts through its Discover page.

Though Facebook is not likely to change its position in advance of Election Day in November, it is clear that Twitter and Snapchat have joined Ben & Jerry’s in singling out the president’s personal responsibility for fostering hate and violence. If other business leaders seek to accomplish something other than words in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, they should follow suit.

Image credit: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey