In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, and the protests that have ensued, companies large and small have decided that now is the time for them to make public their allegiance to the Black community. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Doordash, Reddit, Uber, Nextdoor, and Lyft are among the many who have issued statements of support. Google changed the look of their home page. The publicity departments of all of these companies have tweeted out or posted that Black lives matter and that they “stand with the Black community.”
Thus to the venerable traditions of corporate pink-washing, greenwashing, and ethics-washing their deplorable practices, we can now add another: Black Power-washing, wherein companies issue essentially meaningless statements about their commitment to Black folks but do little to change their policies, hiring practices, or ultimately their business models, no matter how harmful to Black people these may be. Companies seem to think that tweeting “BLM” will wash away the fact that they derive massive wealth from the exploitation of Black labor, the promotion of white anxiety about Blackness, and the amplification of extremism and white supremacy. All of these result in direct and very real harms to Black people.
Take Amazon, which is notoriously hostile to organized labor. In discussing Christian Smalls, a Black man who was fired by Amazon after he attempted to organize workers, an executive smeared him with the overtly racist description, “not smart or articulate.” (Amazon denies he was fired in retaliation for organizing, though the timing has made many people skeptical. The company also says that the executive, general counsel David Zapolsky, did not know Smalls is Black.) Amazon is also the company that, through its Ring Doorbell initiative and the Neighbors platform, has partnered with more than 1,000 police departments across the country. The initiative has helped to develop a widespread surveillance network and turned people’s fear of the racialized “other” invading their neighborhood into a booming business. In fact, an Amazon employee wrote about Ring:
The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.
Yet, Jeff Bezos wrote an Instagram post that says, “The pain and emotional trauma caused by the racism and violence we are witnessing toward the Black community has a long reach,” as if his company is not directly involved in exacerbating that pain and emotional trauma.
Nextdoor also dipped their toe in the pool of expressing “solidarity” by way of a tweet:
Black lives matter.
You are not alone.
Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood.
Reach out. Listen. Take action. pic.twitter.com/PVCYdA9Xrj
— Nextdoor (@Nextdoor) May 31, 2020
Nextdoor’s ad-based business model is bolstered by white fears of crime and anxiety about who should and should not be in “their” neighborhoods—so much so that a recent article referred to the platform as a “hotbed of racial profiling and tattling.” If you are aiming for a just society, everyone should feel safe not only in their neighborhood, but in every neighborhood, But somehow, Nextdoor would have us believe that they are committed to Black lives.
YouTube is another offender. From its official Twitter account, the company wrote: “We stand in solidarity against racism and violence. When members of our community hurt, we all hurt. We’re pledging $1M in support of efforts to address social injustice.” This is a fine sentiment, but YouTube as a platform for and amplifier of extremism is well documented. Just last year, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, when asked about offensive content on the site, defended it, saying that “hearing a broad range of perspectives ultimately makes us a stronger and more informed society.” Standing in solidarity against racism and violence while overseeing a platform that hosts and recommends a wide variety of racist and violent content are mutually exclusive.
What is happening is an example of what is sometimes called “performative wokeness.” These companies issuing a statement that they “stand with the Black community” is the absolute least they can do. It would be better to remain silent rather than reveal their rank hypocrisy. Many of these companies generate profit either by exploiting Black labor and/or by amplifying hate and extremism that directly harms Black folks. If Amazon truly felt that Black lives matter, its executives would change the way they treat their workforce, stop selling their facial recognition software Rekognition, and dismantle their Ring Doorbell and Neighbors programs. If Facebook truly stood with the Black community, it would eliminate the widespread organizing of white supremacy on its platform. But it’s unlikely that those changes will happen anytime soon.
Ultimately, in the coming weeks, many of the same companies that tweeted “BLM” or claimed “support for the Black community” in the last few days will happily have their tech used in the service of tracking down and punishing Black protestors. It’s not technically impossible for a tech company to commit to Black liberation, but it’s going to take a lot more than a social media post.
Dr. Chris Gilliard is a writer, professor, and speaker. His scholarship concentrates on digital privacy, surveillance, and the intersections of race, class, and technology. He is an advocate for critical and equity-focused approaches to tech in education. His work has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, EDUCAUSE Review, Fast Company, Vice, and Real Life Magazine.