Juneteenth tests corporate America’s pledges to fight racism

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From Nike to Target, dozens of companies are for the first time commemorating June 19, the effective end of American slavery, but the differences in how are stark.

Some, like J.C. Penney and Spotify Technology are giving a paid day off. JPMorgan Chase will close its bank branches early, while Bank of America and Citigroup told staffers they can take a personal day, something they can request any day of the year. Automakers General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are observing a moment of silence. The corporate response to Juneteenth comes after the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests and shows how companies want to be seen as agents of change during a fraught moment.

Widening observance of the holiday has been driven by employees calling for action from their employers, said Kristen Herhold, a marketer at Clutch, a Washington-based ratings and reviews company. About 62% of workers support the anti-racism protests, and 55% say their employer should respond directly to racial issues, according to a Clutch survey of more than 750 people conducted from June 5 to 7.

“It’s been a complete mindset shift” that’s emboldened some staff to call out their management, Herhold said. “Never before have employees been so comfortable talking about the protests and the issues that stem from racism and diversity in general in the workplace.”

Target said it would close its Minneapolis headquarters and pay hourly workers time and a half on June 19. It also pledged to listen to employees and community partners in coming months after Floyd’s killing in the city sparked local demonstrations that spread around the world.

“We recognize that the racial trauma the country is experiencing now is not new, but throughout recent weeks there has been a sense that this time is, and has to be, different,” Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell said in a blog post. “Juneteenth takes on additional significance in this moment.”

While the moves to recognize Juneteenth have been welcomed by many, companies will be scrutinized by the public to see whether they’re devoting resources to making concrete, measurable changes in areas such as hiring and vendor diversity, said Howard Belk, co-CEO of Siegel+Gale, a brand-strategy firm.

“The communications really need to come from the most senior people at the organization to signal that commitment; without that, it’s going to sound really hollow, really quickly,” Belk said. “If it’s just a holiday and they move on with business as usual, I actually think it could hurt them.”

Delanie West, chief strategy officer at talent agency Black Creatives in New York, finds the paid holiday “refreshing,” she said. “I am shocked that it’s being embraced outside of the Black community.” Still, she wants to see whether corporations will build on the gesture by taking longer-term action such as hiring more African Americans and promoting them to senior levels.

The speed at which corporations moved this year to commemorate Juneteenth may put pressure on governments to do the same. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this week he would make Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees and advance legislation to make it an official state holiday next year. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made a similar announcement.

Juneteenth is already an official state holiday in Texas, and while 46 states and the District of Columbia mark the occasion as a holiday or day of observation, it was still lesser known outside the Black community until recently.

“It’s monumental that there’s an acknowledgment, because for 400 years we have endured oppression,” said Stephen Green, chair of New York-based Faith for Black Lives, a coalition of religious leaders, and a pastor at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York.

Green convened JusticeCon, a virtual social justice convention on Juneteenth, scheduled to feature speakers including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

“To have major companies acknowledge that we’re not a post-racial America or a utopian ideal of a nation that never wrestled with this original sin of racism, it speaks volumes,” Green said.

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