This piece is in response to the discussion over at Daily Nous here. You should read it first; I’m posting here partly because what I’ve got to say is longer than would reasonably fit into a comment, and partly because I want to think a bit about how difficult the question of whether to launch a boycott is, and Justin wanted to avoid that topic (I may be a little slow in approving comments the next couple of days, be patient). Since I live in Charlotte, NC, I do however think my subject position gives me some space for speaking on the topic. And to be honest, I have very mixed feelings – David Wallace’s first comment on the Daily Nous post (that we need to know the details) seems right to me. Here’s an example of why: One might boycott Charlotte on either of two grounds: the police shooting of Lamont Scott, or the state’s passage of HB2. I want to leave aside the police shooting for the moment, because the politics behind HB2 lend support to the difficulty of deciding whether to boycott, and if so, what to boycott (plus, police shootings are an aspect of the boycott idea, and it remains to be seen whether the protests in Charlotte manage to get anyone’s sustained attention about the city’s deep racial problems).
For those who don’t follow North Carolina politics closely, the relatively brief summary of HB2 is: early this year, the City Council of Charlotte passed a broad-based anti-discrimination ordinance designed to protect its LGBTQ citizens. It included a provision allowing trans* individuals to use the restroom associated with their gender identity. These sorts of protections are utterly unproblematic in over 200 jurisdictions nationally, including many cities in states that lack such protections. But the NC legislature, dominated by a very activist, anti-urban and conservative set of GOP representatives, jumped into action, and immediately – in a special session that lasted about 12 hours from initial gavel to gubernatorial signature – passed a state law that nullified Charlotte’s ordinance, banned cities from passing similar ordinances, required trans* individuals to go to the restroom matching the “biological sex” on their birth certificates, set up state legal protections along the lines of Title 7, but excluded sexual orientation from the list of protected categories, and banned cities from adding to the list. House Bill 2 is an omnibus LGBTQ hate bill based, among other things, on a Schmittian theory of state sovereignty and the premise that trans* isn’t a real thing. And it’s almost certainly unconstitutional, and all signs are the 4th Circuit will say it’s pre-empted by federal law. The UNC system is already under court order not to enforce the bathroom provisions, and that followed a declaration by the system that it would not enforce a law written (no joke!) without an enforcement provision.
In the immediate aftermath of the bill, there were a number of economically damaging cancellations of planned job expansions, conferences and so on. Hundreds of major corporations signed statements indicating their condemnation of the bill. Later, the NBA moved the 2017 all-star game from Charlotte. Most of the events and cancellations were in Charlotte, and the state GOP crowed that this was all Charlotte’s fault, since they brought this HB2 upon themselves (apparently nobody in the state legislature has heard of Alan Gewirth’s principle of intervening actors, or is aware that Charlotte cannot pass a state law, or is aware that their argument turns them into billiard balls with no agency). So a boycott of Charlotte would hurt the state, insofar as revenue from Charlotte events helps the state, but it would also hurt the most those who are trying to do the right thing. A boycott of North Carolina might get closer to the mark in that sense, by not singling out Charlotte, but then one has to wonder about other collateral damage to the UNC system.
Governor Pat McCrory, who is consistently behind his democratic challenger in the polls, has repeatedly (and often incoherently) defended HB2, and more than one source thinks this defense is why he is losing. The Raleigh News and Observer even said that the GOP rush to pass HB2 may “turn out to be one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern North Carolina history.” In the meantime, the Governor’s office has failed to release emails around the bill’s passage requested by news media in April, so the Charlotte Observer just sued for access to them.
McCrory had been left twisting in the wind by the legislature, which largely remained silent on the topic. Indeed, the legislature did not think it necessary to even talk about revisiting the matter until the NCAA and ACC pulled a number of basketball tournament games (and other sports, but basketball is what matters in the state of Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, Davidson, etc.). That’s right: North Carolina has sunk so low in the moral universe that the NCAA can take the high ground against it. THEN, suddenly, it was a state issue again. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of college basketball to North Carolina. The law is, and has for some time, been unpopular: a September Elon University poll, which was an outlier in showing McCrory winning re-election, put opposition to the bill at nearly 50%, to only 40% support. Polls as early as April showed comparable opposition/support levels.
In the face of all that, the Governor and Legislature proposed a compromise: Charlotte would repeal its ordinance first, and then the state would revisit HB2. In other words, Charlotte would stop doing what it wanted to, and the state would quite forcing it to stop. To her infinite credit, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts refused to even put the proposal on the City Council agenda. Sure enough, it emerged a couple of weeks later from both the Governor and legislative leadership that the “deal” was a sham. Charlotte would unilaterally disarm, and the legislature would not repeal HB2, or at least not most of it.
All of this suggests that boycotts might work, albeit slowly. After all, they seem to have gotten the legislature’s attention. Maybe more economic pain could get their attention better (though they turned down Medicaid expansion, which is a whole big pile of free money and some 30-40,000 jobs, so they seem indifferent to economic pain). But here’s the thing: North Carolina is so gerrymandered that, as a report on Common Cause noted, “about 90 percent of the legislators that voted for the bill either face no challengers in their elections this fall or won their last election by more than 10 percentage points. In North Carolina, both parties have embraced gerrymandering—the drawing of election districts for partisan advantage—to such a degree that most incumbents face no challenge. For many, re-filing is effectively the same as being re-elected.” McCrory may crash and burn on HB2, but to actually get some entity other than a Federal Court to put the law out of its misery is going to take a huge, wave election. It’s not at all clear that such a thing is coming. At the moment, the GOP enjoys veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature, and has used those majorities to steamroll the GOP governor on the rare occasions he stood up to them.
This is a long story about a terrible law the passage of which deserves the widespread moral condemnation it has received. A boycott to express moral outrage is fully justified in the abstract. On the other hand, such a boycott would also damage those who oppose the law – both academics and, it turns out, a plurality (and near majority) of the state’s population. Maybe that sort of damage is worth it, given how outrageous the law is. Non-expressive (for lack of a better term) justifications for a boycott are a lot harder. The normal argument in such a case is that the aggregation of one more boycott won’t make a difference, or that nobody cares what academics think. Those may both be true: if the legislature doesn’t care about the condemnation of a whole bunch of Fortune 500 companies, they would probably even prefer that liberal professors not visit. Indeed, early in his term, McCrory (who got a liberal arts education) joked on the radio with William Bennett (who has a PhD in philosophy from Texas) that nobody needs liberal arts or PhD’s in philosophy from public universities.
But HB2 puts another problem squarely on the table: it will be virtually impossible for a boycott to achieve anything, because the democratic process in North Carolina is thoroughly broken. I get the impression this is true in many states. HB2 may get us a new governor. But without a lot of help from other, exogenous factors, it won’t get us a new legislature. HB2 is going to be overturned in the federal courts, I assume. If it makes it to the Supreme Court – well, I return you to your regularly scheduled programming about today’s implosion at the Trump Tower. But a boycott, academic or otherwise, won’t be relevant to any of that.