by KJ Ward
The backlash was swift.
The concern: Indiana’s religious freedom bill would allow bigots to refuse service or public accommodation to LGBT folks and face zero legal accountability. Resistance began where one might think it would begin: with Democrats and LGBT organizations stating their opposition. But, as the bill got closer to becoming law, the “progressive” uproar grew, and corporate America entered the conversation in a really big way.
Salesforce.com canceled all programs requiring its customers or employees to travel to Indiana, the CEOs of Apple and Yelp tweeted their disappointment, and Amazon Web Services and other tech giants pulled out of a conference that is to be held in Indianapolis. The list of industry heavy-hitters grew as the bill made its way closer to Governor Pence’s desk.
Angie’s List halted its expansion in Indiana, and Walmart’s CEO urged the governor of Arkansas to veto a similar bill in that state’s legislature. In a letter, Twitter, Ebay, Zillow Group, Lyft, Airbnb, and more than 30 other tech powerhouses warned other states not to follow suit. The letter even went so far as to call for proactive legislation that would expressly protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Businesses taking action and using the power of the purse to disrupt discrimination is awesome, right? It is. The problem occurs in the selectivity used in wielding said power and when we, the public, get tricked in to thinking that some corporation is doing the “just” thing when it’s really just doing the “business” thing.
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I do not mean to suggest that the legislative action in Indiana and Arkansas (proposed, passed or otherwise) doesn’t deserve attention. It would totally suck to get told by a bed and breakfast in Indiana that there would be no room at the inn for my husband and me. It’s also true that if you are a paying queer or trans customer who wants your wedding reception catered by Memories Pizza, then you shouldn’t be denied what must be – given its prominence in the conversation – some delicious-ass pizza. The thing is that this latest round of “religious freedom” activity is just one of many recent acts by state legislatures to legalize discrimination and marginalization.
Mississippi and other states are actively and successfully restricting women’s access to reproductive care, and South Carolina and other states are disenfranchising poor and minority voters. So, while I believe that this mess around so-called religious freedom deserves the full wrath of the corporate sector, I think that systematically denying poor women access to healthcare and their constitutional right to abortion services should warrant at least this same level of private sector response. I also believe that enacting voter laws that have a disproportionate and negative impact on poor people, young people, and people of color should make all of the above-named titans of industry “wanna holler” as loudly as they’re screaming about Indiana. But nope.
So, let’s not be fooled. The corporate response to discriminatory legislation in Indiana (and the prospect of it in Arkansas) has nothing to do with social justice and everything to do with money. Here’s why.
The prospect of being denied service based on sexual orientation cuts across class. The religious freedom bills strike fear and outrage in the hearts of even wealthy people, who are used to having their class status protect them from many forms of injustice. Middle and upper class gays and lesbians and their middle and upper class straight friends also happen to be the customers of the big companies that are taking action against this legislation.
Voter disenfranchisement and restricted access to reproductive health care discriminate in a very different way. They pretty much screw things up for poor people. The women who seek reproductive health services at the clinics being targeted by anti-abortion legislation are mostly poor, new voting registration requirements disproportionately impact poor voters, and poor people don’t have the Uber or Zillow apps on their smartphones.
Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio brought SB1070 – the horrifying stop-a-Mexican law – to the people of Arizona in 2010. And for five years it has been perfectly legal to visit indignities upon people of color in that state. A handful of city governments banned work-related travel to Arizona, and some musicians canceled their tours to the state. Who was missing from this boycott? Big business. Guess what? The people affected by this law were largely poor too, and they don’t have rich friends with plans to buy Apple Watches later this month.
I’m glad that states working to make discrimination legal are finding themselves under enormous public, social, and economic pressure. That shit works. But when that pressure is applied to situations like the religious freedom act and not to other legislative injustices happening on just as big a scale and with arguably more dire consequences, we have to ask ourselves an important question: Is Airbnb motivated by social justice or are they making a considered marketing move?
Massive corporate response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the conspicuous lack of response to anti-immigration, voter disenfranchisement, and abortion restriction legislation suggests that offenses that don’t have an effect on sales are more tolerable than offenses that do. Protecting their corporate interests is what these businesses are mandated to do, and that’s all good. It makes good business sense to stand in solidarity with your customers, and I don’t knock businesses for doing it. But until they take similar action in response to other injustices, let’s not give them credit for protecting the rights of marginalized communities when all they’re really doing is protecting the dividends of their shareholders.
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