In a departure from the historical norm, under which companies abstained from commenting on socio-political issues lest they alienate consumers, corporations spoke out one after the other against racism, and in some cases against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd in May.
They did so in part out of necessity, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told the audience during Fortune‘s virtual Brainstorm Health conference on Wednesday.
“Frankly, society is calling on us to actually stand up, take positions and be more vocal than we were in the past,” said Robbins. “So I don’t think we have a choice.”
Robbins put out what was perhaps among the most visceral of corporate statements after Floyd, a Black man, died when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The CEO called the incident “maddening” and “truly abhorrent.” Citigroup chief financial officer Mark Mason—among Wall Street’s highest-ranking black executives—published a blog post that repeated Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” 10 times.
Since then, other companies have been criticized for not taking more forceful stances. Social media company Facebook has dealt with protests from employees and boycotts from advertisers after it decided not to take action against a series of controversial posts from President Trump, including one whose language echoed racist rhetoric from the 1960s.
“I think that the business community stepping into issues like police reform and focusing on our Black communities,” Robbins said Wednesday. “The CEOs, particularly the ones that I engage with in the U.S., are super involved in these social issues. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever have to make hard decisions. It just means you have to have consideration for all your stakeholders.”
More coverage on the intersection of race and business from Fortune:
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- The enduring history of health care inequality for black Americans
- The insurance case that helped end the slave trade
- Corporate Germany has a race problem—and a lack of data is not helping
- Insurance redlining is real—and it will hurt neighborhoods hit by looting