As Republican-led states ramp up their attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion in education, corporate America's values are being tested.
For far too long, businesses have avoided denouncing policies that silence marginalized communities, preferring instead to strike a nonpartisan pose for fear of angering stakeholders.
While the motivation may be their bottom lines, corporate pushback can compel politicians to think twice because it comes with the potential for financial and reputational damage.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's "anti-woke" policies offer the public a front-row seat in the shift of corporate responsibility. Penguin Random House, the world's largest publisher, recently filed a federal lawsuit against a Florida school district and its board, alleging their book bans violate the 1st and 14th Amendments. (It was joined in that suit by the nonprofit PEN America.) Walt Disney Co. also abandoned its plan for a $1 billion campus in Florida, which reportedly would have brought 2,000 jobs to the state.
Disney offers a clear example of how things are changing. When Florida's notorious "Parental Rights in Education" bill - more commonly known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill - was introduced in 2022, at first Disney didn't say a word. When pressure from employees and consumers finally compelled it to act, it only offered a tepid critique.
For a while, it felt like the juggernaut of anti-wokeism was unstoppable, so it's heartening to see organizations getting more involved.
As a tenured professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies, I've seen these battles play out in academia. In my state of Ohio, a bill that would ban university employees from striking and base tenure around "bias" evaluations of educators recently passed the state senate. It would fundamentally change how professors research, and students learn at Ohio's public colleges and universities.
All of this is happening under the guise of expanding free speech and intellectual diversity. But if it were really about free speech, why are the anti-woke crusaders putting entire academic disciplines on the chopping block?
What's happening across the country isn't about expanding intellectual freedom. It's based in the misguided perception that U.S. institutions - especially colleges and universities - are "too liberal." And it has calcified into a movement that now threatens millions of people attending and working at these institutions.
When elected officials make flippant, derisive or ignorant remarks about gender studies, ethnic studies, African and African American studies, or LGBTQIA+ people, they reveal their contempt for disciplines that challenge students to be critical thinkers and knowledgeable of historical and contemporary events from a multitude of informed, peer-reviewed, and well-researched perspectives. Anti-woke crusaders want college graduates who are uncritically patriotic and future at-will employees with little to no recourse against being underpaid, undervalued and disposable.
Even prior to this current flurry of anti-education bills, historically white colleges and universities were often hostile and inhospitable places for minoritized students, faculty, and staff, as well as to fields of study that explore power, difference, inequity, marginalization and oppression. I've now been a student or faculty member on multiple college and university campuses for over 20 years. I could write tomes about the anti-Blackness, misogyny and sexism I've endured in the ivory tower.
When it comes to rallying against inequity and injustice, most corporations' stances can seem performative and paper-thin. After worldwide protests erupted following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, companies pledged to prioritize diversity. A simple Google search will show just how empty those promises have become.
But in a society where corporations have outsized influence on our political discourse, hitting the finances and labor markets of states clamoring to excise the freedom to learn from higher education may make a difference.
Perhaps more corporations will join in the fight for diversity and equality - and without flip-flopping. (I'm looking at you, Los Angeles Dodgers and Target.) I'm not holding my breath, but I hope how much consumers have come to value diversity and inclusion is a motivation.
If corporations continue to step up, they should look inward to shortcomings around their treatment of minoritized people and hesitation to weigh in on social justice issues. A good indication of this is looking at how diverse their leadership teams are. In academia, the fight is for the preservation of intellectual rigor, academic freedom, the right to organize, and the preservation and transmission of knowledge produced within and about minoritized communities. But if companies refuse to act, the effects will be far-reaching. Employees across all sectors and average citizens will be left alone to fight for adequate benefits, enfranchisement and representation in the workplace. No matter what companies decide, we will continue to stand up for our livelihoods and for a more equitable and just world.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Treva B. Lindsey is an author and professor of women's studies at Ohio State University.