The red-state drive to roll back civil rights is entering a new phase, perhaps best symbolized by Florida’s passage this week of the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill censoring how schools discuss sexual orientation. President Joe Biden’s administration is leaning more heavily into the fight, even as business leaders are retreating from the battlefield.
In multiple states, prominent companies that regularly tout their commitment to diversity and inclusion have largely stood aside as GOP-controlled legislatures and governors have approved laws that restrict voting access, curtail abortion rights and LGBTQ freedoms, and limit how teachers can discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation in public schools. The refusal of the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida’s most powerful employers, to publicly criticize Florida’s “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill as it moved through the legislature has quickly come to symbolize a retreat from the loud public opposition that many companies expressed to earlier state initiatives restricting civil liberties, such as the “bathroom bill” North Carolina Republicans approved in 2016.
Across the broad range of socially conservative initiatives that Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and the GOP state legislature have advanced since 2021, business has been “silent, silent as fuck, they are so silent,” says Florida Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani, echoing a complaint I heard across several states from Democrats and civil-rights advocates this week. “[Businesses] have other priorities, which impact their bottom line and their profits, and they view that as more important.”
The Biden administration is pointedly moving in the other direction. During 2021, many activists complained that the president was largely ignoring the red-state offensive while focusing on passing his Build Back Better economic plan and stressing his willingness to work with governors from both parties on the pandemic.
But in the past few months, the administration has notably sharpened its tone on many of these red-state efforts. The Justice Department is challenging a steadily growing list of state actions that it views as violating federal constitutional or statutory rights. In his State of the Union address last week, Biden singled out for criticism the new state laws on voting, abortion, and LGBTQ rights.
“The president is the first to say we want to work together and we want to work in bipartisanship for the American people but … we are also going to call out some of these really hateful bills that have gone after some of our most vulnerable communities,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, told me.
Since 2021, Republican-controlled states such as Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Idaho, and Montana have advanced a torrent of socially conservative legislation. This includes laws limiting access to abortion, restricting voting rights, banning transgender girls from participating in high-school or college sports, barring transition medical treatment for transgender minors, censoring how teachers can talk about current or historical racial and gender inequities, removing licensing requirements to publicly carry firearms, increasing penalties for public protesters, and immunizing drivers who hit and injure protesters.
Florida alone has passed almost every item on that list, and this week added the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill restricting classroom discussion of sexual orientation. Today the legislature passed DeSantis’s “Stop Woke” act, which restricts how not only schools but also private companies holding diversity training can discuss racial-equity issues. “The last two or three years has definitely been not even a wave; it’s an onslaught,” Eskamani told me. “It’s so intense, and every direction you turn, you have another culture war to fight back against.”
In many ways, the 23 states where Republicans now control both the governorship and state legislature are attempting to unravel “the rights revolution” of the past 60 years, in which both the Supreme Court and Congress have generally expanded the range of basic rights and liberties available nationwide. As I’ve written, the cumulative aim of these proposals is to return the U.S. to a pre-1960s world in which those basic rights and liberties vary much more from state to state.
In the process, the red states are enshrining the social priorities of a GOP coalition centered mostly on the experiences and preferences of older white Christian and nonurban voters over those of more demographically and culturally diverse younger generations. The contrast is sharpest with Generation Z, young Americans born after 1996: Almost half of the generation is nonwhite, about one-fifth of its members identify as LGBTQ, and more than one-third describe themselves as secular, unaffiliated with any religious tradition. Among the Millennial generation, born from 1980 to 1996, the numbers on each front are not quite as high, but still far above older generations.
In the first stages of the current struggle, business leaders appeared acutely conscious of staying on the sympathetic side of those rising generations, who represent most of their future employers and customers. Arguably the opening bell for the current round of socially conservative legislation was the 2016 passage of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which required people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth.
That drew a furious backlash from a wide array of business interests. Multiple companies, including PayPal, Adidas, and Deutsche Bank, rescinded plans to invest in the state. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Ringo Starr canceled concerts there. Maybe most damaging of all, in a place that so reveres basketball, the NCAA announced it would not host championship tournaments in the state and the National Basketball Association pulled its all-star game from Charlotte. Almost 70 companies joined a lawsuit against the bill. In North Carolina, companies “stepped up … and it created a real spotlight that activists on our own could not bring,” Chad Griffin, who was then the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ-rights organization, told me.
The pressure worked: The state repealed the law in 2017. That same year, a broad coalition of business leaders in Texas blocked a similar bill pushed by staunchly conservative Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
Many large employers in Georgia fought a succession of socially conservative bills there through the second half of the last decade, including a six-week abortion ban and “religious freedom” bills that would have given businesses more discretion to refuse to serve customers or hire employees who are LGBTQ. Prominent in that resistance was Disney, which cast a long shadow over the Georgia economy through its filming of Marvel movies there.
Nothing comparable to that business opposition has emerged in response to the new wave of socially conservative laws. In some cases, individual companies have spoken out against specific legislation, as Delta Air Lines, another powerful Georgia presence, did on the restrictive voting law that state Republicans passed last year. In other cases, business groups have sent letters opposing some of these initiatives. Prominent Tennessee employers, including Nissan, Dell, Amazon, and Vanderbilt University, sent a letter last year opposing a suite of bills targeting LGBTQ rights, and a similarly gilded group of Texas’s business leaders declared their opposition to Governor Greg Abbott’s recent directive to investigate parents and others who provide transition treatment for transgender minors.
But in this round of conflict, companies have not backed up their words with equivalent actions. After Tennessee last year passed all of the bills that targeted LGBTQ rights—including measures restricting classroom discussion, barring transgender girls from high-school sports, and its own version of a bathroom bill—it faced nothing like the North Carolina boycotts. Companies “really did make an example of North Carolina, and that started with one company saying ‘We’re not coming here,’ and then there was a pile-on effect,” Joe Woolley, the CEO of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, told me. “You just don’t see that right now.”
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a racial-equity organization, similarly says that the record of companies in resisting either the restrictive voting bills or legislation censoring how K–12 schools and even public universities can talk about race has “been absolutely abysmal.” Although many big corporations touted their commitment to Black History Month in February, he notes, they “are not willing to put their hand on the scale to stop the removal of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks from our public schools” or to stand up unequivocally for voting rights.
The corporate response was even more muted to the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” legislation Florida passed Tuesday. The bill provoked a series of walk-out protests from high-school students around the state. They were joined by “educators, child-welfare advocates, parents at the PTA” who have all “been on the very front line of pushing back against this,” Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, a prominent LGBTQ-rights group in the state, told me. All of that activism, she said, underscored “the overwhelming silence of the business community.”
Especially frustrating for activists was Disney’s refusal to publicly criticize the bill as it moved through the legislature. Disney World, outside Orlando, is an enormous economic force in Florida: The company’s website says it is both the most visited vacation resort on Earth and, with nearly 70,000 employees, or “cast members,” the nation’s largest single-site employer. Disney’s reticence on the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill contrasted with its activist role against other conservative legislation under its former chairman and CEO Robert Iger. Bob Chapek, Iger’s successor as CEO, has tried to sidestep these culturally polarizing political fights. In a Monday memo to Disney staff disclosed by The Hollywood Reporter, Chapek argued that the company can do more to promote tolerance “through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”
That argument did not quiet a chorus of internal critics. Griffin, now a political and public-relations strategist in Los Angeles, predicted to me on Monday that Chapek’s position of dodging fights over equality would prove “unsustainable” because it “horrified” so many of the workers and creative talent the company relies upon. “I’ve heard from many folks internally at Disney at all levels, and I get the sense that the anger and unrest is at a fever pitch,” Griffin said. “The view is: Bob Chapek is either getting really, really bad advice or he is forging a path at Disney that abandons years of goodwill that company’s worked to build with LGBTQ employees and customers and talent.” Yesterday, Chapek suddenly reversed course and told a shareholders’ meeting that the company had privately opposed the bill and that he had called DeSantis that morning to condemn it. But even after the switch, Chapek is still facing continued pressure from employees and activist groups for more concrete actions against the legislation.
To many critics of this corporate behavior, the most visible manifestation of the waning commitment is companies’ refusal to cut off donations for political officials pushing the ideas that they claim to oppose. The independent journalist and activist Judd Legum has chronicled a long list of businesses that assert their support for LGBTQ rights but have contributed to officeholders in Florida and Texas who are pushing to retrench those rights.
Why have so many companies backed away from these fights? Some corporate lobbyists I spoke with said one reason is they believe public opposition is counterproductive because more Republican elected officials in the Donald Trump era find it politically valuable to be seen fighting big companies. Businesses also frequently complain that the widening gulf between the parties leaves them in a lose-lose position of alienating an important block of potential customers wherever they come down in policy debates. (Activists, though, point out that businesses often try to have it both ways by rhetorically identifying with causes such as inclusion and diversity without taking tangible steps to defend them.)
But another factor probably looms larger than any of those considerations: However much they want to publicly align with the values of younger consumers and workers, big companies want to go only so far in fighting these proposals, because they still mostly prefer Republicans to control state governments and deliver the low-tax, light-regulation policies they favor. State Republicans in turn have grown more overt about threatening those benefits when business leaders raise objections to the culture-war components of their agenda. When American Airlines criticized the restrictive voting bill Texas passed last year, Lieutenant Governor Patrick openly threatened to kill other legislation the company cared about.
As business steps back, the Biden administration, after a slow start, is leaning in. “We are looking at where we can be a critical voice of support—from the president lending his voice and making sure folks know he has their back … [to] working with our agencies to see what they can do to continue to uphold some of the basic rights for these communities,” Chavez Rodriguez said.
The White House recently convened Florida activists and elected officials to discuss the state’s newly passed 15-week abortion ban, and has held similar sessions with LGBTQ advocates from Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. When Abbott issued his directive labeling transition care for minors “child abuse,” Biden issued a pointed statement declaring that “the Governor’s actions callously threaten to harm children and their families just to score political points.” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called the action “discriminatory and unconscionable” and promised to “use every tool at our disposal to keep Texans safe.”
Biden also tweeted stern opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill, and when it passed on Tuesday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a stronger statement of condemnation than he’s offered on any of the earlier state-level bills targeting curriculum. Cardona hinted that the Florida law might violate Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education (defined last year by the department as including sexual orientation), and could trigger a civil-rights investigation.
Month by month, the Justice Department has joined, or initiated, a much broader range of legal actions against these state moves than is commonly recognized. It has filed lawsuits against voting restrictions passed in Georgia and Texas and the Texas abortion law, and sued to overturn a Missouri law barring local officials from enforcing federal gun legislation. It has also joined litigation against an Arkansas law restricting transition care for transgender youth, a West Virginia statute barring transgender girls from school sports, and a Florida school district requiring a transgender student to use the bathroom of his gender identity at birth. It joined a Texas case arguing that Governor Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (as well as a similar lawsuit in South Carolina) and sued Texas directly to block another Abbott order requiring state troopers to stop vehicles transporting undocumented migrants through the state. The department has also joined a lawsuit against a Florida statute DeSantis signed making it easier to charge protesters as rioters, and the litigation against the Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices may use to overturn Roe v. Wade. The common theme, as Attorney General Merrick Garland declared when he announced the lawsuit against the Texas abortion law, is that “the United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that no state can deprive individuals of their constitutional rights.”
This record is winning praise even from some civil-rights activists who questioned the administration’s early commitment to these fights. “I do see an effort to engage, an effort to use the bully pulpit and to highlight their willingness to fight,” Nsé Ufot, the chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project, a community organizing group founded by Stacey Abrams, told me.
Although activists welcome the White House’s increased political and legal attention, how much the administration can practically do to slow the red-state advance is unclear. Biden has backed federal legislation that would largely undo the red-state actions on voting, LGBTQ rights, and abortion, but each of those bills, after passing the House, has been blocked by Senate Republican filibusters. All legal challenges from the administration or civil-rights groups ultimately face the steep wall of the six Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices; far from limiting these laws, the Court has already opened the door for states to roll back voting access and is expected to do the same on abortion rights later this year. Indeed, some officials in the Biden administration believe that signals of sympathy from the six justices are one of the principal reasons for the explosion of state laws crimping civil rights and liberties.
Robinson, from Color of Change, said that the most important thing Biden can do now is mobilize more public opposition by better defining the stakes and contours of the struggle unfolding on so many fronts across so many states. “You are in the middle of a deep fight with people who want to take us backwards … and he is not treating opponents like we are in that kind of fight,” Robinson said. “As a result, he is not welcoming people into the fight.” Although Robinson welcomes the administration’s legal challenges to many of the red-state laws, “if all of the fight is happening with lawyers at the Department of Justice, it’s not a mobilizing force.”
One priority that’s clear to the civil-rights activists confronting the red-state cultural offensive is that mobilization on these issues can’t be confined solely to the political arena. Each person I talked with said they believe that companies have engaged in fights to protect civil rights and civil liberties not out of altruism but because of pressure from their employees and consumers—more and more of whom are drawn from the kaleidoscopically diverse younger generations. More of that pressure to organize workers and consumers, they maintain, will be necessary to compel business back into the ring as these struggles rage on.
“As more stories come out about how these bills are being [implemented],” Robinson said, these companies “are going to be held accountable for their role in this in ways that will only become more challenging and more intense for them.”