Muhammad Ali’s parents and brother greet him as he arrives home after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics. The boxer has spoken of being denied service at a restaurant after his victory because he was black, in an indictment of racism in the US.
Muhammad Ali’s parents and brother greet him as he arrives home after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics. The boxer has spoken of being denied service at a restaurant after his victory because he was black, in an indictment of racism in the US. © Bettmann Archive/Getty

“Why is everything white?” says Muhammad Ali in a 1971 interview that has been popping up on my social media feeds since the killing of George Floyd.

The boxer was speaking to talk show host Michael Parkinson, who had asked when he first became aware of racism. Ali said he used to ask his mother this question when trying to understand why racist tropes that exalted whiteness and denigrated blackness peppered the English language.

I think of this video whenever a chief executive releases a statement or a social media post extolling their sudden wokeness in the wake of Floyd’s death. After years of not realising their organisation had a diversity problem, many corporate titans are saying: we have not done enough, we get it now and we will make changes.

Companies have been tripping over themselves to broadcast the scale of their outrage. Businesses including Nike, Goldman Sachs and Amazon, have donated millions of dollars to antiracism groups. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan, took a knee in front of one of his bank’s vaults in what some saw as a gesture of solidarity.

I want to believe this portends meaningful change. But for most companies, it feels like virtue signalling that does not deal with the fundamental issues behind institutional racism.

Anand Giridharadas, the writer and critic of corporate spin, describes the phenomenon as “corporate blackface”. Big businesses “are rushing to declare themselves on the side of racial justice, on the side of Black Lives Matter without changing the underlying structures that make life precarious for African Americans in the first place”. He says companies could lobby for better labour practices for low-paid workers or choose to pay more tax to enable government to work better, a move that could lead to improved state schools.

Consider Facebook, which has more power than many governments. Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive, wrote a blog post last month to assert that “black lives matter” and outlining how the company would “improve our products and policies”.

But last week, Facebook released a damning report into how it has done the exact opposite. A two-year audit concluded that its decisions had caused “serious setbacks” for civil rights and had not done enough to tackle hate crime on the platform.

Facebook is also grappling with an advertiser boycott over its failures. But while Mr Zuckerberg has been outwardly emollient to brands and civil rights groups, he reportedly told staff that “advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough” in his most honest comment yet.

Investors are not fleeing either. Facebook’s share price is higher than it was a month ago. The disconnect between public posturing and private practice is not unique to Facebook. What should leaders do if they are serious about tackling racism?

First, they need to act now. Moments such as this offer a short window of opportunity to make meaningful change before momentum is lost.

Second, communicate better. Every interaction will be scrutinised, every slight will be magnified and minority staff expect more of managers.

Leaders at global companies also need to be prepared for blowback when taking moral positions in some regions but not others. In Hong Kong, some staff have criticised employers’ decisions to back Black Lives Matter while refusing to speak up about the pro-democracy movement.

Third, create a culture in which minority staff are comfortable speaking openly about discrimination at work. This requires more than telling workers your door is always open. It means making it a key objective of your team leaders to actively engage minority staff members.

Fourth, pay. A non-white friend who works at a company that says it wants to rethink race is the worst-paid executive by a wide margin and there has been no effort to level up despite the rhetoric. That is deplorable.

Five, promote. You need to put minorities in positions of power to see real change. They have to be in the room where the decisions are made to alter the conversation.

Ali understood this well. After he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he returned home as an American champion. But when he went into a restaurant in his hometown, he was refused service because he was black.

“I just won the gold medal and I couldn’t eat downtown. I said, ‘Something’s wrong’,” he said.

It is not enough to say you get it. Executives need to question the fundamentals of their business to determine if they are doing more harm than good. Otherwise, “something’s wrong”.

Follow Ravi Mattu on Twitter: @ravmattu

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