The companies' statements come at a fraught and unprecedented time in the U.S. — in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black communities, caused more than 100,000 deaths and spurred an economic crisis. The uncertainty and upheaval have thrust the automakers into a position of social influence.
"These are voices that people listen to," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. "It's important for folks in the community to understand that our leaders in the corporate suites also are human beings and they feel this stuff."
Automakers, suppliers and dealers have a new sense of responsibility for their employees' health and safety as they send them into plants and offices during a global health emergency and develop protocols designed to keep them safe.
"There is no doubt that the weight of these challenges disproportionately fall on the black community," Hackett and Ford wrote to Ford Motor employees. "We have seen this disparity among our own Ford team members affected by COVID-19, and the legacy of economic disparities in our own home city of Detroit. It is pain that many of our team members have long felt in their daily lives. This is our moment to lead from the front and fully commit to creating the fair, just and inclusive culture that our employees deserve."
Barra, Ford and FCA North America COO Mark Stewart were among nine Detroit business leaders who spoke against racism and injustice at a news conference last week. The executives promised to reject and work to eliminate discrimination in their companies and communities, call upon government officials to hold people accountable, and invest in programs and policies that fight discrimination and oppression.
Some dealership groups and industry associations also have spoken out against racism since Floyd's death May 25 in Minneapolis.
Executives at AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. new-vehicle dealership group, said in a letter to employees that they were "appalled by these acts of racism and violence taking place across America."
AutoNation, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also urged employees to "look after each other and speak up for one another." The company showed its intent to stand behind those words with its firing of an employee in Scottsdale, Ariz., over a video posted on Twitter last week. The video, in which the employee called his home a "sniper tower" and showed how he would lure and shoot looters, was apparently meant to be a joke but was neither funny nor acceptable, said Marc Cannon, AutoNation's chief customer experience officer. "We will not put up with that," Cannon said.
Most of the country agrees that racism and discrimination need to stop, so now is the natural time for companies to speak out, said Deborah Small, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who specializes in consumer judgment and decision-making.
"Companies are trying to stay relevant in our lives," she said. "They can't ignore massive disruptions and pain points for things that are happening in culture, good or bad."
Companies that don't speak out or that carry on with business as usual seem tone-deaf, Small said. "We're definitely in a cultural moment right now where there's some agreement that what happened was bad."
It's also important that employees know where their company stands, she said.
Because many employees have been working remotely during the pandemic, "we're not having the normal face-to-face conversations about things that are going on," Small said.
And, she continued, the younger generation of employees "don't just want to work for a company where they can advance their career or where they can make money. They also really value working for a company that they believe shares their values and has some purpose."