Juneteenth gives corporate America a chance to act on pledges to fight racism following George Floyd's killing

Key Points
  • June 19 is celebrated as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 that Union forces announced in Texas that slaves were free, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Many companies are giving their employees a day off or a day of reflection.
  • The holiday comes as companies are promising investors and employees they are working on tangible change to tackle systemic racism. 

In this article

More companies, states observe Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last slaves were freed
Companies, states observe Juneteenth, the day when the last slaves were freed

For 25 days, Americans have been demanding from the country's civic and corporate leaders their plans to tackle police brutality and systemic racism during protests that have gripped the nation following the killing of George Floyd. 

On Friday, Juneteenth, many of those leaders have a big first opportunity to put into action the rhetoric that has flowed since Memorial Day, when Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. J.P Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has said the bank is "committed to fighting against racism and discrimination." BlackRock's Larry Fink has said the firm will "not tolerate" shortcomings in racial equality within its walls. 

Activists hope that that opportunity, albeit symbolic, will be part of the path to change. 

"Symbols are cultural artifacts that move forward and advance things. You need those symbols as things because that's how movements become institutionalized," said Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten, dean of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

June 19 is celebrated as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 that Union forces announced in Texas that slaves were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That delay is a "symbol of freedom not yet fully realized" for Blacks in America, notes Creative Collective of NYC, a creative agency that works with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

For the country's leaders, it is an encapsulation of a problem Americans are increasingly asking them to help solve: the barriers that have continued to hold Blacks back in the century-and-a-half since.

The median Black family owns a little over 2% of the wealth owned by the median White family, according to the Institute for Policy Studies

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have further exacerbated that divide. From February through April, 41% of small businesses owned by Black people closed, but only 17% of those owned by White people closed, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Black people constitute nearly 13% of the U.S. population, but made up 23% of all Covid-19 deaths as of June 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In May, the White unemployment rate went down from the month before, while Black unemployment actually ticked up.

"In this moment, when many of these same companies have said they stand with their Black employees and they are horrified by the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black people, then it's also a moment to acknowledge the racism baked into the economy of this nation, and the conditions under which Blacks have had to live in order to build the country," said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of "Race, Work and Leadership: Positive Organizing in a Global Society."

Altria, Nike and J.C. Penney are among those offering employees Juneteenth as a paid, companywide holiday. Google urged its employees to cancel all unnecessary meetings scheduled for the day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the House will remove the portraits of the four of her predecessors who were Confederates. Some states have deemed a state holiday, while others, such as New York, are pushing to add it. 

"I never would have thought I'd see this," said Wooten. She thought the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday in 1983 was the only such commemoration she would experience in her lifetime, she said. 

As a symbol, though, Juneteenth is not yet being universally celebrated as a paid day off. 

Comcast and Walmart are among those that have not given their employees off for the holiday, though both have pledged resources towards tackling racial inequity. 

Not all companies are in a position to easily grant a holiday. Smaller organizations or those that are struggling may not have the ability to pause from work. For those in industries like grocery or manufacturing, a day off has bigger consequences, not all of them positive, for society. 

And without care, symbols can be quickly lost. Memorial Day is as often seen as a day for cookouts and beach visits as it is for taking a moment to commemorate those who died in active duty.

Oreo owner Mondelez is calling the paid day off it's offering employees a "day of reflection," to address concerns it could otherwise be viewed as a three-day weekend, said Laurie Guzzinati, head of corporate and government affairs at the company. Mondelez is offering internal and external resources to help employees make the best use of this time.

"What we heard from our colleagues is that they wanted to keep that day to give the space for reflection and learning," she said.

Facebook is commemorating the holiday with a mandatory day of learning and is canceling all other corporate meetings, though not giving employees the day off. But the social media giant is also dealing with the reality that six years into diversity efforts, its workforce has gone from 3% Black to 3.8%.

The company on Thursday announced it is committing $200 million to Black-owned businesses and organizations. It also committed to increasing the representation of people of color in the company's leadership positions by 30% over the next five years.

"Juneteenth is the first marker post-national outrage — we definitely would not see all of this attention [otherwise]," said Karen Boykin-Towns, senior counselor at communications firm Sard Verbinnen and vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors.

"If this is a marker, six months from now, we should expect to hear of tangible actions from companies and governments that really look to address the systemic racism that plagues us."

In six months, there will be a litany of questions investors, customers and employees can ask, including these, Boykin-Towns said: 

  • Has a company completed benchmarking of where it sits on diversity?
  • Is it holding its managers accountable for improving those metrics?
  • Does it have a chief diversity officer? If so, what kind of resources is the company providing them? Do they report to the board?
  • Is a company reconsidering referral programs that can encourage "like hiring like"?
  • Is it diversifying its suppliers?

Darden's Roberts offered further questions:

  • Has it addressed the wages and living conditions of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, knowing that raising the minimum wage would benefit Black Americans? 
  • Has it established oversight of the many donations companies have given following Floyd's killing at the hands of police?

If the answers are unsatisfactory, customers have power, Roberts said. She noted that the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, which was triggered by Rosa Parks and helped Martin Luther King Jr. emerge as a national leader, was a consumer-driven event. 

"If that hadn't cost the bus company money, they wouldn't have thought about integrating the buses," she said.

Disclosure: Comcast is a parent company of CNBC.

CNBC's Melissa Repko and Salvador Rodriguez contributed to this story