Quite frankly the decision by Quaker Oats, and its parent PepsiCo, to get rid of the demonstratively offensive Aunt Jemima brand is not impressive and deserves no applause.
The company has known for years the problems with the mammy caricature. It was no secret. The image has boasted its offensiveness prominently on grocery store shelves my entire life. Even after Quaker Oats cleaned it up with a more modern-looking auntie, one that removed the head scarf slave women were forced to wear.
The window dressing and fake attempt at change didn’t fool me and many other African Americans. You can’t hide the truth when it is in plain sight. The company gets no credit for something it should have done long ago.
Same goes for the those behind the Mrs. Butterworth’s, Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat brands. They didn’t even have the smarts (or maybe they just didn’t care) to claim the opportunity for racial reconciliation many other brands have amid worldwide protests over police brutality after the killing of George Floyd by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. They only succumbed amid public pressure to review whether or not to change the images and words used to market their products. I await the final outcome.
Companies across the country are proclaiming their support for Black Lives Matter with carefully worded public statements. But what about the actions behind the words.
Corporate boardrooms and executive suites still are overwhelmingly white and African Americans largely underpaid. In Maryland, black women are paid 66 cents for every dollar paid to white men, according to a March report by the National Partnership for Women & Families. And that was before the massive layoffs prompted by the coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders. What are banks doing to stop redlining and extend capital to black-owned businesses? Where are the investors pouring money into long-neglected African American communities?
The pandemic has only emphasized the disparities, not just in health, but in economics as well. An April survey by Goldman Sachs found that 40% of black-owned small businesses said they got funding in the first round of the federal Payroll Protection Program, compared with 52% of all business that applied. Many of the front-line health care and retail workers putting their lives at risk — and not for great pay — are African American.
Such issues have kept a whole race in a woefully disadvantaged predicament for centuries. It is on these issues where corporations need to focus.
Some companies have vowed to do more than talk. Under Armour, in announcing earlier this month its support for black lives, also presented a plan to further improve diversity at the company, particularly at the highest ranks. It’s a good thing given it has one black executive in the obligatory and often symbolic diversity role (they call it people and culture at Under Armour) reserved at many companies for African Americans. The job is only as powerful as companies allow it to be. To be fair, at Under Armour the position also includes human relations functions. Under Armour is also fighting a racial discrimination lawsuit by a former marketing executive, which it has declined to speak publicly about.
Then there’s the Franklin Templeton investment management firm, which soon could become a more familiar name in Baltimore once it acquires Legg Mason. The firm made national headlines when it fired a white female employee who called police on an African American man birdwatching in Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog. Most people by now have probably seen the viral video of the incident that shows the woman falsely telling a 911 operator that a black man was threatening her.
In terminating Amy Cooper the company said: “We do not tolerate racism of any kind.”
We’re glad the company acted swiftly and took a stance of no tolerance. But once again, what is it doing at a microlevel in its own business and what will that mean for Legg Mason. Is the company practicing its own tolerance? A look at Franklin Templeton’s website shows no black board members. Perhaps there is work to be done on that front.
Nationally, the conversation around police brutality has prompted companies to give money to civil rights organizations and other nonprofits. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and philanthropist wife Patty Quillin announced a $120 million donation to Morehouse College and Spellman College, both historically black colleges and universities, and the United Negro College Fund. They described the deal as already in the works but said now was a good time to announce it.
The donation is a grand gesture that will go toward educating the next generation of black students. Still we implore Netflix and other companies to also turn the magnifying glass on themselves. A college degree only goes so far when your ultimate success is decided by who will hire you and nurture your advancement. Companies don’t do such a good job at that when it comes to African Americans.
None of this is to say that offensive marketing images like Aunt Jemima don’t need to go. They have no place in society. Neither do Confederate monuments, buildings named after slave owners and segregationists, and sports team names that turn human beings into faceless mascots. These are obvious, and should be, easy changes to make in a country that claims it is the land of equality.