Editorial: Who really benefits from boycotts in the South?

Bruce Springsteen, who recently cancelled a concert in North Carolina in response to the state's H.B. 2. Image courtesy Jolanda Bakker.

This spring, a wave of violent and bigoted legislation swept through Southern state legislatures. Targeting LGBTQ communities, lawmakers in states from North Carolina to Mississippi tried and mostly succeeded in legalizing discrimination on religious grounds. These new laws protect those who would deny employment or refuse services—from counseling, to adoption, to wedding officiation—to LGBTQ people, and in some cases anyone else whose existence offends their avowed religious convictions.

North Carolina and Mississippi went as far as to police access to restrooms, locker rooms, and even spas, based on biological sex—a direct and violent affront to transgender people. And buried within North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law are provisions that attack workers’ rights by pre-empting local minimum wage ordinances and removing important legal channels for addressing employment discrimination.

In defiance, Southerners have taken to the streets, the state houses, and the media to fight against discrimination, stand up for workers’ rights, demand safety for all, and empower the vulnerable.

A less populist sort have also come out swinging against the barrage of anti-LGBTQ and anti-worker legislation. In recent weeks, powerful corporations, famous entertainers, politicians, and even national governments have announced their opposition to these pending bills and new laws by withdrawing investments, cancelling concerts, boycotting, and otherwise suspending business with Southern states like North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

PayPal and Deutsche Bank have pulled jobs from North Carolina, and the National Basketball Association is threatening to relocate its 2017 All-Star Game. A long list of entertainers including Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, and Cirque du Soleil have canceled major events in the Tar Heel state. Meanwhile, about a dozen city, county, and state governments from across the country have banned their public employees from travelling to North Carolina and Mississippi, and the government of the United Kingdom has issued a travel warning for LGBTQ persons planning to visit those states.

The editors of Scalawag respect boycotts as a tool for resisting injustice. In many contexts, boycotts send a clear signal of resistance, and make it difficult for unjust practices to continue. However, we also know that this tool is most powerful when it directly targets those who benefit most from injustice, not when it bluntly drains resources from already poor regions. We’re not convinced that withdrawing jobs, cancelling arena concerts, or pulling investments is actually helping Southerners get free, achieve safety, gain respect, or become better off.

We are more certain, however, that these boycotts and travel bans have significant symbolic benefits for the individuals and organizations who use them to distance themselves from injustice. Used poorly, boycotts become tools for achieving a cheap moral high ground. We worry that corporate divestments function more as positive P.R. for the companies rather than support for real change here.

Two reports by the Institute for Southern Studies strongly indicate that this is the case. They show that many of the same companies now opposing anti-LGBTQ laws in Mississippi and North Carolina actually helped elect the very lawmakers who concocted them. The hypocrisy isn’t confined to money-in-politics. We wonder how Deutsche Bank finds North Carolina too inegalitarian for its tastes while overseeing private wealth management in places like the Kingdom (Kingdom!) of Saudi Arabia.

Further, we’re not sure that capital works in the clean and innocent way that is suggested when businesses threaten to withdraw investments for moral reasons. We’d be interested to know, for example, whether PayPal’s principle investors and directors have fully removed their own investments in our states, or if it’s just the recognizable brand that has pulled money out. And call us paranoid, but we’d like some assurance that these high-minded companies won’t jump back into the pool if courts should overturn the flagrantly anti-LGBTQ aspects of legislation like North Carolina’s H.B. 2, but preserve their violently anti-worker and anti-regulatory provisions.

Worse yet is the illusion produced by travel bans and travel warnings. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned non-essential travel to North Carolina, he took the opportunity to affirm the pro-LGBT bona fides of his own state. “From Stonewall to marriage equality, our state has been a beacon of hope and equality for the LGBT community, and we will not stand idly by as misguided legislation replicates the discrimination of the past.”

The rhetorical effect of the New York travel ban, and especially the U.K. travel advisory, is not simply to suggest that North Carolina, Mississippi, and other Southern states are uniquely dangerous for LGBTQ persons, but that New York and the U.K. have—miraculously—achieved some kind of exceptional level of safety for these persons. We respectfully disagree. LGBTQ people—especially queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people—are safer in communities where they are empowered and loved, and this requires social transformation far beyond official state or federal protections. Spaces like that are few and far between, in New York, the U.K., and in the South. But we know quite a few people here, on the ground, who are working to change that. And it doesn’t help their work to warn allies against showing up to lend a hand.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the boycott hoopla is how it obfuscates that grassroots work. When Springsteen and DiFranco released public statements cancelling their shows, the media picked up on only two things: the high-mindedness of the artists, and the fucked-up-ness of our home states. What gets lost between those two narratives is the reality of Southerners doing the hard work of living through, and fiercely fighting against, injustice.

The South is home to many social justice organizations—urban and rural, new and old—with deep experience, strong community ties, and fierce ground games. Fighting on this particular front are groups like Southerners On New Ground, Sister Song, SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, The Freedom Center for Social Justice, Mississippi in Action, Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, and the Gay Straight Alliance Network, to name a handful. And for every issue that impacts our lives, from housing to education to policing and beyond, there are countless people down here doing difficult, local, and intimate person-to-person social justice work every day.

We know that progressive Southerners need allies from beyond the region, but we need those allies to actually support our struggles, instead of merely advertising their own noble opposition to flagrantly unjust laws.

So, Bruce, see you at the next rally?