In the aftermath of the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, it’s clear why companies are speaking out or withdrawing funding to politicians and organizations that played a role in fueling the putsch: political instability isn’t conducive to orderly business. But if the undermining of democratic norms is why these companies are now willing to criticize or abandon Trump, it is also fair to ask what took so long. There is a long history of corporations tacitly and financially supporting people and groups that, for decades, aimed to undermine democracy by disenfranchising Black and brown voters. And while it’s a good thing that businesses are facing this reckoning, it’s also ironic. Withdrawing support now shows that many of these companies could have refused to support to a political program that was premised, from the start, on cruelty to nonwhites a long time ago
White supremacist insurrections are bad for business. Many of the world’s most powerful business leaders understand this and swiftly condemned the pro-Donald Trump mob who attempted to overturn the election by storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Forbes’ editor said he will not trust companies that hire former administration members who promoted Trump’s lies. Goldman Sachs former chief Lloyd Blankfein compared business support for Trump to companies that abetted the rise of the Third Reich. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called for Trump’s resignation, and tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, banned or limited the former president for inciting violence.
Businesses haven’t stopped at verbal condemnation. Walmart, Mastercard, and American Express have all said they will stop contributing to members of Congress who refused to certify Electoral College votes. And in a material embodiment of the kind of “both sides” rhetoric that helped to normalize Trump in the first place, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and Google are pausing contributions to both parties.
It is clear why these companies are speaking out or withdrawing funding now. Political instability isn’t conducive to orderly business, and appearing to support a defeated president who challenged the election may cut into earnings. But if the undermining of democratic norms is why these companies are now willing to criticize or abandon Trump and his enablers, it is also fair to ask what took so long.
Just this summer, in light of the Black Lives Matter protest following George Floyd’s murder, large numbers of businesses stated commitments to diversity. But through activities ranging from serving on advisory councils to donating to politicians (or political parties) who echoed Trump’s dog whistles, many businesses simultaneously supported a president who campaigned and governed on a platform of racial grievance. This highlights the fundamental contradiction between these companies’ pursuit of profit and their commitment to racial justice: Many U.S. businesses showed they are willing to profit off of racial inequality — or even support policies that entrench racial inequality — until the political costs of doing so were judged to be too high.
We know this because the insurrection at the Capitol was by no means the first attack on multiracial democracy that former President Trump has tacitly (or openly) encouraged. And this is not even the first time businesses have upbraided the administration and withdrawn support. While still a candidate in the 2016 race, Trump claimed the election was “rigged” and implied he may not honor the outcome if he lost. Following Trump’s tepid response to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Republican politicians and businesses leaders scrambled to put distance between themselves and a president who seemed unwilling to condemn white supremacy. Yet for many, this distance was short-lived. The New York Times reports that some business leaders were happy to return to the fold to secure low tax rates and a favorable regulatory environment. These businesses, in effect, decided Trump’s tax policy and deregulation were more important than racial justice.
As someone who studies how organizations shape patterns of racial inequality through the unequal distribution of resources, both inside their organizations and elsewhere, the decision to support a policy platform based on racial grievance isn’t surprising. Nonetheless, it is important to point out that these companies’ newfound ardor for democracy was absent when the victims of disenfranchisement were mostly Black and brown. And it is difficult to claim you support diversity in the workplace while simultaneously funding policies that make workplace diversity harder to achieve.
For instance, it is no secret that the Republican party has for years supported voter suppression efforts, characterized by fraudulent claims of voter fraud and racial disenfranchisement. As New Republic staff writer Osita Nwanevu argues, corporate America has been a key contributor to the Republican Party’s local and state efforts to disenfranchise Black voters. Donations to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), including from some companies now distancing themselves from the party, like Walmart, helped fund racial gerrymandering and voter ID laws. (Nwanevu’s article lists a longer Who’s Who of American businesses that donated to the RSLC in 2020.) And the canny business act of donating to both political parties can’t buy absolution if only one of those parties is committed to racialized disenfranchisement.
That many companies see contributing to the RSLC and their voter suppression effort as simply a cost of doing business shows that producing racial inequality is, at best, an ethical conflict for them; and at worst, mundane. The insurgent’s frontal attack on America’s multiracial democracy was shocking for its brazenness and violence. But it is also a logical extension of the politics of white grievance and racial disenfranchisement that many companies have donated to along the way — a difference of degree, not of kind.
Companies supporting the Trump administration or Republican efforts that disenfranchise nonwhite voters — through political donations or serving on business councils — show just how much racial inequality, undermining of democratic norms, and nativist rhetoric they are willing to countenance in exchange for business-friendly policies. But it is important to note that policies that undermine nonwhite people’s voting rights have ripple effects that go well beyond the franchise. The right to vote can influence every aspect of a person’s life, from their ability to get a decent education to their ability to breathe clean air. When you take a step back, it’s clear that helping to limit the right to vote in exchange for a better tax rate is, at the very least, morally compromised.
It’s true, and many have noted, that many other institutional failures helped to legitimate Trump’s worst impulses. The media has been criticized for the profusion of euphemisms they used to describe white supremacy and racism. Social media companies like Twitter institutionalized double standards rationalizing Trump’s repeated violations of their terms of service that prohibit encouraging violence. Politicians whose initial principled opposition to Trump turned out to be neither principled nor opposition, and those who magnified the lies and dog-whistles about election interference, are now facing a public reckoning.
It’s a good start that businesses are also facing this reckoning and withdrawing support from the former president, alongside politicians who promoted conspiracy theories about the recent election. But ironically, withdrawing support now shows that many of these companies could have refused, long ago, to support a political program premised, from the start, on cruelty to nonwhites. Following the massive protests responding to George Floyd’s murder this summer, American corporations responded with statements and commitments to reduce racial inequality. One way businesses could make good on this effort is by ridding their company of practices — like support for politicians that disenfranchise nonwhites — that help produce the very racial inequality they claim to oppose.