Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Last week, the state of Florida decided to revoke Disney's special status, which allowed it to operate as a self-governing municipality in Florida. That means they will no longer be able to make decisions about expansion unilaterally, but it also has implications that have yet to be resolved about who will pay for basic services like power, waste, roads, and fire management. Now, we're going to circle back to Disney in just a moment, but let's go back in time a bit and revisit a 2016 battle in the state where I live, North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You see, in 2016, North Carolina Republican lawmakers passed House Bill 2. It came to be known as the Bathroom Bill. The legislation targeted transgender people in North Carolina by requiring localities to regulate the use of public bathrooms along rigid gender lines. Following the passage of the bill, LGBTQ people and organizations urged businesses and corporations to cease doing business with the Tar Heel state.
Apple, GE, Nike, Microsoft, and dozens of other major businesses voiced their opposition to HB2; canceled events in the state, and some even barred employees from traveling to North Carolina for business purposes. It was the NCAA that really raised the stakes when they announced that they'd be pulling their championship games from the state. Here's NCAA president, Mark Emmert speaking with CBS News about that decision.
Mark Emmert: This is an issue about whether or not we could conduct championships inside the state that reflect. Our values, the core values of fairness and inclusion are central to what the NCAA and college education is all about. The board had to make a judgment call about whether or not to continue through this year and they decided to pull a championship.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Six months later, Republican governor, Pat McCrory was out having lost his bid for reelection, and lawmakers passed a bill partially repealing HB2. Now, LGBTQ advocates were not entirely satisfied, but it was enough for the NCAA and they allowed championship games to once again, take place in North Carolina. Now, it wasn't a total victory for LGBTQ advocacy groups, but the process was a lesson in the very particular power that corporations can wield in state legislative battles. It seems that Florida lawmakers may have taken a somewhat different lesson from the 2016 North Carolina Bathroom Bill battle.
Ron DeSantis: Ultimately this state is governed by the best interest of the people of this state, not by any one corporation. We're not going to let them take over the state and I think this is an example.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, signing a bill on Friday that will dissolve the district created decades ago in order to give Disney a special tax status Fort Orlando Theme Park. DeSantis and other Republican politicians in the state targeted Disney after the company's CEO told shareholders that the company is against the new Florida law restricting the ability of teachers to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, more widely known by critics as The Don't Say Gay bill. If the lesson of 2016 North Carolina was about the power of business and legislative battles, well, the lessons of 2022 show that the Florida empire can indeed strike back.
For more, I'm joined now by Carlos Ball, law professor at Rutgers University, an author of The Queering of Corporate America. Carlos, thanks for being here.
Carlos Ball: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the statewide LGBTQ rights organization. Nadine, great to have you here as well.
Nadine Smith: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Nadine, let me start with you. What do you make of this bill that the governor signed on Friday to end Disney's special tax status?
Nadine Smith: Well, what we're experiencing in Florida right now is the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely. There's been 25 years of Republican rule under DeSantis. He has consolidated every level of government from the Supreme Court to the House and the Senate, and he acts with impunity. In fact, the legislators could stay home and he could simply write the laws and there'd be no difference.
He is essentially drunk with power, and he's made it very clear that this tyrannical temper tantrum is punishment for a company expressing its values, standing up for its people, trying to create an environment that draws top talent. How that is showing up in Florida is we are seeing not just as an attack on the LGBT community, we are replaying history. In Florida, we had The Johns Committee that went after civil rights advocates and gay people in the education system.
Then we had Anita Bryant who launched her Save Our Children campaign, using the same rhetoric of calling gay people, groomers, and pedophiles. She was backed by the moral majority, and their main issue at that time wasn't abortion. It was school integration. Once again, we see how these appeals to racial panic and anti-LGBT panic going hand in hand, and they always serve the same purpose, which is to consolidate power by sewing division and whipping up fear.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Carlos, I have to say part of what I find most shocking about this, on the one hand, Nadine is giving us here this history where we can see the echoes, maybe even the direct line of previous experiences. On the other hand, I've taught about Disney in sociology and political science classes for decades. In what world is Disney woke?
Carlos Ball: I think it says quite a bit about our politics in 2022, that a huge corporation that has, for decades now, been limiting its representation of figures and animal cartoons and animated movies to essentially a very heterosexual gender binary dominated images. The fact that Disney of all companies is how being called out by the right as being this corporation that is interested in "gender-bending America" is really quite frightening, that such a large corporation can be the subject of this retaliation when it has been actually reflective through the decades of a very narrow understanding, I would argue, of both human sexuality and human gender.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nadine, again, let's go into this. As Carlos is pointing out in everything from its representations to its very long history in anti-communist politics to a hetero-normative politics, some pretty concerning racial politics that has marked Disney's long tenure. The other piece is Disney's been good business. The notion that by revoking this special tax status, there's a real possibility that we're going to see a tax hike for many Florida residents, that does seem to go directly against what conservative lawmakers say that they stand for at their core.
Nadine Smith: I think the assumption there is that there is a core. Right now, the only thing that motivates DeSantis and the Republican party is power. DeSantis is intending to usurp Trump. His audience is not Floridians. He doesn't care about the fallout for many of his actions. He's speaking to a national audience of his base of people who are terrified in the aftermath of the uprisings after George Floyd's murder, who see a generation emerging that embraces the multiracial future of America. For them, this is their last stand, this is their great white hope.
This is the messaging that he brings that "I will stop this education from existing in our schools. I will erase the things that make you uncomfortable. I will build the wall." All of these things are a reaction to not only the Obama presidency, but the demographic reality that we are increasingly a nation of older white people and younger brown people, what they call the graying of America and the browning of America.
That demographic collision is at the heart of the existential panic that is empowering the DeSantises of the world. He's willing to gut Florida's university system to corrupt any independence of any science-based entities in our state because his audience is the small-dollar donors nationwide that fill his coffers every time he shows up on Fox News.
I think it's important to say it this way; this isn't about a company getting involved in politics. The companies that are being political are the ones who are keeping their mouth shut, ducking and covering and hope it blows over. The ones that are not being political are the ones who are actually trying to walk the talk of these values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, who understand what it takes to draw and keep talent.
Corporations are motivated not first and foremost by values that come from the heart, but values that protect the pocketbook, and so they don't want to hemorrhage talent. The pressure that companies are feeling right now largely has come from within the. organizations saying, "Be who you said you were when you recruited me. Be who you said you were when you trained us and said you were going to create a safe environment where my family will be protected."
There's a reason that the military has said they're willing to transfer military families out of states where their kids aren't safe because of this, the inundation of these anti-LGBT laws. Me and my older brothers were born on military bases in Maine because it was the only base my family could be stationed at. We're seeing the same constriction of rights, demonizing, stigmatizing. I will say this, the companies that aren't being political are the ones who will say, "These are our values. We're going to stand up for our people and we're going to push back on things that cause harms."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carlos and Nadine, pause with me for just a moment. We've got lots more on this issue right here on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back. We've been taking a look at the battle raging between Disney and Florida lawmakers. Still with me are Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, and Carlos Ball, professor of law at Rutgers University.
Carlos, I want to come to you on this because this shifting incentive structure that Nadine laid out for us here, I think is critical for understanding what may happen next, not only in this particular battle but going forward. What are the lessons that corporations are drawing from what's happening in Florida right now? Duck and cover is maybe a good way to describe basic MBA teaches who don't get involved, don't make ways, don't end up on the front page. Yet I'm wondering is protecting the bottom line for investors actually shifting so that now getting involved, having a say, is the more appropriate corporate strategy?
Carlos Ball: No. Melissa, I'm concerned, going forward, about the extent to which what's happening in Florida now and what hasn't been happening over the last few months in other states is actually going to lead corporations essentially not to put too fine a point on it, to go back into the closet so to speak. I think it's interesting to compare what happened in North Carolina in 2016 with what is happening in Florida today.
In North Carolina in 2016, there was a very effective coalition between large corporations. I want to make the point that it wasn't just large corporations who were opposed to the bathroom law. It was, of course, civil rights groups. It was LGBTQ groups. It was unions. It was universities. Together they mounted really a formidable political opposition to that law.
I don't see that same type of united assertive corporate response to what is happening now, not only in Florida but also in response to all of these statutes that are being enacted across the country, including statutes that are prohibiting transgender students from competing in athletic competitions in schools and that are requiring children to use bathrooms in public schools that match the gender and their birth certificate, as opposed to the gender with which they identify.
While I understand that The Don't Say Gay law has received a lot of attention in part because of the retaliation against Disney, we are in the middle of a hurricane of laws that are targeting LGBTQ people across the country. What I see is primarily corporate silence in response to those laws, very different to what happened in 2014, '15, and '16. That worries me very much going forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nadine, let me ask you, because this point of corporate silence, is your organization working with corporations to try to break those silences?
Nadine Smith: Well, I think it's a debt check moment for CEOs in America. I think that the idea that you can appease somebody as corrupted by power as DeSantis is foolish. In fact, it's good that we began this conversation in North Carolina because the lesson that Republicans took from that was to punish companies into silence. We saw it in Georgia shortly after North Carolina where I think it was Delta and Coca-Cola spoke out after some pressure about voter suppression targeting Black voters, and immediately the state legislature there was punitive and retributive just as we're seeing in Florida.
This woke corporation language is intended to be the shot across the bow that says, "If you shut up, there's a bag of publicly funded goodies we'll make available to you. If you speak up, we will make an example of you." In the face of a bully, your choices are to keep giving over your lunch money to keep capitulating or to stand up. I think for all of us, we're going to have to stand up. Corporations are going to have to stop being not just political but politically cowardly and they're going to have to start doing the right thing by their employees.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nadine Smith is Executive Director of Equality Florida. Carlos Ball is professor of law at Rutgers University. Thank you both for joining us.
Nadine Smith: Thank you.
Carlos Ball: Thank you for having us.
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