America One Year After George Floyd Murder

We are just out of the field with an Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on systemic racism, the third of our studies on the subject with prior reports last June and September. We surveyed 2,000 Americans of various backgrounds in the general population. The state of play as of our last study showed that both brands and corporations were expected to take a stand, with three to ten times more trust accorded to those who took a strong position. My employer was the only institution trusted to act, reflecting the general trend of trust moving local. The media was seen as fueling racism, with stereotypes and exaggeration. Government was viewed as unwilling and unable to act.

Fast forward to May 2021—there is much more work ahead to drive systemic change. Here are the key conclusions of our study:

  1. Deep Disappointment in All Institutions—Only one-third of respondents believe that there has been real progress in the fight against racial injustice and systemic racism. Fifty-five percent of respondents believe that there has been little or no progress and that things have gotten worse. Racism remains an urgent concern for just under two-thirds of Americans, the same as last August.
  2. Media Not Doing its Job—Over half (51 percent) of respondents said media fails to examine and report on the root causes of racism. Only 20 percent believe mainstream media is the best place to get the truth about racism and a company’s response to racism. Twenty-seven percent say that there is no trustworthy source of information on racism, with 32 percent of white respondents agreeing. For Black and Latinx respondents, the most credible source is activist or advocacy organizations (33 percent and 26 percent).
  3. Government is the Least Trusted Institution to Do What Is Right on Racism—Government trust is at 46 percent; that compares to media and business at 50 percent, NGOs at 53 percent. The most trusted is My Employer at 73 percent. Government did see a 10-point rise from the August study, the Federal government, now at 48 percent up from 33 percent in August, while state and local government remained flat at 52 percent and 55 percent. Local police and criminal justice systems are especially distrusted by Black respondents (37 percent).
  4. Business Has Done Too Little—Forty-six percent of respondents, and a majority of Black (57 percent), Latinx (53 percent) and Asian (55 percent) respondents say that business has done very little in the way of concrete actions to address systemic racism. No sector has done well; the highest is sports (44 percent), with financial services (33 percent) at the bottom. Sixty-seven percent of Asians believe business has largely ignored the problem of racism against their community.
  5. My Employer Trusted to Address Racism—We find a 17-point jump in the belief that My Employer (to 76 percent) is making progress in redressing racism in the workplace. The biggest increase was among Latinx respondents (21 points to 83 percent).
  6. CEOs Expected to Act but Getting Low Marks on Performance—Seventy-nine percent of respondents said that they expect CEOs to take action in response to racism, including instituting a policy of zero tolerance of racism or establishing programs that foster the career growth of diverse employees. Most respondents (55 percent) believe that CEOs are taking appropriate action by boycotting states that pass racially discriminatory laws, but there is a 26-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on this topic (66 percent versus 40 percent). Yet only 22 percent of employees trust their CEOs to tell the truth about racism, diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations. The CEOs get even lower grades from Black Americans (14 percent trust). More of the respondents trust their direct boss (28 percent) and a shocking 23 percent do not trust anyone in the organization to tell the truth, although racially diverse co-workers are most trusted among Black and Asian employees.
  7. Corporations Have Done Better Job than Brands—While brands have remained relatively flat in trust, corporations have increased trust by getting their house in order (13 points to 42 percent), educating and influencing on change (up 13 points to 41 percent) and creating change (up 12 points to 37 percent).
  8. Workplace Culture Now Biggest Issue—Last August the biggest concern was lack of diversity in leadership in the workplace (40 percent), but now it is a lack of inclusive workplace culture (37 percent, up 4 points since last August). A stunning 55 percent of respondents say that racism in the workplace has damaged their relationship with their employer, up 14 points since last August, with the largest jump among Latinx respondents (up 12 points to 68 percent) and Asian respondents (up 13 points to 58 percent). An issue to monitor is bias in employee pay and benefits, up 4 points to 21 percent.
  9. Tangible Benefits Accrue to Companies and Brands That Speak Out—Forty-two percent of respondents told us that they have started or stopped using a new brand because of its response to calls for racial justice within the past year, up seven points from August. The largest increases were among Latinx (up 12 points to 54 percent) and Democrats (up 10 points to 55 percent). A brand or corporation taking a tangible action on racial injustice will gain three times as much trust as risking loss of trust, with an even stronger reaction by Blacks (4.5x) and Asians (7x).
  10. Real Downside from Inaction or Performative Behavior—Four in ten would avoid employers that fail to speak out publicly on systemic racism, most true of Black (51 percent) and 18–34-year-old (50 percent) respondents. Over half of respondents said brands and companies need to follow up statements with concrete action to avoid being seen as exploitative, even more so among Blacks (63 percent).

There is some good news in this study, especially for My Employer and corporations overall, seen as having made significant progress in advancing diversity in management and boards. The onus is on business as the institution best positioned to help drive meaningful systemic change. We need corporations to continue the work of getting their houses in order – from their workforce culture and supply chain to their public affairs strategy, and act on issues like voting rights when they directly impact their state.

We need brands to take action and show us the way, tell authentic stories, change perceptions, and show us the power and possibility of an inclusive and equitable society. This creates longer lasting impact that can change the ecosystem. The bar has been raised; it is no longer enough to put diverse representation in ads and call it a day. CMOs must play as pivotal a role as CEOs.

This is not simply a moral issue for business. The murder of George Floyd was indeed a turning point for business and all other institutions. Systemic change will take real commitment, faith and participation in the community. The journey must continue.

Richard Edelman is CEO.