Woke Capitalism Is Good, Actually (Kinda)
If you watched the recent US Men’s National Team friendlies, you might have noticed the players wearing rainbow numbers because June is Pride month. And if you’re an FC Cincinnati fan, you might know that July 9 will be the team’s “Pride” home game because ... June is Pride month (more on that later).
I would posit, on the whole, that local sports teams – important community institutions – declaring support for LGBT+ people is a good thing. Just as the players in MLS Is Back showing support for Black Players for Change and kneeling before games was a good thing. Just as the Bailey including a “Refugees Welcome” sign is a good thing, and just like shows of support for the people of Ukraine are good things.
(It goes without saying that you can have a nuanced debate on the contours of these things. For example, someone could argue that “Refugees Welcome” implicitly excludes economic migrants who may be escaping situations of extreme poverty and local violence that are the result of US foreign policy but who aren’t considered “refugees” under the limited legal definition. But debating questions like that isn’t the point of this piece, so for these purposes let’s just take the statement “Refugees Welcome” as a face-value expression of the belief that refugees should have a place to go, and let us agree that this belief is good. Also set aside, for now, the argument over whether these expressions are all that effective, as I’m not talking about the most effective or impactful way to do something good, just talking about whether the needle moves in a positive or negative direction, regardless of how slightly.)
But there are some out there (maybe even some who have FC Cincinnati podcasts but also maybe not who knows) who would argue that these things are not good and, in fact, they are bad. Maybe most prominently, at least recently, Ohio’s Republican candidate for the United States Senate has centered his campaign around attacking so-called “Woke Capital” and its dangers to the American people.
(A working definition of “Woke Capital” would be something like this: Corporations using their economic power and influence to advance progressive social and cultural ideas. It's also important to note that critics of "Woke Capital" care only about the “Woke” part, and not the “Capital” part – in other words, a company should be able to do literally whatever it wants to you except make you see a gay couple in a Folger’s commercial.)
What these people (maybe deliberately) ignore, I think, is that companies really aren’t generally in the “social progress” business. They are in the “selling stuff to you” business. So when they put people from disadvantaged groups in commercials, it means that they think people in those groups might want to buy their product. When companies put posts on social media that support gay rights or other equal justice issues, it means that they think that people like it, which means that their market research shows that people support those issues. Which, on the whole, would mean that these companies have data indicating that people are becoming more tolerant.
It hasn’t always been that way. I’m old enough that I remember 2004 as the “gay marriage” election, in which the Republican Party decided that a great way to drive turnout for George W. Bush was to put gay marriage on the ballot in 11 states and then to make opposition to marriage equality a central issue in their campaign. And they were right. Bush won the election and all 11 of those states banned same-sex marriage (including Ohio). None of this hurt Bush’s fundraising one bit, and today he gets to do public appearances with Ellen.
In fact, not a single general election candidate from either party openly supported same-sex marriage rights until Obama in 2012 (not, however, in 2008, for whatever reason). And that is because these people only change after a critical mass of the general public does.
Companies are no more courageous than politicians. The so-called “Woke” companies are only supporting Pride because they feel public pressure to do so, and not because they are avid supporters of the “gay agenda.”
For more evidence of this, look no further than our own Knifey Garys. As mentioned above, June is Pride month. June has been Pride month for some time, and June was selected because the Stonewall riots occurred in June 1969. But up until last year, FC Cincinnati never had a “Pride Night” – it had an “Equality Night” that sometimes took place in June, which is kind of like celebrating Easter by acknowledging broadly all world religious figures. And then when FC Cincinnati had its first self-identified “Pride” game last year, it was in October.
It's worth mentioning here that one of the FC’s owners was a co-founder of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, which at least as recently as 2012 had a policy against hiring gay teachers (even music teachers!). So there might be more than just scheduling issues behind the team’s inconsistent history with Pride, and it makes me not a little happy knowing that the team’s ownership has to spend its own money on having drag queens in Washington Park.
But it’s not just local ownership that is likely supporting Pride only reluctantly. City Football Group (owners of Manchester City and New York City FC, among other teams) is majority owned by (basically) the Abu Dhabi royal family. In the United Arab Emirates (where Abu Dhabi is located), same-sex relations are punishable by death. Similarly, Newcastle United was recently purchased by the Saudi Arabian government’s sovereign wealth fund. The Premier League forced Roman Abramovitch to divest Chelsea over the Ukraine war, but it allowed Newcastle to be bought by a country that imprisoned someone for being gay at least as recently as 2020 (not to mention literally everything else about Saudi Arabia).
So what Pride Nights really represent is that support for Pride, and (yes) equality generally, has enough support among the paying public that teams and other companies feel business pressure to acknowledge it. And that is, I’m sorry, one of the most powerful signs of progress that you can find in the United States of America.
Now, there is another critique of “Woke Capital” that I think has some merit, and it’s that companies pay lip service to certain social issues in order to paper over other problems, such as unfair labor practices, low wages, poor worker treatment, and other economic issues that hit a company’s bottom line more directly. And absolutely, people should not allow the fact that REI included a land acknowledgment in its union-busting podcast to obscure that REI was still engaged in union-busting.
But, like I said, that’s not what most of these people are talking about. At base, what critics of Pride Night are mad about is that companies that once focused on marketing to certain demographics now sometimes market to other demographics. And the fact that this focus has added a more diverse, progressive face to advertising reflects that the population broadly has become more diverse and socially progressive, which is a good thing.
But what if, you might ask, things started to trend the other way? What if FC started promoting political positions I didn’t like? Would I still think it’s good?
Well, no, obviously. But that’s because I think some things are good and some things are bad and I don’t really have a problem drawing a distinction between the two. I’m not literally an infant.
So, to sum up, Pride Night good.