It seems no one wants to be caught dead without a protest selfie amidst this global wave of antiracist protests. People don’t just want to make sure they were among the marchers, they want you to see that they were there.
This is probably because, organizer Jonathan Smucker explains, many people participate in activism in a similar way that people engage in fashion: namely, many people are more interested in signaling their values to their peers than in obtaining a tangible political objective.
They want you to see them saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ so that you’ll know what type of people they are — that they’re on the “right side of history,” that they’re not racists. I don’t say these things as criticism but as observation.
Corporations do it too. At a time when people from Dallas to Amsterdam are chanting “Black Lives Matter,” many companies apparently want to be seen singing along.
“Black lives matter: Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community,” reads the home screen of Amazon’s Fire TV.
Companies like Viacom, Comcast, Starbucks, and others have made similar statements.
While these gestures of public solidarity are important and valuable, institutional leaders would do well to understand that public displays of support are just the beginning of what’s necessary to meaningfully “confront racism” in our world.
This could be the year we push racial progress past a tipping point in American society — a point of no return. But to do so, every institution will have to move beyond symbolic actions and commit to the long, challenging, often hidden work of structural change.
For instance, Amazon’s statement that the “brutal and inequitable treatment of Black people in our country must stop” rings hollow if they continue to offer facial recognition to hundreds of police departments, which are known to misidentify Black people, making it more likely that more Black civilians will have encounters with police because they “fit the description.”
Some of Amazon’s leadership express pride in their collaborations with police, and expressed a desire to expand their partnership with police earlier this year, despite the fact that — as senator Edward Markey put it — their support “could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.”
Furthermore, according to OneZero, Amazon continues to raise money for police departments via its AmazonSmile platform:
Some of these funds have made their way into the coffers of the Los Angeles Police Foundation, the San Diego Police Officers Association, and the National Police Foundation, which raise millions of dollars each year to supplement departmental budgets. In the same way that super PACs can obscure funding sources, these foundations can act as a middleman between corporate or private donors and police departments, allowing police to circumvent transparency processes around spending. As nonprofit organizations, these foundations qualify for Amazon’s charitable giving program.
It’s lovely to see Amazon display “Black lives matter” on their home screen, but if they truly mean it, they must stop funding the “brutal and inequitable treatment of Black people in our country” they claim to be against. Otherwise, these statements and tweets are just protest selfies — not even honest ones.
I’ve chosen to highlight just one organization in this piece, but it applies to all kinds of others: businesses, churches, social media influencers, government bodies and officials, need to reflect on how they’ve been complicit in a system that perpetuates the social misery of Black people, make plans to intentionally withdraw their support from every form of racial injustice, and reinvest their resources in ways that actively support an equitable society.
We need more than the optics of antiracism, more than symbolic actions, more than dressing up as non-racists for the gram — we need structural change.