The recent horrific slaughter of nine innocent people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church – solely because they were black – by a white supremacist has drawn attention to a lingering and distressing reality: namely, the continued existence and sale of symbols of rebellious states and their cause – slavery – which can serve as sources of recruitment and identification for individuals with racist and bigoted views.
It is disturbing that this realization has taken so long and even more disturbing that the public display of those symbols long had been supported by far too many state governments, politicians, voters and, yes, businesses.
While selling a product isn’t the same as advocating its use, there are certain issues, ideas and practices with which no legitimate business should associate. Symbols of the Confederacy are, and have always been, about oppression and rebellion, and ought to be among those items.
As a result, numerous retailers have begun to withdraw merchandise with Confederate symbols from their stores. While I would never advocate outlawing such merchandise, it is time it returned to where it belongs, the dark recesses of the retail world.
But why did it take them so long for companies to see this as an ethical issue?
Retailers and the right thing
I direct the D Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, and it astounds me that it took this kind of tragedy for retailers to acknowledge the evils sewn into the fabric of the Confederate flag.
As I look at the list of retailers that have taken this decision so far – including Walmart, Amazon and Sears – I must say that I am unsure if they are merely opportunists or obtuse. There clearly is no true virtuousness in their actions. Even rats leave a sinking ship.
There is, however, definite value in their recognition of the magnitude of the public’s revulsion. Of equal value, the decision itself also further serves to increase that opprobrium. These retailers deserve to be acknowledged for doing the right thing, but please do not honor them. One should not be rewarded for stopping what one never should have done.
Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben
The late 20th century saw a process of numerous companies eliminating or reconfiguring longstanding, even iconic, symbols of their products because of their racist connotations.
Examples such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben come to mind. But even there, the companies took action only once others began to complain loudly.
Quaker Oats, for example, which acquired the Aunt Jemima brand in 1925, only gradually updated the image on its syrup bottles and other packages, according to Philly.com. Her “knotted head rag” became a headband in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement. In 1989, she got a gray-streaked perm, a dainty lace collar and pearl earrings. Blacks had long complained about its earlier images of an “overweight, smiling domestic.”
Uncle Ben, owned by Mars, was reborn in 2007 as simply Ben, “an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his ‘grains of wisdom’ about rice and life,” the New York Times reported.
Uncle Ben first appeared in advertising in 1946 and has long been racially contentious because the character’s dress was evocative of servants, with a title that reflected how white Southerners once used “uncle” and “aunt” as honorifics for older blacks.
This demonstrates how ignorant companies can be about the world in which they operate and their lethargy when it comes to addressing change, particularly social change. Too few companies lead, as some have done on gay rights. Mostly they respond.
What took so long
Fundamentally, businesses are not instruments of social change. Their focus is on turning a profit, not morality or patriotism (unless it helps sell their product) — it’s the fiduciary responsibility of corporate boards.
If a company can improve its bottom line by moving offshore, outsourcing work, or eschewing US-based materials, it often will do so, regardless of the consequences. It’s a similar case with the business decision over removing from store shelves symbols of the Confederacy, which were deemed so dishonorable that a constitutional amendment deprived Confederate political and military officers of their civil rights (read section two of the 14th Amendment).
Second, the market’s emphasis on consumer preference rather than the public good makes it difficult for businesspeople to pull suspect products. If a significant percentage of the market prefers items that represent some view, regardless of how despicable, they will sell, unless public pressure makes them withdraw it.
Finally, far too many businesses and other entities ignore the social consequences of their actions and their products, from environmental harms to safety and health hazards, from promoting cultural stereotypes to avoiding sanction regimes. This is slowly changing, but not rapidly enough.
From ISIL to the Conservative Citizens Council – the white supremacist group cited by Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof to justify his actions – the war against those who oppose liberal, democratic and pluralistic values is and must be seen, I believe, as a single war, an all-encompassing war, a total war. Walmart, Amazon, Sears and others finally have begun to play their part. Now it is time for all of us to play ours.