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How protests spurred Corporate America into action on race, inequality

Outrage over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has pushed America to the brink, but has also spurred numerous big companies and brands into a new form of activism that’s tailor made for the digital era.

Nike (NKE), Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Netflix (NFLX) are among the many household names that joined this week’s virtual campaigns against police brutality and racism. This week, Verizon (VZ), the parent company of Yahoo Finance, announced a $10 million initiative to fund social justice programs.

While some of theses actions are a repeat of the past, with a growing number of CEOs and brands speaking out on social justice, Corporate America is shedding its normally cautious stance, in which leaders avoid taking on polarizing social issues.

Celeste Warren, Merck’s (MRK) global head of diversity, told Yahoo Finance that corporate culture has changed in recent years, allowing more free-flowing conversations about race, politics and religion.

“What we are seeing now is different with what we’ve seen in the past. I’ve seen a big difference in corporations stepping up,” she said, saying there is a combination of factors at play.

The “horrific video” of Floyd’s death going viral in today’s hyper-connected world, plus younger generations being “more expectant of corporations and leaders to act in a socially conscious way,” spurred the visceral global reaction, Warren added.

In the last several years, waves of racially-charged protests saw public outrage boil over in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and Freddie Gray, among others. Neither of those incidents sparked any reaction similar to the current moment.

The Floyd video, however, has made people say, ‘‘we’ve witnessed a lynching and this is enough,” said Kyra Sutton, a human resources management professor at Rugters University.

‘It’s different this time’

Workers put up boards around the Apple flagship store on Fifth Avenue, after a night of protest over the death of an African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis on June 2, 2020 in Manhattan in New York City. - New York's mayor Bill de Blasio yesterday declared a city curfew from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am, as sometimes violent anti-racism protests roil communities nationwide. Saying that "we support peaceful protest," De Blasio tweeted he had made the decision in consultation with the state's governor Andrew Cuomo, following the lead of many large US cities that instituted curfews in a bid to clamp down on violence and looting. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers put up boards around the Apple flagship store on Fifth Avenue, after a night of protest over the death of an African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis on June 2, 2020 in Manhattan in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years, corporations have been pushed to focus more actively on diversity, as part of fierce debates over income inequality. Initiatives have included hiring diverse vendors and elevating more minorities, while banks and financial service firms have boosted support and access to capital in underserved communities.

But a common response to the current conversation — and its full-throated outrage — has been “it’s different this time.” And some of the most prominent voices are from the only black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, Jide Zeitlin at Tapestry (TPR) (which owns Coach and Kate Spade), Marvin Ellison at Lowe’s (LOW), and Roger Ferguson Jr. at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), are among those who took to social media or mainstream platforms to amplify their voices. They spoke in intensely personal terms, rather than only as business leaders.

“African-Americans today continue to face injustice, irrespective of socio-economic status; however, those with fewer resources have less capacity to deal with these challenges,” Zeitlin said in an email to Yahoo Finance.

“America is still struggling to address a 400-year-old problem. We need to focus on underlying systemic issues. As a society, we cannot continue to repeat this loop over and over again,” the CEO said.

“Those of us in the corporate sector cannot assume that inequalities in health, public safety, education, and other sectors will be dealt with by others. We much join with policy makers and civil society to develop and support solutions,” he added.

Some CEOs, like the chiefs of both Taco Bell (YUM) and Johnson and Johnson’s (JNJ), have voiced support by expressing the limits of their own understanding as white men, but pledged to be better allies.

It’s a marked shift from when “the Nikes of the world,” or companies who largely rely on African-American customers, were the only ones to speak up, Warren said.

Emerson College president Lee Pelton, who shared his experiences as an African-American in a letter to students and staff this week, did so in a way that was far more personal than anything he has written in the past.

Pelton told Yahoo Finance that he weighed the “double-consciousness” that iconic black thinker W.E.B. DuBois expressed in his writings — wanting to avoid being seen as “the angry black president. On the other hand, I recognize that I carried with me, double consciousness of being a black man in America and president of an independent private college and university.”

He added: “There’s a history here. I carry that history with me. I wanted to reveal my own history in a very public way.”

Similarly, Zeitlin told ABC’s Good Morning America that now is the time to be vulnerable, especially in his position. “If you’re not vulnerable now, when are you going to be vulnerable,” he said.

Heading into a storm

Floyd’s death has also ignited a new level of weariness among celebrities. Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal said on Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday that, “Everybody’s upset. Everybody’s tired...I think people are just sick and tired.”

Rutgers’ Sutton said that “blacks meet a number of barriers in both society and work that make it difficult to succeed; and in the case of George Floyd, live.”

Dr. Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of health startup Incredible Health, told Yahoo Finance that even with her Ivy League pedigree, and living in a big city, she has experienced prejudice.

“I’ve raised over $17 million for Incredible Health in seed and series A [funding]. There was a time I walked into a venture capital firm and they mistook me for a Postmates courier,” she recalled

“Even though I was dressed in business casual. I have been called the N-word in Palo Alto, which is a very liberal town,” she said. “I’m not sharing this to evoke sympathy, I’m just demonstrating how pervasive it is.”

However, seeing the support globally, and outside the African-American community, gives her hope.

The timing of the incident is also playing a role. The coronavirus lockdowns that kept many isolated at home, combined with an election year, is setting the stage for a sustained focus on the issue, according to Merck’s Warren.

“I think we’re heading into a storm,” according to Warren — one that’s “going to continue to gain fervor” as November approaches.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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