For 25 days, Americans have been demanding from the country’s civic and corporate leaders their plans to tackle police brutality and systemic racism during protests that have gripped the nation following the killing of George Floyd.
On Friday, Juneteenth, many of those leaders have a big first opportunity to put into action the rhetoric that has flowed since Memorial Day, when Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. J.P Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has said the bank is “committed to fighting against racism and discrimination.” BlackRock’s Larry Fink has said the firm will “not tolerate” shortcomings in racial equality within its walls.
Activists hope that that opportunity, albeit symbolic, will be part of the path to change.
“Symbols are cultural artifacts that move forward and advance things. You need those symbols as things because that’s how movements become institutionalized,” said Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten, dean of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.
June 19 is celebrated as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 that Union forces announced in Texas that slaves were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That delay is a “symbol of freedom not yet fully realized” for Blacks in America, notes Creative Collective of NYC, a creative agency that works with the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the country’s leaders, it is an encapsulation of a problem Americans are increasingly asking them to help solve: the barriers that have continued to hold Blacks back in the century-and-a-half since.
The median Black family owns a little over 2% of the wealth owned by the median White family, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have further exacerbated that divide. From February through April, 41% of small businesses owned by Black people closed, but only 17% of those owned by White people closed, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Black people constitute nearly 13% of the U.S. population, but made up 23% of all Covid-19 deaths as of June 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In May, the White unemployment rate went down from the month before, while Black unemployment actually ticked up.
“In this moment, when many of these same companies have said they stand with their Black employees and they are horrified by the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black people, then it’s also a moment to acknowledge the racism baked into the economy of this nation, and the conditions under which Blacks have had to live in order to build the country,” said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of “Race, Work and Leadership: Positive Organizing in a Global Society.”
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