Less than a week after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, I wrote about how corporate America was pausing and reviewing their political action committee donations to lawmakers who objected to President Biden’s election. My point was two-fold. In the absence of campaign contributions, lawmakers take notice, and in the absence of leadership on preserving democracy by arrogant Republicans, corporate America was stepping in.
Last week we saw, finally, corporate America start to wake-up to the fact that states, led most prevalently by Georgia, were trying to overturn election laws, or create barriers and roadblocks to voting, primarily for districts composed mostly of people of color.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of March 24, there had been 361 bills with restrictive provisions introduced in 47 states, that accounted for a 43 percent increase from the month before. This month, we saw Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp sign the state’s ridiculously prohibitive voting bill into law.
The bill is so blatantly anti-Black that the next obvious step for the Georgia state legislature would be to overturn anti-slavery laws. And why not? Six mostly white, middle-aged white men stood around a lily-white Kemp while he signed the bill. The only thing missing from the photo were the men’s white hoods.
At first, corporate America, and in particular Georgia-based businesses, put out requisite and pithy statements calling for better voting access for the state’s citizenry; however, pressure started to mount, rightfully so, and companies led by Coca-Cola and Delta took a more prominent stance, with both of the brands’ CEOs saying they wanted to be “crystal clear.”
I found it ironic that both Coke’s CEO, James Quincy, and Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, both used the term “crystal clear” in their statements. When I saw this, my first reaction was that the companies must share the same PR firm, since both men’s messages were undoubtedly picked, plucked, and proof-read umpteen times before they were released. Was it a coincidence that they both wanted to be “crystal clear?”
Regardless, now over 170 companies have signed a letter calling on states not to pass legislation that makes voting more restrictive. The signatories all seek to publicly establish themselves as vanguards of voting. It puts businesses in an awkward political position; defending democratic social issues, versus risking Republicans intent on financial retribution in the way of targeted tax hikes. Regardless, companies’ reputations are now being put to the test.
And that’s what all of these activists’ gestures have been about, public relations and perception. Companies have supported Black Lives Matter, defended democracy, and now are seeking to protect the ballot box. They’re doing all this in the name of promoting themselves as “diverse and inclusive”—the corporate buzzwords of 2021. In corporate speak, “D&I” internal and external programs are proliferating.
Only within the last 10 years have brands noticed that their customer bases go beyond predominately straight, married, white, and middle-class. Companies are reacting to a broader spectrum of customers by tailoring and targeting varied customer experience initiatives that address specific audiences. They are striving to employ a more diverse workforce as well. This is all driven by a desire to stay relevant to the next generation of consumers and employees.
That’s why Major League Baseball pulled the annual All-Star game from Atlanta. According to Infogram, 57.5 percent of baseball players are white; however, the number of Black and Hispanic players are growing, cumulatively now at 39.6 percent. MLB also has a generation gap, with 57 years being the average age of a baseball fan. Baseball needs a serious influx of younger fans, and more players of color on the diamond. Kemp says baseball’s move out of Atlanta was due to cancel culture. Hardly. It was a deliberate attempt to expand upon its demographics.
Which brings us to why corporations should, but most likely won’t, show the same support for all of the anti-trans bills popping up. In the wake of what has happened in Arkansas this week, the trans community regrettably has a bullseye on its back, and as Republicans use these discriminatory bills as cultural wedge issues for the upcoming midterm elections, they are putting many transgender lives at risk. Who will help protect them?
Last month, we reported that there were 82 anti-trans bills introduced at the state level, according to the Human Rights Commission. At the same time, state legislatures are locking up voting booths they are also seeking to lock-up transgender people (or, more accurately, erase them). Will corporate American swoop in and defend transgender people?
While the transgender cause is starting to gain traction and favorable attention in urban areas and with major media, i.e. Elliot Page on the cover of Time, on the local level, recognition for the trans community has a long way to go.
Since transgender people are still considered, unfairly, by many to be out of the mainstream, the perception problem still exists, despite positive PR with Page, and others like Laverne Cox. And for corporations, it’s easy to lump the trans community into their LGBTQ+ programs. Customers aren’t clamoring for their favorite brands to come to the rescue for transgender individuals, and companies can stand behind the broad stroke of their “LGBTQ programs,” to say trans people are a priority.
Increasing corporate advocacy is coming into question; thus, businesses aren’t in the mood to take on anymore causes, most especially something as (sadly) provocative as transgender rights. Being a full-throated trans-supporting business is too radical and threatens bottom lines, CEOs believe, and that’s what it gets down to. That, and today’s business leaders, for the most part, still don’t have a full understanding of the transgender community.
There is some history of advocacy. When North Carolina signed their infamous transgender bathroom bill into law in 2016, entities, namely the NCAA stepped in to protest, and it worked to an extent. Under the revised law, transgender people are free to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, but they also lack any recourse should any person, business, or state entity eject them.
And then, in what can only be described as a double-cross, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson on Monday vetoed a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Hutchinson, a Republican, said he believed House Bill 1570 interfered with the relationship between doctors and patients, and more pointedly referred to the bill as a “product of the cultural war in America.”
Why a double cross? He knew full well that the state legislature would overturn his veto. He tried to appear like the good guy, but in the end, he was as disingenuous as his bigoted Republican colleagues. Hutchinson has two faces, and neither one of them is pretty, and his actions may set a precedent for other governors who can easily veto anti-trans bills, resting assured that their overwhelming Republican state legislatures will override the veto.
For North Carolina, rejecting hate was a face-saving move. The state inevitably recouped the potential dollars lost from threatened corporate boycotts. Could more corporate boycotts happen again? With businesses targeting states like Georgia with both its anti-vote and anti-trans bills? Time will tell, but in the name of being humane and tolerant, corporations should be nudged, by all of us, to help our trans brothers and sisters.
In the meantime, pressure will hopefully mount on other states, similar to what happened in North Carolina, and we may soon find out if companies are truly willing to adhere to their “D&I” philosophies and make it “crystal clear” that they will not tolerate transgender discrimination.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.