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Four years on: George Floyd and the fight for racial justice

Tomorrow will mark four years since George Floyd was tragically murdered, and the moment the world changed. 

This act of police brutality ignited a firestorm of activism and introspection. It spurred a global reckoning on racial injustice, reaching across the Atlantic to the UK, where thousands of us took to the streets, demanding systemic change. Around the world, this watershed moment forced us to confront our own issues with race and inequality, both individually and collectively. 

So where are we four years later?

Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords.

We’re no longer taking the knee. 

Budgets are being cut or weren’t being used effectively in the first place.

DEI is under attack from all sides.  

We’re all just feeling a bit exhausted. 

How did we get here? 

DEI: from an ambition to the standard 

The immediate aftermath of George Floyd's death saw DEI initiatives becoming the new corporate mantra. In the UK, this was particularly evident as companies across industries pledged to improve their diversity and inclusion practices. A 2020 survey by PwC revealed that 76% of UK companies planned to enhance their DEI efforts.

Now, whether companies kickstarted their DEI missions effectively – without being performative, is a separate question.

Last year, a study found that two thirds of British workers say workplace DEI is important when job hunting. This shows that despite all the damning headlines you may see in the media, a robust DEI policy is what will set you apart from competitors in the ongoing ‘war on talent’. 

More than ever, people want to see their realities reflected in their workplace, schools they send their children to and the brands they purchase from. 

As I mentioned last week, DEI is the new expectation, not a nice-to-have. 

It’s a shame that we often trace these changing attitudes back to the tragic event of May 2020, but this is all the more reason why George Floyd’s death will never be forgotten.

The ebbs and flows of BLM

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which reached its zenith in 2020, has since seen a decline in public momentum. The initial surge of protests and corporate commitments has given way to a quieter phase. This doesn’t mean the issues BLM brought to the forefront have disappeared, but the initial fervour has subsided.

In the UK, BLM sparked crucial conversations about race and equality, leading to significant moments like the removal of statues like slave trader Edward Colston and a re-evaluation of colonial history. However, the backlash was swift. The movement was quickly politicized, with right-wing parties and media framing it as part of a broader “culture war.” In 2021, UK government guidance cautioned schools against promoting partisan political views, including those of BLM, signalling a chilling effect on the movement's momentum.

Now, for some people, the Black Lives Matter hysteria made a fool out of us – according to a Telegraph headline.

It was just a bunch of “young people” that had been confined in their bedrooms for way too long – outrageous, right? 

Despite the slowdown, BLM's impact persists in more modest, targeted ways. Organisations like BLM UK continue to work on grassroots initiatives, such as disbursing funds to people affected by deaths in police and psychiatric custody and combating the hostile environment policies. While the mainstream movement may have quietened, these focused efforts continue to drive change at the community level.

War on the woke

In 2024, the war on woke has intensified as ‘DEI is the lightning rod for controversy’ from billionaires, political parties and news outlets. 

When we see the likes of Kemi Badenoch calling DEI nothing more than ‘woke indoctrination’ – what are you meant to think?

Although we’ve seen a rise in people supporting the movement for racial equality, we have also seen a rise in people frustrated with the call to change. In 2022, a YouGov poll revealed that 46% of Britons believed that efforts to promote racial equality had gone too far. This statistic underscores the polarised views on DEI initiatives in the UK, with a significant portion of the population expressing scepticism or outright opposition to measures aimed at addressing systemic inequalities.

But with all the backlash against woke culture, it begs a simple question, what’s so bad about Black people wanting to be seen? 

Brands are more than happy to extract the good bits of Black culture, so what’s wrong with wanting some credit (and employment) for it? 

Companies failing to keep their word 

Many brands that made bold DEI commitments in the wake of George Floyd’s death have struggled to back up their words with action and in 2024, we’re seeing the curtains starting to close. At the moment, we’re seeing companies using budget cuts and the global economic crisis as convenient excuses to scale back on DEI initiatives. If we look back, in the UK, there was a 33% increase in the number of D&I roles posted on job boards in June 2020, compared to 2019 and the US, where this rose by 55%.

Today tells a different story. 

In the past year, we’ve seen companies like Google and Meta doing downsizing programmes under DEI investment and cutting down DEI jobs significantly. This decline has also impacted employee objectives. In January, ASOS announced that managers will no longer need to DEI targets to receive annual bonuses — what does this tell you about changing systems? 

What brands and organisations are failing to understand beyond the moral case is scaling back on your DEI objectives is still a missed business opportunity. The statistics speak for themselves: 

So what now?

At the moment, there’s a sense of fatigue in the air as brands and organisations can no longer hide behind the noise of the media and protests across our screens. Four years on we can now see who has been exposed, who jumped on the “woke bandwagon” and who was genuinely invested in reversing racial injustice.

From the outside, people may have moved past the events of May 2020 and may not comprehend the reasoning behind the passion and the anger.

But the shock of a Black man being murdered for just existing reminded us that slavery was only 200 years ago. So please excuse us if we’re still not pacified by your diversity statement.

In terms of progress, we did get the world’s attention. However, attention alone is not enough. True progress requires tangible action, genuine commitment, and a sustained effort to dismantle systemic injustices.

As we move forward, let's not forget the lessons of the past and let's continue to push for real, meaningful change.


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