Making #blacklivesmatter in Australian business
Global businesses have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. But is this support always genuine? And what should corporate Australia do to make a real difference?
The brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police sent shockwaves through the world, and saw global businesses embrace the Black Lives Matter movement. But is this support always genuine? And what should corporate Australia do to make a real difference?
In Australia, Floyd’s death was met with solidarity among Indigenous Australians, who suffer similar forms of race based discrimination, over-policing, incarceration and violence. Like Floyd, Indigenous man David Dungay uttered the words ‘I can’t breathe’ as he lay dying under the weight of prison guards.
“For those who have come to the Black Lives Matter movement more recently, this is an old story,” says UTS Business School Associate Dean of Indigenous Leadership and Engagement Professor Robynne Quiggin.
“Campaigning against the disproportionate imprisonment and deaths in custody of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people has a long history. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was over 30 years ago.
There is a danger that Black Lives Matter can become ‘ally theatre’ for corporates, aimed at drawing attention to the righteousness of the ally, without making any real changes or improvements.
Professor Carl Rhodes
“Initially there was quite strong implementation of the recommendations, and in those early days we saw some change in the treatment of Indigenous people, and more slowly in correctional institutions. But that slipped away fairly quickly. And it's continued to slip away,” she says.
Aboriginal Housing Office Chief Executive Jody Broun says there has been some positive examples of programs working to produce systemic change, such as the IPROWD Indigenous police recruitment program, but there has also been steps backwards, with effective programs defunded.
“My hope is that the Black Lives Matter movement does put more attention back on those Royal Commission recommendations, the actions we can take in businesses, in universities, and in government, and look at what has and hasn’t been achieved,” she says.
The global corporate endorsement of Black Lives Matter is a positive indicator of mainstream support for addressing the historical legacy of racial inequality, exploitation and violence that persists to this day, but to make a real difference it needs to be more than a branding exercise, says UTS Business School Deputy Dean Professor Carl Rhodes.
“There is a danger that Black Lives Matter can become ‘ally theatre’ for corporates, aimed at drawing attention to the righteousness of the ally, without making any real changes or improvements,” he says.
Phil Lockyer, Executive Manager, Safer Communities, at insurance company IAG, says corporates in Australia are taking genuine action to make the lives of First Nations people better, and there is broad support for Black Lives Matter, but few address specific criminal justice issues.
“A lot of programs that corporates are engaged in focus on education, on employment, and economic enterprise through Reconciliation Action Plans. Those are key to the mental and cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially young people.
“But in terms of actually addressing specific issues around criminal justice, and the engagement that First Nations people have with the criminal justice system, I think very few corporate organisations are engaged because they don’t know what to do, or it seems really hard,” says Mr Lockyer.
He says IAG has specifically committed to lowering the incarceration rates of First Nations people, and it is currently working in partnership with the Just Reinvest program on a project in Mt Druitt.
Justice Reinvest works to reduce the number of Aboriginal people being imprisoned by putting resources into building strong communities, rather than expensive and ineffective prisons. In NSW, over half the children in jail are Aboriginal.
“If we don't start addressing issues around incarceration, then we're going to have generations of young people who are not going to be able to engage in employment, education and growing enterprise,” Mr Lockyer says.
UTS Industry Professor Nareen Young, former CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia, highlights the 30% gap in average weekly earnings between Aboriginal men and non-Aboriginal men in Australia as another way that corporates can make a real difference.
“Particularly in management and senior executive level roles, there is scant representation of Indigenous Australians, even in the public service where you would expect greater participation,” says Professor Young.
“This goes to the lack of skills, education, and opportunity in the labour market offered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men over the last 200 years,” she says, and suggests that “competition and shame” are avenues that can encourage corporate change.
Professor Rhodes says business schools can play an important role in supporting the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think first, we need to recognize that Australian universities have long been a part of racism and acknowledge that,” says Professor Rhodes.
“Black Lives Matter is an essential call for business schools to support the democratic rights of self-determination, and to support and address the unequal distribution of those rights in Australian society.
“It's about Indigenous participation in business education and research, as students, teachers and researchers, making Indigenous knowledge, and knowledge of Indigenous Australia, central to teaching, research and community engagement.”