a public relations windfall for the living investor class, Cedric Johnson, Confronting Investor Class Power, deflections from the actual corporate decisions that justify exploitation, Essential Worker Rebellion, George Floyd, surging protests, the investor class, The New Corporate Blackwashing, the plight of millions of Americans struggling to survive in a low-wage economy, the world demanded the removal of racist icons, Woke Capitalism
Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class
Corporations have embraced antiracist rhetoric, but they will not eradicate the economic insecurity and inequality the investor class requires — and wants the police to uphold.
June 2020 was not a good month for slave owners and imperialists, or at least not for their stone and bronze likenesses. Amid the surging protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, crowds around the world demanded the removal of racist icons, with some taking it upon themselves to pull down the offending statues.
The protests gave renewed momentum to long-standing efforts to rid Southern cities of Confederate memorials. Along Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, where activists have long demanded the removal of tributes to Confederate heroes such as J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee, protesters scrawled various slogans, such as “ACAB,” “Stop White Supremacy,” and “Fuck 12” (“fuck the police”) on pedestals. While legal attempts to remove the offending statues languished in court, protesters immediately transformed the Lee monument into a colorful site where artists and crowds gathered for rallies and memorials to black civilians killed by police.
In New Orleans, protesters armed with rope, a chisel, and a skateboard toppled a bust of the slave owner John McDonogh and tossed it into the Mississippi River. The rebellion against racist statuary spread across the Atlantic as well. In the English port city of Bristol, the bronze cast of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century slave trader, was dismantled and rolled into the harbor.
I could care less about these memorials to slavery and empire. Good riddance. The demonstrators have reinvigorated a process of recognition and historical consciousness that is long overdue, but their chosen targets also reflect a relative powerlessness in the face of contemporary forces. The gestural politics of the moment, reflected in terms like “white skin privilege” and “post-traumatic slavery disorder” have been heartily embraced by the investor class precisely because they deflect from the actual corporate decisions that justify exploitation, rationalize obsolescence and waste, and reproduce inequality all in pursuit of profit.
The New Corporate Blackwashing
While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.
Corporate gestural antiracism was even more widespread. Hundreds of companies posted pro–Black Lives Matter messages on Blackout Tuesday. Streaming video services like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix promoted black cinema, television series, and documentary film at a level we do not typically see even during Black History Month. General Motors, Lyft, Best Buy, Amazon, the National Football League, Mastercard, Nike, Spotify, and other companies declared a paid holiday for Juneteenth, once celebrated primarily in East Texas in remembrance of the date enslaved blacks in Galveston received belated word of emancipation.
While Amazon temporarily banned law enforcement usage of its facial recognition software, few of these responses are addressed to the direct complicity of corporations in policing, either as contractors with police departments or beneficiaries of policing regimes. Part of this is a consequence of prevailing understandings of the problem of policing, which focus on racial disparity rather than the more fundamental role that carceral power plays in reproducing the social order and political economy. Once we get past the militancy and millennial cultural aspects, the Black Lives Matter slogan is at heart a reassertion of civil rights liberalism and a basic plea for equal protection before the law.
With the interventions of capitalists, we have witnessed an intensive campaign of blackwashing, akin to greenwashing, that is, the adoption of the slogans, mantras, and ethics of racial liberalism in ways that do not threaten fundamental commitments to exploitation. These forms of antiracism are simply about firms trying to expand their market share through expressions of care and concern. Perhaps most important, the corporate embrace of Black Lives Matter has deflected public attention away from the roiling labor protests of essential workers — many of them black — against these same companies during the shelter-in-place orders.
Essential Worker Rebellion
The shelter-in-place orders to stop the spread of COVID-19 sent shock waves through various sectors. Workers in education, information services, finance, and cultural industries were able to retain jobs as many universities, schools, technology firms, and media networks went virtual, but for most this was a mixed blessing. Workers retained their jobs but found themselves subjected to even more intensive forms of surveillance and speedup. Millions more were thrown into unemployment as concerts, bars, restaurants, theaters, public gatherings, church services, and recreation activities were curtailed. With millions of schoolchildren now at home, many Americans also found themselves taking on new roles as full-time homeschoolers, day care providers, and cooks, often without the requisite training or financial, emotional, and social resources.
Within this context, the plight of essential workers became a powerful symbol of the more widely felt hardship and uncertainty of the pandemic. These workers encompassed those frontline health care workers, first responders, and transit workers who were critical to fighting the pandemic, but equally those employed in the circulation of basic commodities and services. With access to restaurants, retail, and grocers restricted, delivery-based firms like Amazon, Instacart, Grubhub, DoorDash, and others took on an oversized role. Between March and April alone, Instacart added some three hundred thousand workers, with the company’s overall valuation approaching $14 billion as a result of the pandemic.
As critical nodes in the gig economy, these firms have always drawn on the most vulnerable workers and offered precious little in return in terms of wages and benefits. Under the conditions of the pandemic, these same e-commerce merchants benefitted from mass layoffs in other sectors as new reserves of hard-pressed workers opened up. The combination of gig economy conditions and legitimate pandemic anxiety produced a wave of walkouts and strike actions nationally.
Although Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was adamant in his support for Black Lives Matter, the company fired Chris Smalls, a black Amazon worker who led a walkout at the end of March demanding more protective gear and hazard pay. The strike temporarily shut down the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, which employs three thousand workers. Smalls, an assistant manager, and other workers grew increasingly concerned after two workers tested positive for COVID-19. Worker safety was already a problem at JFK8 before the pandemic. Last year, the warehouse was issued a 15.2 score on the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) incident index, an injury rate higher than the national average for sawmill and steel workers.
Smalls joined a long list of workers fired by Amazon for protesting the company’s labor practices. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were terminated in mid-April for their leadership of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which circulated a petition and organized a video call of warehouse workers to address pandemic safety concerns. Tim Bray, a vice president and engineer at Amazon Web Services, resigned in protest after the rash of firings, and published a searing letter condemning the company’s treatment of whistleblowers and discrete failure to protect workers during the pandemic.
“Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them,” Bray wrote. “It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.” Bray condemned the retail giant’s treatment of warehouse workers as “fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” but noted that these are not Amazon’s problems alone, but rather “how 21st-century capitalism is done.”
On May Day, thousands of workers at Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, and Instacart staged walkouts, demanding expanded sick-leave policies, more stringent sanitization and social distancing in their workplaces, and better wages. These corporations downplayed the scale of worker discontent, with some like Target publishing statements that reduced concerns to “a very small minority” of their 340,000-member workforce.
Amazon has publicized its safety regimen in a “Meeting the Moment” ad campaign featuring Christine and Janelle, employees who extol the company’s commitment to safety as well as their own deep personal concern for their coworkers. A recent California lawsuit, however, contradicts this messaging. The suit cites incidents where Amazon Fresh workers reuse full-body freezer suits without sanitization. Likewise, other workers reported that their complaints to management about shop safety were not taken seriously.
This is not over, and the problems facing essential workers will likely intensify as the pandemic wears on, and as government officials sacrifice public health and occupational safety at the altars of investor confidence and renewed economic growth.
Beware of Woke Capitalism
The justified surge of anger following the murder of George Floyd at once posed a challenge to elites — with thousands pouring into the streets to demand justice. But they also provided a potential opening, a momentary social safety valve for the savvy corporate class, a means of expressing concern for the lives of the black and brown workers they depend on, while deflecting attention from the unjust conditions on the shop floor.
Since Blackout Tuesday, many activists have written off the corporate response as co-optation and pandering, which distracts from the more organic work unfolding in different cities around the defunding of police departments and the severing of ties between law enforcement and schools. This corporate response, however, is not co-optation in the traditional sense where the powers that be corral threatening popular forces and embrace their leadership and ideas reluctantly and out of necessity. Rather, what we are witnessing is ideological convergence of the militant racial liberalism of Black Lives Matter and the operational racial liberalism of capital. Antiracist protests against police brutality and odious historical memorials do not threaten capital in the ways that strikes and walkouts do.
The corporate fête for elements of Black Lives Matter should make clear two core problems with liberal antiracism. First, like the Black Power demand decades prior, the amorphous nature of the slogan and the decentralized, networked character of anti-policing activism enhance free-agent brokerage dynamics where those sitting closest to the throne will ultimately determine what Black Lives Matter means in practice. And we know from a few decades’ worth of corporate responsibility patter, in the absence of pressure to do otherwise, ruling elites will push solutions that fit squarely within the realm of the market economy, voluntarist action, the rehabilitation of individual attitudes, and the promotion of entrepreneurship and wealth creation.
It is worth noting that all of the “social justice organizations” named in Amazon’s $10 million pledge preexisted the creation of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, none would be considered by activists as leading Black Lives Matter organizations, and some are not focused on matters of policing and criminal justice at all.
Second, the slogan has resuscitated notions of universal black injury, which loosely apply in the case of vigilante and police violence but are false in terms of the broader problem of incarceration, or for that matter, inequality in health care, education, and income. Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company Merck, was rightly outraged by the killing of George Floyd, but in his public statement on the incident he engaged in a rhetorical sleight of hand that too many accept as social fact. “What the African-American community sees in that videotape,” Frazier said, “is that this African-American man, who could be me or any other African-American man, is being treated as less than human.” There is nothing wrong with Frazier’s heartfelt identification with Floyd. Millions were shocked and outraged, however, judging from the protests in all fifty states and images of broad and diverse crowds, clearly you didn’t have to be black to see that the police acted in an unlawful and inhumane manner.
Moreover, Frazier’s claim that it could happen to him is patently false, unless you know of an incident where someone with $76 million in stock holdings was choked to death by police during a routine arrest. That rhetorical move authorizes Frazier as an authentic, honest broker in the circles he frequents, lending more weight to his call for business leaders to be a “unifying force” in the wake of mass protests and looting.
It has been interesting as well to watch how quickly “Black Wall Street,” the commercial center of Jim Crow–era black Tulsa, has become a poignant symbol of paradise lost for the black professional-managerial class, woke whites, and in the last few weeks, corporate executives of all hues. Most major business journals and newspapers have run stories commemorating the 1921 pogrom when white vigilantes killed scores of black citizens and burned down businesses along Greenwood Avenue and the surrounding residential areas.
In a story for Forbes, Antoine Gara even refers to Tulsa patrician O. W. Gurley as the “Bezos of Black Wall Street,” clearly establishing the through line from lost prosperity to current demands for reparations within the capitalist frame. The story of Tulsa is one tragic reminder of Jim Crow violence, but we should remember that many other black towns and neighborhoods were also destroyed through racist attacks dating back to the Reconstruction period. Those communities, however, were often poor, comprised of sharecroppers, nannies, maids, stevedores, and hired hands, with only modest if any formal commercial activity, and as such, don’t provide the same cachet for contemporary purveyors of race uplift and entrepreneurship. The rehabilitation of “Black Wall Street” as an allegory-cum-explanation of black wealth disparity should be rejected for the myopic history and bourgeois ideological narrative that it is.
This mythmaking runs deep and resembles the same nostalgia for black districts lost to highway construction in cities around the country. The injustice of their destruction is clear, but the belief that these Jim Crow commercial corridors, with their collections of hardware stores, theaters, motels, grocers, and jukes would have survived desegregation, Walmartification, and globalized commodity chains when so many white-owned businesses and downtown districts did not borders on dangerous fantasy.
Too many self-styled leftists now reach for “class reductionism” to impugn any serious class analysis of American society, especially when we turn to the subject of black life. And yet I’m confident those same leftists would genuflect before Ken Frazier’s claim as a black everyman, and the ideological uses of Black Wall Street, and they’re likely unaware of how such maneuvers undermine advancing a politics that might improve life for the greatest number of African Americans.
Confronting Investor Class Power
There is a direct connection between the wave of labor protests during April and May, and the global George Floyd protests. Both are responses to the dire conditions of late capitalism.
The spring labor actions were the latest of ongoing struggles against a high-tech, low-wage economy, not a natural feature of service work, but a consequence of labor arbitrage, union-busting, and deregulation engineered by ruling elites. It should be clear as well that Black Lives Matter emerged amid the worsening conditions created by neoliberal rollback, which hit specific layers of the black population especially hard. For example, the affordable housing crisis has impacted many African-American communities in different ways. HOPE VI demolitions beginning during the Clinton years destroyed nearly a hundred thousand public housing units across dozens of cities. While housing demolition and privatization scattered the working poor in search of housing options in increasingly expensive urban areas, the subprime mortgage crisis undermined what little wealth the nominal middle class enjoyed. For instance, before the crisis, blacks made up 72 percent of all home loan recipients in Detroit, but by 2017, that number had plummeted to 48 percent.
It is common nowadays for too many to read racism into and out of every social hardship, inequality, or historical narrative. Racism, we are to believe, is “endemic,” “ingrained,” “systemic,” America’s “original sin,” “a disease,” and so forth. Even on the matter of policing, where “seeing is believing,” and viral videos make us all witnesses, investigators, and prosecuting attorneys to these crimes against black civilians, the race of the victims only tells part of the story. Once we look beyond the urban theater where so many Black Lives Matter protests have unfolded, and venture analytically to places where there are few black people, the problem of policing remains, not as a strategy of “controlling black bodies,” but as a means of disciplining and managing the poor, the unemployed, and the criminalized as a cheaper alternative to investing in a robust social wage.
George Floyd’s unjust death provoked millions to take to the streets, and his life should provoke us as well to think seriously about the inequality and precariousness that have intensified amid the global pandemic. He migrated from Houston’s Third Ward to the Twin Cities in 2014 through a church ministry designed to give men struggling with addiction a fresh start and employment. He found work as a truck driver and security guard. Like millions of Americans, Floyd lost his job when the restaurant where he worked as a bouncer closed down, and in April, he was diagnosed with COVID-19. His alleged use of counterfeit money reflects the criminally inadequate provision of income support. His death has become a powerful global symbol of racist policing, but his life was also typical of the plight of millions of Americans struggling to survive in a low-wage economy.
No amount of corporate blackwashing, public therapy, monument remediation, or entrepreneurship will change the conditions he experienced, and millions more still endure. We need to build a political movement to abolish the economic insecurity and inequality the investor class requires, and wants the police to uphold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).