As Disney’s swift cancellation of TV show ‘Roseanne’ reveals, racism is bad for business – and companies are increasingly waking up to the fact
Stephen Vines says companies open themselves up to regulatory pressure, advertiser boycotts and damage to their reputations if they appear to support racism
Was Walt Disney simply protecting its business by abruptly scrapping its highly successful Roseanne television sitcom or was it genuinely expressing outrage in response to aggressively racist comments by its star Roseanne Barr? Hopefully, the answer is that it was doing both.
Barr tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to president Barack Obama, looked like a cross between an ape and the Muslim Brotherhood, thus managing to combine anti-black racism with Islamaphobia.
Roseanne has enjoyed the kind of stellar ratings that made ABC, the Disney-owned TV channel that makes it, one of the company’s key earners. It also happens that Disney is currently bidding for Sky News, a bid that requires regulatory approval.
From Channing Dungey, President of ABC Entertainment: "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."
There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.
— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) May 29, 2018
In other words, Disney had much at stake in considering its response to Barr’s remarks, including the risk of regulatory difficulties, possible advertiser boycotts and damage to the company’s overall reputation – and, of course, there is genuine outrage over this eruption of bile. Disney weighed all this up and moved rapidly to ensure everyone understood that there was a price to be paid for racism.
Perhaps, inevitably, that message was lost on America’s Twitter-user-in-Chief in the White House who deployed his heavy fingers to criticise ABC, somehow contriving to make this a story about himself, while singularly ignoring its racist core.
President Donald Trump does not appear to think Barr crossed a line and she has plenty of defenders who are quick to resort to the pathetic defence of “political correctness gone mad”. However, there is growing recognition among major businesses that there are lines that cannot be crossed if they want to retain credibility.
This state of affairs has been a long time coming but the tide is definitely turning and not just in the media. Last month, German based Siemens AG issued a strong statement pledging its determination to oppose racism and “take an effective stand against discrimination”.
Other companies have been caught on the back foot, notably Starbucks, which was recently forced into rapid damage limitation mode after one of its store managers called the police to eject two black customers accused of loitering while they were waiting to be joined by others. A one-day US nationwide store closure was ordered to carry out racial sensitivity training for staff.
Sensitivity of this kind is not being shown in China where the state broadcaster used the occasion of its blockbuster 2018 Chinese New Year gala to include a quite astonishingly racist skit containing blacked-up Chinese actors depicting hapless Africans.
Not only did CCTV, the broadcaster, fail to apologise but at a press conference China’s foreign ministry spokesperson squarely took aim at the show’s critics saying that “many media, especially Western media, have reported on and commented on this matter … I want to say that if there are people who want to seize on an incident to exaggerate matters, and sow discord in China’s relations with African countries, this is a doomed, futile effort.”
So it would appear that, at least in some places, racist portrayals are viewed as cost free. Yet China is working hard on strengthening ties in Africa and elsewhere, and this event has hardly gone unnoticed. Let’s see whether the fallout will eventually be translated into real costs for Chinese business overseas.
Watch: Chinese Spring Festival TV causes uproar over ‘blackface’
In an ideal world, opposition to racism should not be measured in terms of how much it may cost but it is definitely encouraging to know that this has emerged as a major part of the equation because there is nothing like damage inflicted on the bottom line to focus minds.
Moreover, consider how much things have changed in a world where it actually used to make business sense to exercise discrimination and be downright offensive to ethnic minorities. I come from Britain where, not so long ago, it was considered acceptable for boarding houses and other places of residence to post notices saying things like, “No coloureds accepted here”.
When the great Muhammad Ali, then the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world, went to a restaurant in Chicago and was told that “negroes are not served here”, he quickly replied that he was fine with that as he had no intention of eating negroes.
Humour goes a long way in putting racists in their place. Indeed when Barr made an attempt to blame the sedative drug Ambien for her Twitter rant, its makers Sanofi were quick to fire back that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication”.
Nevertheless, the side effects of racism remain much in evidence but businesses are increasingly coming to appreciate that they need to get proactively involved in combating this virus because, and this is really encouraging, public opinion has moved sufficiently to ensure that a price will be paid if they do not do so.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster