Beyond Woke Capitalism

What it’ll take to get companies to the promised land of an equitable relationship with both workers and society.
By KRISTIN TOUSSAINT

 

The pandemic has only sharpened bipartisan calls for a new model of doing business.

A day after the August NBA strike in response to yet another police shooting—this time, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin— Uber’s head of diversity and inclusion, Bo Young Lee, tweeted out the company’s new billboard campaign. “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber,” the sign read. Lee added, “Now is the time for all people and organizations to stand up for what is right.”

Corporate America had already been examining its complicity in furthering systemic racism and inequality in the wake of a summer rife with police killings of Black people. Uber, for its part, was one of many companies standing up for what’s right—so long as it didn’t have to change too radically. Several weeks earlier, Uber had committed to anti-racism education for riders and drivers, established that it had no tolerance for discrimination, and pledged $1 million toward criminal justice reform. Even so, the company had committed more than $30 million to overturn AB5, the California law that requires its contract drivers be treated as full-time employees. In other words, Uber was arguing against the single biggest thing it could do to foster equity: give its drivers, which some estimates have put at two-thirds non-white, the stability of healthcare and benefits. (When asked for comment, Uber pointed to previous statements on how it’s fighting AB5 because its workers want flexibility.) Uber’s moves embody what’s known as “woke capitalism,” where businesses respond to societal issues such as systemic racism with representational gestures, from sobering statements to strategic donations. For some people, this is enough.

Or so executives hope. But for others, society’s multiple, overlapping crises have created an opportunity to make companies more accountable—and, ideally, more innovative. “There’s basically no one arguing for shareholder primacy anymore,” says Julius Krein, founder of the publicpolicy journal American Affairs. “[Corporate leaders] don’t want to leave the current model because they don’t know what comes next, and they’re afraid.” A movement argues that they don’t have to be.

In a 2019 report, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) argued for prioritising long-term corporate investments over short-term profit maximization. The pandemic has only sharpened bipartisan calls for a new model of doing business. In an outline of policy proposals focused on COVID-19 recovery, the liberal think tank Roosevelt Institute calls for a Warren-esque federal charter to “create a legal obligation for the corporation to account for the public effects of its actions” and legislation mandating that companies let workers elect “a significant portion” of their board. Meanwhile, both Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) have introduced proposals to tie COVID-19 relief funds to promoting employee ownership.

These initiatives wouldn’t just benefit workers, but corporations, too. Shareholder primacy has inspired mass layoffs, tax avoidance, and share buyback programs, all of which enrich top executives and shareholders with no discernible benefit to the business itself. “[Share buybacks] deprive the company of money that it could use to pay people who are better, to give better jobs to people who have more experience, and who’ll produce products of the future,” says William Lazonick, an economist who studies innovation and competition. Apple, for example, announced in June a $100 million program to promote racial justice inside the company, but it spent $67 billion on share buybacks in the last fiscal year.

There’s “renewed interest from the right,” Krein adds, “for a new model to correct declining U.S. competitiveness.” “If there are things that society needs—dealing with climate change, a pandemic, or racial inequality—then companies can’t innovate and solve those problems,” Lazonick says, unless their “normal business practices” are realigned. Friedman’s 1970 article was partly a response to a proposal for General Motors to add board members who would advocate for safer, more fuel-efficient cars. Friedman called this plan socialism, but Lazonick argues that it would have spurred GM to compete against imports which met this consumer demand. Says Lazonick, “They lost out.” When we consider the world after this pandemic, the protests, and the election, we can’t just hope that businesses will do better.

“The way you change corporate behavior,” says Bharat Ramamurti, managing director of the corporate power program at the Roosevelt Institute, “is to change the law, and then enforce that law strictly.”

THE YEAR IN WOKE CAPITALISM


WNBA PLAYERS

Before the season opener, Layshia Clar- endon and Breanna Stewart leave the court in protest of Breonna Taylor’s kill- ing. Players later strike because of the Kenosha shooting.

DELTA AIRLINES
The carrier e stab- lishes a strict en- forcement policy for passengers to wear masks, ejecting more than 100 people for not complying.

SONY INTERACTIVE
Some gamers trash the sequel to the video game The Last of Us because of its inclusion of an LGBTQ character, but Sony dismisses the criticism and the game sets sales records.

WALMART
It commits $100 mil- lion to create a cen- ter for racial equity, improve access to Walmart for minority suppliers, hire non- violent former pris- oners, and recruit more at HBCUs.

MERCK
CEO Kenneth Frazier, a Black man, ex- presses outrage at the George Floyd killing, saying it could have been him. He doesn’t announce any new programs.

NIKE
The swoosh delivers a powerful message in support of Black lives, but has to deny reports of forced Uighur labor making its apparel in China.

PIZZA HUT
The company ap- points its first chief equity officer, Chequan Lewis. Despite the lofty title, he reports to the head of HR and not to the CEO.

PINTEREST
The social network hires its first Black— and female—board member in the wake of a toxic-workplace controversy that in- cluded a scathing critique of its culture by its former COO.

LEGO
The toymaker paused digital mar- keting of its police- and fire-themed sets after the Floyd kill- ing, but never halted their sale, as was alleged by President Trump and others.

UNILEVER
The company prom- ises to redesign the packaging of its skin- lightening products, which promote whiteness as a virtue, but would not re- move them for sale.

UBER
Uber Eats adds an in-app promotion waiving customers’ delivery fees for ordering from Black- owned restaurants. Uber did not waive its fees to the businesses.

BOEING
The besieged airline manufacturer’s com- munications chief abruptly resigns after an article he’d written in 1987 sur- faces stating that women shouldn’t be in the armed forces.

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