The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling have been analyzed from a multitude of viewpoints—American culture, history, sports, free speech, even our obsession with celebrity. But to my knowledge, no one has discussed a critical aspect that directly affects more people than most of the other topics:
What is the role of an ethical consumer in this kind of situation?
I haven’t seen any suggestion, for instance, that Clippers fans should boycott the team’s games.
(In the playoffs? Are you kidding?)
For half a century, the consumer movement has encouraged men– and women-in-the-street to use the collective power of our pocketbooks as a social and political force. Our bodies, our children, our planet, and our society are better off because shoppers pressured Wal-Mart to stop carrying baby bottles made with the dangerous chemical Bisphenol A, and because Johnson & Johnson, in the face of protests from parents, reformulated its classic baby shampoo to eliminate formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) and 1.4-dioxane (which has been linked to cancer in animal studies). Public outcry over the horrible conditions in factory farms has prompted restaurants from Burger King to Chick fil-A to stop using meat from pigs trapped in tiny gestation crates or chickens raised on massive antibiotics.
Just this month, Coca Cola said it would replace the brominated vegetable oil (which contains an element found in flame retardants) in soft drinks like Fresca and some varieties of Fanta.
(Why companies would think it’s okay to put carcinogens in baby products or flame retardant in beverages to begin with, is a topic for another blog post.)
Those sorts of consumer activism have done tremendous good. So is there a way that this power can be also be applied in cases like the Clippers? And should it be?
There are some crucial differences. First, successful protests like those involving BPA, formaldehyde, and gestation crates were pro-active movements, pressuring companies to replace one particular method or ingredient with a safer one. Moreover, they were directed against a business or industry as a whole, not against an individual.
The ethics are a lot less clear if you’re going to start targeting people for their speech.
True, protests have also been organized against businesses because of their corporate political donations, or the politics or public utterings of high-level executives. Groups both supporting and opposing same-sex marriage have at various times called for “kiss-ins” and “appreciation days” (respectively) at Chick-fil-A outlets because the chain’s president and chief operating officer, Dan T. Cathy, has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage.
And yes, I’d rather have my consumer dollars go to a business owner who might, in turn, donate his or her money to causes I agree with.
So I’m not 100% against speech-based consumer actions. However, I do think such activism has to be approached a lot more cautiously than the other kind.
Maybe the solution is to go to a Clippers game, carry a sign with some sort of positive theme like “We Shall Overcome,” don’t buy any Clippers souvenirs (Sterling gets a cut of those proceeds), and tip your hot dog vendor generously (why should the vendor suffer because the team owner is a racist?).
If you can even get tickets.
Hear Fran Hawthorne talk more about Donald Sterling, responsible consumerism, and her award-winning book Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love on Patrick McCarty's Insight Radio (skip to 57:05 for “Fran's Corner”):
Fran Hawthorne is the author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love. This post is adapted from Fran’s Corner, her weekly show on the global political-cultural talk show Insight Radio, available on the CNN Website at insighttalkradio.com.