The relative horror of Donald Trump’s presidency warps public memory, making old pariahs—Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, even the late John McCain—no longer seem that bad. Yet of all the realigned allies and rehabilitated reputations, perhaps the most troubling remains the media rebranding of corporations as civil rights advocates.
In a Slate essay immediately after the 2016 election, Daniel Gross insisted that “in Trump’s America, in many respects, Fortune 500 companies will be far more progressive, and far more significant forces for progressive causes, than Washington.” After Trump’s inauguration, Daily Beast correspondent Amy Zimmerman quipped that companies like Coca-Cola and Airbnb raised “the biggest middle fingers” to him with their multicultural Super Bowl ads. In the wake of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, CNBC and Fortune reported that Silicon Valley CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook were “slamming” the administration. After denouncing neo-Nazis, CEOs of companies like JPMorgan Chase earned praise in David Gelles’s New York Times piece “The Moral Voice of Corporate America” and condemnation in John Carney’s Breitbart article “Corporate Antifa: CEOs Revolt Against American Democracy.”
The narrative is misleadingly simple: Frustrated by Trump’s intolerance, American corporations have stepped in to defend civil rights. But desperation distorts, and in today’s private sector, discrimination slips under the radar. Since Trump became president, Ford has been sued for weeding out disabled applicants, Koch Foods settled a lawsuit for letting managers hit and grope Hispanic workers, Walmart settled one for illegally firing a blind and deaf cart pusher, the Cato Corporation ousted workers for getting pregnant, UPS failed to accommodate pregnant employees, Dollar General avoided hiring black job seekers, Uber retaliated against sexually harassed staffers, and American Airlines refused work to disabled employees. This is a mere fraction of the equal employment cases argued during the president’s tenure. Yet since we’ve sailed into the moral Bermuda Triangle that is Trump’s presidency, corporations, which often end up as defendants in class-action civil rights lawsuits, pose as liberal allies.
In a Vanity Fair article in which CEOs again denounced the Trump administration over its stance on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Maya Kosoff posited that tech leaders wanted to protect immigrant children so badly, they’d fight for Dreamers “even if it costs their companies money…. In calling for Congress to focus on finding a legislative fix to protect Dreamers, tech companies are effectively prioritizing the immigration issue over tax reform.” But the tax cuts cleared Congress. DACA didn’t.
Despite the grandstanding and chest-pounding of companies like IBM, FedEx, and Facebook, earnings still matter more than equality. That the private sector’s pressure campaigns failed to extend DACA, end the Muslim travel ban, or reverse Trump’s trans military ban yet succeeded in slashing taxes, lowering emission standards, and reducing environmental protections shows where the interests of the so-called special interests still lie. Corporate influence remains so crooked that last year, after losing in court to former employee Sheryl Hubbell, FedEx owed more on a gender discrimination and retaliation judgment than it did in corporate taxes. Many companies aren’t simply floundering in their support for civil and human rights in the Trump era; they often go to war against those rights.
Whether one considers the American International Automobile Dealers Association’s efforts to weaken fair lending guidelines, the American Bankers Association’s lobbying to loosen redlining regulations, or Comcast’s arguments against the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Trump’s election has marked not the dawn of a new era of enlightened business ethics but the continuation of privatized affronts to civil rights.
The recent wave of feel-good stories about private sector do-gooders is a mirage. Firms like McKinsey & Company consulted for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and continue to function as legally mandated, profit-seeking organizations whose efforts are often angled against equality in the name of efficiency. That’s just business. Some brands embrace celebrities like Colin Kaepernick, as Nike did, and flirt with the imagery and rhetoric of resistance marketing because it’s popular among their millennial consumers. But that’s just PR. In truth, Trump’s election provided a face-lift for many companies whose public profile sagged after the Great Recession and Bernie Sanders’s populist 2016 campaign. In this new political age, however, we should be particularly wary of embracing rebranded corporate identities as civil rights victories. After all, these companies have been using such PR tactics for years.
During the Nixon administration, corporations assumed the guise of civil rights advocates. In the early 1970s, insurance companies, banks, and real estate agents promised they’d provide a private sector solution to the problem of long-segregated African American communities, with fair access to housing. They sold it as a win-win enterprise. Yet as Princeton historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor chronicles in her book Race for Profit, the liberal ally persona functioned as a ruse to extract more money from already ransacked black neighborhoods. Instead of building homes, entrepreneurs relabeled decrepit slums. Speculators hid fire damage, warped floors, loose wires, faulty boilers, and leaking pipes. Sellers pulled the wooden boards off buildings condemned for demolition and flipped units unfit for human habitation to black buyers. The homes crumbled, and support for fair housing collapsed along with them.
Despondent, well-intentioned liberals are looking to the private sector for answers. But in a country where trans workers lose their jobs for being trans and where black women on average earn just 61 percent of what white men do, we can’t trust the instincts of a group of businesses that play both sides of the fence and whose true loyalties follow only profit. Instead, businesses must be compelled by law to treat people equally and to ensure rights independent of our age, ability, race, gender, color, or creed.