Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

Corporate Anti-racism Statements Aren’t Worth the Cyberspace They’re Tweeted Through

A box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix on a store shelf in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 17, 2020 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
They’re about profit, not morals

For those of us who find corporate prose to be a frequent inducer of misery, the last days of May were little short of a preview of hell. To an already bulging dossier of mission statements, press releases, shareholder reports, and committee charters, American corporations began to add a new genre: the “anti-racism” declaration. On an aesthetic level, these tweets, Instagram posts, and mass emails offended primarily because of their excruciating banality — a near-inevitability given the fact that their content hewed to rigid ideological guidelines. Yet, for many on the right, such statements rankled because they implied that important and ongoing arguments about race and society had been settled, and we had lost. If Taco Bell is willing to concede the premises of the Black Lives Matter movement, such thinking went, what hope do conservatives have of shaping the conversation in the future?

In fact, corporate race missives are no more harbingers of conservative defeat than corporate ethics codes are heralds of a forthcoming moral paradise. To read them is to observe not the fruit of leftist persuasion but the cold-eyed realism required of actors in a market economy. To the extent that such statements mean anything at all, they merely affirm a truth that conservatives needn’t fear and ought rightly to celebrate. In a free society — in a nation that is capitalist not only in its laws but down to its marrow — profit-seeking organizations will do whatever is necessary to maximize their profit.

For most of the firms attempting to weather recent storms, whatever is necessary has been modest indeed, a state of affairs that should surprise no one given how dependent the Left has become on support from the cultural heights. At corporations such as Salesforce and Twilio, for example, assuaging the revolution has thus far required nothing more than an anodyne tweet featuring the message “We stand with the Black community.” (Actual meaning: “Please leave us out of your news cycle.”) At YouTube and Disney, rhetorical support has been accompanied by social-justice donations, but the sums in question have amounted to less than an hour’s revenue. (The companies have pledged $1 million and $5 million, respectively.) While Netflix’s tweeted assertion that “to be silent is to be complicit” is close to the despicable rallying cry du jour, even the corporate home of the Obamas can’t bring itself to declare that “silence is violence.” And these are the signifiers that American businesses are securely in the pocket of the activist Left?

As is often the case when the conservative capacity for pessimism outpaces the facts on the ground, what is required in this moment of performative “allyship” is not despondency but the healing balm of laughing at idiots. Consider, for example, that the top reply to Nike’s much-shared “Don’t Do It” video was, for many days, a GIF of looters destroying a Nike store. Or marvel at the notion that SurveyMonkey believes itself capable of moving the nation toward racial harmony via its Twitter feed. That Advance Auto Parts is actually trolling everyone with its Maoist request that “our team members recommit to the Cultural Beliefs we share” is probably too much to hope, but that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying its impassioned capitalization. Neither, for that matter, should we hesitate to chuckle at SoundCloud’s weirdly ungrammatical claim “racism experienced every day in the u.s.” Needless to say, the old-man-shouting vibe was present in the original.

If it seems ungenerous to assume insincerity as well as incompetence in such cases, the reader should note that even some on the left have begun to complain that the partnership with Big Business is not what it appears to be. Hence the assertion, in outlets from the Guardian to PRWeek, that firms are engaging in “woke-washing,” the cynical appropriation of progressive ideology for commercial ends. Hence also Vox’s grumble that “corporate platitudes and vague statements of solidarity” are “meaningless if there is no commitment to change.” The thinking conservative may, at this point, protest that corporate rhetoric does matter if it leads eventually to “change” along progressive lines, but that is exactly the demand that will one day bring cooperation with the mob to a halt. Unless a business means to transform itself into a public utility eternally funded by Democrats, it must turn its attention, finally, to profit. The uncrossable line may be stock buybacks. It may be arbitration clauses. It may be yet-more-formalized regimens of antiwhite discrimination. But there is a line. Just as a wave cannot crest forever, so the demands of post-adolescent social-media anarchists cannot be met in saecula saeculorum. The real world — rightly invoked by conservatives as a corrective to progressive fancy — simply doesn’t work like that.

Indeed, one of the lessons of 2020 may turn out to be the relative impotence of the mob rather than its strength. As I write these words, conservatives are growing increasingly fearful that “cancel culture” is transmuting into an unstoppable force, crushing beneath its boots all vestiges of heterodox opinion. Yet closer examination of the facts reveals that here, too, the success of the activist Left has been overstated. Though the number of ideological firings and resignations has undoubtedly increased in recent days, nearly every victim has been a fellow progressive or has invited abuse by groveling. Tucker Carlson soldiers on. Though minor statues have been toppled, the story will be different when the Left comes for the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. Like American corporations, the great American middle will make the occasional concession to mollify those who have a grievance. But even so flexible a people as we can bend only so far. Yes, we will probably stop teaching Huckleberry Finn in our secondary schools. But does anyone believe that the current generation of American children will be forbidden Harry Potter?

The more likely scenario is that the Left’s relationship with the culture will proceed approximately as its relationship with corporations has done: in a series of outbursts in which progressives draw themselves into a fury and then settle for what they can get. The reality TV show Cops, beloved by few, was an easy target for elimination. Paw Patrol, a cartoon whose characters include a police dog, is proving more difficult. Law & Order reruns will be harder still. Not for no reason did the business-extorting hashtag “#OpenYourPurse” briefly trend on Twitter while the plea “#RenounceProfit” was nowhere to be seen. To extract a donation is simple. (Political contributions are, after all, merely a form of speech.) What is much more difficult is altering the fundamental reality that corporations will ultimately sell what the people want to buy.

Among the many ironies of the present negotiation between Big Business and those who would secure its largesse is that it is proving beyond any doubt the arguments that animated Citizens United v. FEC. Not only are corporations obviously people, they are people from whom political tribute can be exacted. For many on the right, the proper metaphor for such a transaction is the extortion racket: “Give us what we want,” the mob declares, “or there will be trouble.” To my own way of thinking, however, the better analogy by far is prostitution. In exchange for the right to go about its business, the American corporation will tell left-wing activists that it sympathizes with their concerns and shares their troubles. This is, of course, merely playacting. As any john can attest, it doesn’t matter what a hooker says to her customer in the heat of the moment. She doesn’t really like you.

This article appears as “Not Worth the Cyberspace They’re Tweeted Through” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Graham HillardMr. Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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