Elon Musk’s Lesson in How Not to Celebrate Diversity

The SpaceX and Tesla CEO proudly announced the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday, with one big caveat.

Elon Musk
Win McNamee / Getty

Updated at 4:46 p.m. ET on June 21, 2020.

On Friday, Elon Musk announced that two of his best-known companies, the electric-car manufacturer Tesla and the astronaut-launching rocket business SpaceX, would formally recognize a long-standing American holiday. “Juneteenth is henceforth considered a US holiday at Tesla & SpaceX,” Musk, who is CEO of both, tweeted.

The tweet initially was met with praise and enthusiasm. Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people in America that falls on the 19th of June each year, has been commemorated in black communities for generations. In recent weeks, as people protest the police killings of black Americans, an array of institutions and companies have weighed in, making a show of wanting to do better—including designating Juneteenth, which is not a federal holiday, as a paid holiday for their employees.

But then, nearly an hour later, Musk added a small clarification. “It does require use of a paid-time-off day, which is true of many other holidays,” he said, in response to a Twitter user who had applauded Musk for giving his employees a paid holiday.

Ah. So Juneteenth counted as a holiday only if employees used one of their vacation days. In other words, Juneteenth would be just like any other day at the office. When a CEO announces a newly observed holiday at the office, especially with language like “henceforth,” one can fairly assume that he intends that holiday to take the usual form: company-wide, and paid. Musk’s first tweet, thoughtful and well received, now seemed like a misleading and perfunctory gesture.

A pronouncement of a new company policy on Twitter, light on context and apparently without forewarning, is a classic Musk play. But the stakes are higher now. Musk sits at the top of companies that are paving the future of technology and space exploration—two industries with a troublesome track record on diversity. That position provides him with the power to enact some change. Musk has already disappointed some of his most ardent fans by pushing for Tesla to reopen last month despite local shutdown orders amid the coronavirus, which is disproportionately killing black and brown Americans. (Several cases have been reported at Tesla’s assembly plant in Fremont, California.) This week, in the span of two tweets, he fumbled an opportunity on another national concern, once again putting his companies in a difficult position.

The apparent hollowness of Musk’s gesture was only magnified when several news outlets reported that some Tesla employees were already at work when they received the news about the policy. According to BuzzFeed, Tesla’s head of human resources had notified staff at about 8 a.m. on the West Coast, before Musk tweeted, that the company “fully supports Juneteenth for any U.S. employee that wants to take the day off to celebrate,” and that, for those who chose to take off, the day would be recorded as “an unpaid PTO”—an impressive corporate twisting of words.

The public reaction to the haphazard rollout seemed to resonate with senior leadership, at least at SpaceX. About two hours after Musk’s follow-up tweet, Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s chief operating officer, sent a memo to staff announcing that next year, Juneteenth would be “an official company holiday,” CNBC reported. The language suggested, but did not explicitly say, that Juneteenth would be added to SpaceX’s calendar of paid holidays. Musk said later, in a tweet late on Friday night, that an extra paid, time-off day would be added to the calendars at SpaceX and Tesla. (SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on this story; neither did Tesla.)

In the email, Shotwell said that she had recently met with black employees to discuss their experiences at SpaceX. “Microaggressions all the way to explicit race-based name calling and other intolerable aggressive behaviors occur here and this is completely not OK,” she wrote. She announced several new initiatives, including employee networks for black and Latino staff and mandatory bias training for all employees. (Such training, she said, was instituted for “people leaders” last year.) Employees, she added, could still observe Juneteenth for the few hours left in the workday, as paid or unpaid time off.

Shotwell’s apparent rush to address the situation felt to some like a reaction to the public criticism of Musk’s walked-back declaration, an attempt to turn a flimsy effort into something more substantive. “It’s like when Trump tweets something and people have to scramble to make a policy out of it,” a former SpaceX engineer who left the company in 2018, and who asked not to be named to avoid professional repercussions, told me.

The recent demonstrations have resurfaced stories of racial harassment and discrimination at Tesla. In the past several years, dozens of current and former Tesla employees and contractors have described, in lawsuits and news reports, a hostile work environment for black workers at the Fremont plant. (Tesla officials have denied the various allegations.) In late 2018, The New York Times reported that workers of color were subjected to racist taunts, assigned menial jobs, and overlooked for promotions. A year earlier, in response to a lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleged that co-workers and supervisors had called him the N-word, Tesla publicly released an email Musk had sent to all employees, with the subject line “Doing the right thing,” that suggested workers should tolerate a certain degree of racist behavior from colleagues.

“Part of not being a huge jerk is considering how someone might feel who is part of an historically less represented group,” Musk wrote. But “in fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass for being a jerk yourself.” He said that Tesla had promoted people from “a less represented group” over “more qualified highly represented candidates” in the past, and said that those people went on to sue the company anyway. “That is obviously not cool,” he wrote.

In the weeks since George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, some Tesla employees have grown frustrated with their CEO’s public approach to the latest wave of demonstrations against state violence toward black people, according to Protocol. Musk has written a few tweets in support of bringing the officers involved in Floyd’s death to justice, but as of Friday hadn’t offered any formal addresses about race to his employees. “Not looking for a change the world speech but to know your CEO appreciates the … immensely diverse company he has created during this time period would be reassuring,” one worker told Protocol. On Friday, a group of Tesla employees organized a rally in honor of Juneteenth on the grounds of the Fremont plant, according to The Verge.

By seemingly treating Juneteenth as an afterthought, Musk isn’t helping his brands grapple with an important and painful reckoning in this country. The latest conversation on racism can—and has—prompted officials at SpaceX and Tesla to consider changes to better support their employees of color, but the businesses must still bear the potential negative impacts of Musk’s unfiltered online presence, which can overshadow other, more earnest attempts.

As SpaceX and Tesla do the impressive work of launching people into space and revolutionizing the car industry, Musk could, in his way, hold them back on so many important fronts. SpaceX recently made headlines for sending NASA astronauts to space for the first time, a tremendous feat that signaled a new era in American spaceflight—one that, many hope, leaves behind the prejudices of the country’s earlier spacefaring days.

It will take far more than a company holiday to address systemic racism in America. As Kellie Carter Jackson, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, wrote in The Atlantic on Friday, “If not followed with substantive change, the relatively recent scramble to acknowledge Juneteenth will just feel like virtue signaling, acts of solidarity that ring hollow.”

The former SpaceX engineer I spoke with (who is white) said that the overwhelming majority of his colleagues at the company were white and male. The engineer hopes SpaceX’s newfound recognition of Juneteenth, as well as the slew of initiatives that Shotwell announced, translates into actual progress in the workforce. “If you can land rockets on a barge,” the former employee said, “I think you could find a way to hire more black engineers.”