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JC Penney and Ellen, Lowe’s and All-American Muslim: A Tale of Two Bigotries

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JC Penney did the right thing this week, standing by its celebrity spokeswoman Ellen DeGeneres despite a conservative activist group’s demand that it drop association with her because she’s gay. The group, One Million Moms, asked Penney to “remain neutral in the culture war” by firing a gay celebrity. (“Neutrality” must mean not employing heterosexual spokespeople, either, right? Any asexual celebrities the store could hire? R2-D2, perhaps?) Penney repudiated the group, and De Generes also got backup from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who likened the campaign to McCarthyism.

I credit Penney for doing the right thing, but it’s possible that it did so for the same reason that businesses sometimes do the wrong thing: money. That is, the store may have taken its stand not on absolute principle alone but on the calculation that nowadays it’s better business to stick with a popular lesbian entertainer than to mollify anti-gay activists.

And hey, I’ll take that. Whatever Penney’s decision says about American businesses, it says something good about their customers. Just as we’ve seen in politics—with Washington becoming the latest state to pass same-sex marriage—acceptance of gay people has, generationally, become mainstream. Note I said “acceptance,” not just “tolerance”: we’re to the point where you can assume it will negatively affect your business if you make a point of not hiring someone because she’s gay, and where welcoming gay people is good for business, even among straight customers.

Penney, or any other retailer working in its market, has to consider that it has a whole customer base of people who have gay friends in their communities and in their Facebook networks, who have gay family members (or, of course, who are gay themselves). What’s more, they watch Ellen, and this is where pop culture personalities make a difference in social attitudes. There’s a personal bond between a daytime host and her fans. Ellen (or Oprah, or Tyra, &c.)  is someone you spend time with, who makes you laugh, who keeps you company while you’re home with a new baby—she is, in a virtual-but-real way, a friend.

People don’t look kindly on you for dissing their friends, and they’ll reward you for sticking up for them. There may still be a cost to hiring someone like DeGeneres, but it’s more likely outweighed by the benefit. (One Million Moms, its name notwithstanding, has just over 41,000 likes on its Facebook page, Ellen over 2 million.)

It’s a sad contrast, though, to what happened late last year in another conflict involving retailers, a minority group and an activist organization that made itself look bigger than it was. After TLC premiered the reality show All-American Muslim, the Florida Family Association—a fundamentalist Christian group that was for all intents and purposes one dude—launched a campaign to get advertisers to pull out of the show. Some did, most prominent among them big-box hardware store Lowe’s.

Now, I can’t pretend to psychically know the reasons for Lowe’s decision, and it like most businesses in such a situation was guardedly cryptic about it. But the takeaway from the company’s public statements was that the show simply proved too controversial, and that it did not want to risk association with any show like that. In other words: business. If there was a cost to staying with AAM and a cost to pulling out, Lowe’s must have guessed that the cost of insulting Muslim customers—by pulling out of a show that was essentially criticized simply for portraying them as noncriminals—was the lesser risk.

I don’t know if they were right, in a business sense. And we can’t draw too many conclusions about the relative status of gays and Muslims in America: these were two different protests, involving two different companies, and I don’t know what either would have done in the other’s situation. But it’s a reminder that these situations are about more than just “[name of minority group here] spends money too”; it’s also about the attitudes of the majority group. Just as Penney must have (rightly) guessed that rejecting Ellen would hurt them among straight as well as gay customers, Lowe’s, I’m afraid, guessed there would not be sufficient penalty among non-Muslim hardware buyers.

The difference? Maybe it’s partly the role models available in pop culture. When straight people have gay people in their social circles—and, like Ellen, in their cultural circles—they feel connected to them. There aren’t those kinds of examples out there for non-Muslims who don’t know Muslims personally. That’s the very thing a show like All-American Muslim was meant to address, and therefore, the very thing FFA was afraid of. Because when people make those kinds of connections, that’s when bigotry becomes bad business.

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