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Ben and Jerry’s back Black Lives Matter: Do ice cream and politics mix?

Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream maker, issued a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It's not the first time they've been involved in political action - and not everyone is supportive.

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Nia Liles McBroom serves a woman a cup of "Empower Mint" ice cream after Ben & Jerry's co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield unveiled the new flavor during an event at North Carolina Central University that focused on bolstering voter registration and opposing recent voter ID laws. Cohen and Greenfield announced the company's support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Thursday.

Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via AP/File

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What does your ice cream brand say about your politics?

On Thursday, Ben and Jerry’s came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The popular ice cream maker published a strongly-worded statement that spoke out against "systemic and institutionalized racism" in American society. The company clarified that this was not a critique of the law enforcement system, and that they respect police officers’ service to their communities. 

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The company statement acknowledges that "Black Americans and white Americans have profoundly different experiences and outcomes with law enforcement and the criminal justice system," and a refusal to be silent about the problems they see. It’s a stand that has been welcomed by many; their Black Lives Matter tweet has been retweeted more than 56,000 times and garnered nearly 80,000 likes.

But others are frustrated with the company stance to the point of calling for a boycott.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that focuses on the specific struggles that black Americans face on a daily basis. In response, the All Lives Matter movement emerged, with proponents asking, "How will this nation of ours ever join together if we are constantly looking at everyone by their race [?]" They have also expressed concerns that a very public and political focus on the struggles of black Americans may prevent necessary attention being paid to the experiences of other groups.

Ben and Jerry addressed these concerns in their statement, saying, "All lives do matter. But all lives will not matter until Black lives matter." They suggest that the issues faced by black communities have been systemically under-emphasized. As some in the Black Lives Matter movement have put it: all houses matter, but the one that is burning needs the water.

In August, the Movement for Black Lives released its first official platform, which called for economic justice, investments in health and safety, and community control of community institutions such as law enforcement. And some say that the ice cream maker’s endorsement could inspire other businesses to address these issues.

This is not the first time that Ben and Jerry's has taken a political stance. The ice cream maker is a subsidiary of Unilever (since 2000), but has its roots in Vermont, and backed their US senator, Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary election. The founders have also been outspoken in their support for progressive social issues: In April, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were arrested at a protest in Washington, D.C. that aimed to make the country’s democracy more inclusive.

Almost every political stance is, naturally, accompanied by an ice cream flavor. For marriage equality, Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream became "I Dough, I Dough." Recent get-out-the-vote efforts on college campuses have featured the flavor "Empower Mint."

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Other companies have found themselves drawn, perhaps unwillingly, into political debates. While he emphasized that "Starbucks is not a policy maker and as a company we are not pro- or anti-gun," in 2013, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked customers to stop bringing their guns into stores, even in states where "open carry" was permissible. The company, which had not had a gun policy up to that point, had become a focal point in the gun control debate. Gun rights groups had been holding "Starbucks Appreciation Day" media events that painted the company as a proponent of open carry, while a gun safety organization pushed back with "Skip Starbucks Saturday."

The move left gun rights advocates unhappy — and possibly searching for a Starbucks alternative. Starbucks has "great coffee, but I’m going to be looking for an equivalent," David Butler, a family physician in Austin, Texas told the Wall Street Journal.

It's unclear what effect the endorsement of Black Lives Matter will have on the company's bottom line. Certainly, the founders' intention does not appear to have been to alienate their consumer base, but to spark a conversation about the issues the movement raises.

"Change happens when people are willing to listen and hear the struggles of their neighbor, putting aside preconceived notions and truly seeking to understand and grow. We'll be working hard on that, and ask you to as well," they wrote.