How deep is corporate America’s sudden new fervor for racial justice?
Not very, judging by what went down at a Whole Foods in Cambridge last week.
In case you missed it, employee Savannah Kinzer and some of her coworkers at the store on River Street donned masks on Wednesday afternoon that read “Black Lives Matter.”
You would think that a Whole Foods store in one of the planet’s most liberal municipalities would be the last place that such face wear would be controversial.
But you would be wrong. A manager asked the workers to change their masks, and when they refused, they were sent home, just like employees who insisted on wearing Black Lives Matter masks to work at the company’s stores in other states. Kinzer and her coworkers tried it again on Thursday, and again they were sent home.
The company said the masks violated the dress code, which prohibits slogans that aren’t Whole Foods-related. But Kinzer, rather brilliantly, had worn a mask earlier in the week that read “Soup is good,” and had gone unchallenged.
Whole Foods would be mad not to have reversed its policy on the masks by the time you read this. But this episode, and others like it playing out all over the country, says a lot, none of it good.
The company, like so many that have had epiphanies since global protests began over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and systemic racism everywhere, has made a bunch of statements condemning bigotry. “Racism has no place here,” the Whole Foods corporate website reads. Amazon, which owns the grocery stores, donated millions to organizations working for racial justice, and chief executive Jeff Bezos has said he is happy to lose the business of customers who disagree with the company’s support for the movement.
It’s easy to say the right thing, especially now. The real work of reversing centuries of oppression is way harder than slapping a slogan on a website or making donations. If Bezos wants to truly make change, he ought to look at the way his company treats workers, and whether it could do more to put all of them, especially Black employees, in a position to build wealth; he should pull every item of white supremacist paraphernalia from his Amazon platform; and cease permanently the sale of facial recognition technology to police departments.
Similarly, the bankers taking knees and wringing their hands over the racism to which their Black workers are subjected must consider restitution that goes beyond their HR departments, and make up for decades of redlining and the predatory lending practices that have kept Black home ownership at 1968 levels.
Statements are the easy part.
But statements are not nothing, as the tale of the masks shows.
Wearing the masks at Whole Foods, Starbucks, Publix, and Taco Bell risks alienating customers because “Black lives matter” is still seen as a political statement in this country, when it should be as obvious and innocuous a position as “Soup is good.” Too many Americans still see race relations as a zero sum game. As Whittier Law School professor Patricia Leary put it in a viral letter to students, they seem to believe there is an invisible “only” in front of that “Black.” Centuries of white supremacy have trained them to believe that if the lives of Black people matter more, theirs somehow matter less. And so they respond to that Black with an “All” or a “Blue,” as if they were counterarguments.
“Soup is good” doesn’t mean pasta is bad. That’s obvious when it comes to something as mundane as food. Polls show that it’s growing more obvious to Americans when it comes to race.
Nationally, record-high numbers of Americans believe racism is a major and systemic problem in this country. In Massachusetts, the numbers are huge: A poll last week by the Globe, Suffolk University, and WGBH News found that 84 percent of white residents support the movement.
So what’s the downside of allowing workers to wear Black Lives Matter masks, especially in Massachusetts? Or elsewhere, given Bezos’s claim that he’s fine with losing customers who are turned off by it?
Black Lives Matter. That is a statement of truth, not a political position, or a threat. A slogan won’t fix what’s wrong with this country. But it’s still deeply necessary.