So there’s this interesting social justice question that has some people puzzled. Why do businesses and businesspeople continue to do things that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, classist, etc. — even when it works against their own immediate, tangible interests?
I was thinking about this when I was listening to the Cracked podcast interview with Andrew Ti, of Yo, Is This Racist? Ti was talking, among many other things, about TV producers who are weirdly not cranking out a dozen “Empire” ripoffs — even though the show is hugely successful, and even though TV is one of the most derivative industries around. (Ti was mostly talking about the sad excuses given by network execs for why they weren’t making more shows like “Empire.”)
But this question comes up a lot. It comes up in discussions of why bakers won’t sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples — even in the midst of a same-sex wedding boom. It comes up in discussions of housing, and why landlords and homeowners are less likely, even flatly unwilling, to rent or sell to black people. It comes up in discussions of hiring, and why employers reject highly qualified job candidates who would contribute greatly to their company, simply because those candidates are women/ people of color/ transgender/ otherwise marginalized. It’s absurdly common for businesspeople to perpetuate bigotry, either consciously or unconsciously — even when it means the loss of immediate, substantial profit. And this cuts across a large variety of businesses.
Sometimes this phenomenon gets treated with bafflement. “They’re so foolish! Don’t they realize they’re losing money?” Sometimes it gets treated as cause for optimism. “This means we’ll eventually win! Market forces and natural greed will break down bigotry and oppression! Capitalism will prevail!”
I don’t see it that way. I think it says something completely different. I think it says this:
The fact that people keep doing bigoted things, even when it works against their immediate financial interests, shows just how valuable privilege is.
Even if you lose money by not making a dozen “Empire” ripoffs, you still gain by perpetuating white privilege.
Even if you lose money by not renting or selling to black people, you still gain by perpetuating white privilege.
Even if you lose money by not hiring talented women, you still gain by perpetuating male privilege.
Even if you lose money by not selling gelato to the hundreds of attendees at an atheist convention, you still gain by perpetuating religious privilege, and more specifically Christian privilege.
Even if you lose money by refusing to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples, you still gain by perpetuating heterosexual privilege.
Think of it this way. Think about affirmative action, and the arguments that are most commonly marshaled against it. “You’re lowering the bar! You’re diluting the talent pool! By going out of your way to look for qualified black people, Hispanic people, women, disabled people, LGBT people — you’re discriminating against all those super-talented straight cisgender able-bodied white guys!”
If we think about this “reasoning” for six seconds, it becomes clear how absurd it is. Expanding a job search to look for qualified people who might not otherwise have been considered — that’s not diluting the talent pool. That’s expanding it. That’s getting more talented people into consideration.
And that’s exactly the problem.
Affirmative action doesn’t lower the bar. Affirmative action brings in more competition.
If you only have to compete against straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class men — you’re going to do a whole lot better than if you’re competing against, you know, everyone. And if you’re only okay at your job — which, let’s face it, an awful lot of people are — more competition means you won’t do so well. (To use just one example: When Major League Baseball began to racially integrate, a lot of marginal white players wound up getting cut.)
And jobs are just one example. This phenomenon plays out in pretty much every business where conscious or unconscious bigotry exists — which is to say, pretty much every business.
Privilege is profitable. It’s profitable in thousands of observable, well-documented ways. It’s profitable in the long run, in the medium run, in the short run. In the (usually) unconscious cost-benefit analysis of “bigotry” versus “equality,” privilege is so profitable that perpetuating it is worth losing out on large bundles of cash being dangled right in front of your nose.
So what do we do?
We need to keep putting on the pressure.
We need to make it a whole lot harder to be bigoted than it is not to be. We need to make bigotry more inconvenient, more time-consuming, more costly. When businesspeople say and do bigoted things, we need to make it result in a PR nightmare and some expensive lawsuits and a whole bunch of customers saying, “Screw you, we’re taking our business elsewhere.” Market forces are not going to do it on their own: we need to create the forces that push things in our direction. (Please note that when pundits decry the so-called “witch hunts” and “lynch mobs” consisting of a whole lot of people on the Internet saying, “That’s racist,” “That’s sexist,” “That’s transphobic,” etc. — they’re basically saying, “Please stop putting pressure on people to not be bigoted. Please stop making bigotry inconvenient.”)
Privilege is profitable. We need to make it a huge pain in the ass. We need to make the cost-benefit analysis skew on the side of equality. We need to make bigotry not worth it.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.