Companies Can Keep Their Hollow Statements on Racism. We Need Real Change | Opinion

Companies, organizations and institutions are issuing public statements as anti-racism protests and calls for criminal justice reform continue across the nation. The CEOs, presidents and commissioners of clothing brands, grocery store chains, universities, sports teams and more know they can't stay silent while millions of Americans march against systemic racism, police brutality and a white officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Of course, they're right. It's unacceptable not to acknowledge the horrific racist violence that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis—and now Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and so many more. Say the victims' names. Say that you stand with the black community. Say that black lives matter.

But the words are empty without real change.

They describe in corporate-speak being "greatly saddened" and sending "heartfelt condolences," while encouraging Americans to "be part of the change." Other messages speak to the black community directly, noting that "we stand with you" or "we stand in solidarity." Some are bolder, stating that we must "dismantle white supremacy."

All these statements ring hollow. They have become performative in nature. They are a way of showing on social media that you see our pain and are down with the cause in general—without going too far. Because, of course, you don't want to alienate the portion of your base that doesn't see systemic racism or want structural change. Congratulations. Many of your marketing and communications departments have walked this tightrope well.

For example, we aren't too young to remember that the NFL blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for peacefully and silently protesting the eerily similar murders of black people in 2016. Given this history, the league's statements of condolences and solidarity are affronts to the protests and the lives of those murdered and to the black community. Having the NFL say "we need urgent action" means nothing.

In my conversations with my black students, I keep hearing, "When is my turn?" When is my turn, one young man asked, "to be pulled over by the police, to have a gun put to my head, to get shot, to get choked out?" That is what many black men see in their future.

Your statements can in no way scratch the surface of our community's pain, anguish, anger, fear and frustration. So you're saddened? So you're with us? Then make real structural changes within your company, organization, university or other institution. We need serious criminal justice reform—and health care reform and education reform and economic reform. And you need to engage in the movement for this change. We need white and other people's support to make this happen.

How? We need both cultural and structural changes. Hire more Black people and other underrepresented people of color within your workplace at every level. Examine every policy, decision and process to eliminate opportunities for racism to take root. Create frequent and mandatory discussions led by people who have studied the history or concept of race in the U.S.—and don't ask your black employees or colleagues to lead these discussions without compensation. Read material that focuses on white fragility, structural racism and inequalities. White people need to learn how to discuss these issues among themselves and with people who don't look like them.

Seattle protest CHOP
Protesters gather at the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct after marching from the police-free zone known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) on June 15 in Seattle. David Ryder/Getty

Be "accomplices" in the moment, not "allies" in general. There's an important difference between the two concepts. Many white people call themselves liberals, progressives and allies, and get badges for it. They tend to be broadly supportive of people of color and policy reform. Accomplices are willing to give up their privilege. For example, when a white colleague makes a racist or inappropriate comment to a colleague of color, an accomplice—in spite of the discomfort, the pounding heart, the beads of sweat—immediately disrupts the exchange and names the racism.

Accomplices also understand the difference between "intent" and "effect." None of us have the right language or understanding of all communities. When you engage, you will mess up and unknowingly say the wrong word or something offensive. Hiding behind your intention of being good—using your intention as an excuse to ignore the pain you have caused—is problematic. Instead, an accomplice will hear the pain they have caused, will acknowledge their wrong and will listen and learn to prevent future harm.

And finally, support political candidates and policies that advocate for real change in the criminal justice, health care, education and employment sectors. Work with black people collectively, center our concerns and ideas and lift up our voices.

We are in a very difficult moment as a county. But for many of us who are black, it is representative of pain we have experienced or witnessed all our life. These murders seem to be happening every day now as they have in the past. Incremental and radical transformations are needed to overcome America's racism and structural inequalities. To start, stop making the statements and start making real solutions.

Alexes Harris, Ph.D., is the presidential term professor and a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. Harris' work has spanned the criminal justice system, including juvenile justice, case processing outcomes and monetary sanctions.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.