Opinion | Black Lives Matter: Is Change Really Coming?

Corporations finally believe black lives matter. Or they at least understand that they have to make it look like they believe black lives matter.

From Microsoft and Peloton to the National Football League — the same league whose teams shunned Colin Kaepernick after his peaceful protest — they have released carefully crafted messages affirming that they are committed to diversity and inclusion, that they stand in solidarity with their black employees. You can ask Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa if black lives matter and she will respond, “Black lives matter. I believe in racial equality.”

This messaging is curious. There have been several incidents of police brutality in recent years and, back then, the response from corporate America was nothing like this. This time, for some reason, executives seem to have decided that their brands will be best supported by engaging in an elaborate performance of allyship.

Several companies are making significant financial contributions and other gestures. YouTube has established a $100 million fund for black creators. Walmart and its foundation have said they will spend $100 million on the creation of a racial equity center. Several companies, including Apple, Coca-Cola and Citi National Bank, have donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. Amazon will not allow police departments to use its Rekognition software for a year. Both “Cops” and “Live PD” have been canceled by their networks. And after more than 15 years, ABC’s “The Bachelor” will finally have a black bachelor, Matt James.

A great many things that were supposedly impossible have suddenly become priorities. It’s a bittersweet moment because we always knew change was possible. The world just didn’t want to do the work.

Each time there is a horrifying racist incident, I wonder whether things will actually be different. For a short while people say the right things. They lament racism. They mourn the black person who has died at the hands of unchecked police officers or white vigilantes. They vow to be part of the necessary change. They ask, earnestly, what they can do to create such change. And then they return to their lives. Public enthusiasm for addressing police brutality has to wait until another black life is prematurely lost to racism.

I want this time to be different. I need this time to be different. There has never been more public support for contending with systemic racism and reimagining law enforcement. The Los Angeles Police Department commission recently held a virtual public meeting where hundreds of Angelenos spoke — first for two minutes at a time, then a minute and then 30 seconds as the commission tried to accommodate everyone. It took hours.

It was cathartic to see nearly every person who took their time at the microphone castigate the police department for their violent tactics against protesters, their bloated budgets subsidized by taxpayers, their militarized tactics and their general incompetence. People were legitimately angry and demanded more from public servants. Throughout the proceedings — which the police chief, Michael Moore, attended — the commissioners looked by turns bored, indifferent, annoyed and frustrated. There was no gesture to acknowledge the public frustration. They did not behave like people who were at all willing to rethink how to do their jobs.

If you had asked me, before George Floyd’s killing, if I believed in police abolition I would have said that reform is desperately needed but that abolition was a bridge too far. I lacked imagination. I could not envision a world where we did not need law enforcement as it is presently configured. I am ashamed. Now I know we don’t need reform. We need something far more radical. The current system does not work. Even during protests against the current system, law enforcement officers largely behaved as they always do, with blunt force and apparent indifference to the safety of protesters. They believe they are righteous. Burn it all down and build something new in the ashes.

I want this time to be different and there are moments when I think it might be. While I don’t believe the ubiquitous corporate statements on diversity are sincere, it is at least good to see that these companies are aware that something has to change. But then you look at the executive leadership of these companies. You look at their boards of directors. You look at the demographic makeup of their work force. More often than not, they lack any real diversity. They have no black executives. Their black employees are miserable.

In the wake of some of these corporate statements, employees have pushed back. They have described “toxic” workplaces, abusive co-workers, racist founders, unchecked bigotry, pay inequities and more. We know racism is a virulent cancer — but it is increasingly clear we have grossly underestimated the extent of the rot.

Sacrificial lambs have tendered letters of resignation. They have apologized for the damaging work environments they have created and nurtured. But in most instances, the offenders will likely be replaced by people who will repeat the toxic patterns. They will continue to enjoy their wealth without being forced to truly reckon with their racist ideologies.

Something about this moment feels different, but I am not sure anyone knows how to move forward in ways that will effectively eradicate racism once and for all. I am not sure that the people who most need to do that difficult work have any incentive to change.

It is clear no one is coming to save us, but we can and will save ourselves. We will do so by relentlessly continuing to protest and remembering that the anger fueling the protests is entirely justified. We will do so by tearing down statues of Confederate soldiers, captains of slave ships, colonizers and anyone else who rose to prominence on the backs of black or Indigenous suffering.

We will save ourselves by holding people and corporations accountable for how they value black lives when they are beyond the glare of public opinion. There has to be more than crafted statements about equality. We all have to challenge ourselves. We have to consider ideas that previously seemed impossible. We have to take risks and make ourselves uncomfortable. We need to continue talking about all of the ways racism influences our lives.

We are on the precipice of change. Public opinion is, at last, shifting. But even with the force of public outrage, there are crystal-clear reminders of what we are up against. The incident report for Breonna Taylor’s killing by Louisville police officers was nearly blank when it was released, nearly three months after her death. One of the officers involved has been fired but none of them have been charged with a crime, more than three months after Ms. Taylor’s death. The sham of a police report was a pointed message: Police officers can get away with killing people and there’s little the public can do about it.

If a change is indeed coming, we have not yet seen the shape of it — and the enemy we are facing is powerful beyond measure. Understanding this truth and persisting nonetheless is how we will save ourselves.

Roxane Gay (@rgay) is a contributing Opinion writer.

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