If companies are really committed to Black lives, their statements of support should include an honest reckoning with their own products and practices.
In a virtual town hall in June, Coca-Cola’s Chairman and CEO James Quincy said: “Diversity and inclusion are among our greatest strengths … We must put our resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism.” Dow Chemical’s Chairman and CEO Jim Fitterling similarly committed to being an “ally” helping overcome “systemic oppression.”
And Johnson & Johnson’s Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky stated, “unequivocally that racism in any form is unacceptable.” These three proclamations echo others penned by Fortune 500 companies since the public reckoning with police violence and systemic racism has swept across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May.
But examine the impact of these companies on the lived experience of Black people and it’s clear these commitments fall far short of restitution. Consider Johnson & Johnson. Internal company documents have revealed that the company knew since at least 1957 that its talc-based powders could be contaminated with asbestos, a possible carcinogen, for which there is no known safe level of exposure.
Despite these concerns, the company pushed these products in the United States and beyond, specifically targeting Black and Brown women. The company’s marketing plans included a race-based distribution model, moving baby powder samples through churches and beauty salons in African American and Latino neighborhoods, and seeking marketing agencies specializing in promotions to “ethnic consumers.”
The impact is clear: A study of Black women who used these powders found they had more than a 40 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer compared to Black women who didn’t use them.