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“Rainbow Capitalism” and its Parallels with the Commercialization of Juneteenth

Under the glitter, glitz and rainbows, we see celebrations masking economic inequality and exploitation of marginalized communities.

Authors: Common Future

At Common Future, we work at the intersection of economic and racial justice, activating solutions that create a more inclusive economy. Sometimes what we’re up against is pretty straightforward; we can name the practice or policy that needs to shift. Other times, the challenges emerge in places that may not have a clear connection, but are worthy of exploration.

This is the case with commercialization of movements and communities, specifically Juneteenth and Pride. Though at first celebratory, we are seeing original meanings get lost, support remains superficial, and the economic power communities have (or don’t) is largely obscured. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

First, A Look Back

On June 28th, 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots (when police raided a gay bar on Christopher Street, and patrons, fed up with the oppressive and homophobic policies of the country, fought back), 1,169 LGBTQ activists gathered in Greenwich Village in NYC to march.

They wore Halloween costumes and drag and made DIY parade floats. They didn’t have a police permit, so they’d taken self-defense in advance classes to protect themselves if anything went wrong. Many of its leaders were Black and brown trans women. It was chaotic, defiant, joyful, and took up to 15 city blocks at a time. It was one of the first times LGBTQ folks marched in public, celebrating. Marches happened that day in Los Angeles and Chicago, too. They were the very first gay pride marches in the U.S, and they would set the precedent for Pride celebrations to come.

In 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, some 150,000 people marched in the Pride Parade in NYC, drawing five million visitors in Manhattan alone. The Pride March no longer seemed as much of a defiant, revolutionary act of resistance — instead, it’d become a corporate sponsored, glittery affair that drew in tourists and spectators, and provided plenty of opportunities for retailers to sell rainbow-branded products.

Juneteenth seems to be following a similar trajectory. On June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union army came to Galveston, Texas to announce that the over 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were now officially free. (The enslaved people had likely already heard the news, but the army’s arrival meant it would finally be enforced in the far reaches of the Confederacy.)

For decades thereafter, African American communities started privately celebrating Juneteenth, with family gatherings and BBQs. Opal Lee, a Black woman living in Fort Worth, Texas, grew up spending Juneteenth picnicking with her family. She remembers going to the fairgrounds with her family to celebrate her first Juneteenth, and how it felt like such a celebration. In 2016, she wanted to keep raising awareness for the holiday — to make it nationally recognized. That year, at the age of 89, she took a long, long walk — from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C.

Last year, she saw her wish come to fruition: after the tumultuous reckoning with racial justice in 2020, President Biden finally signed a law that turned Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Celebration or Commercialization?

But what does celebration actually mean when we look beneath the surface? According to one study, 25 major corporations have donated over $10 million since 2019 to legislators who sponsor anti-gay and trans legislation. While Amazon, Walmart, and McDonald’s all post tweets and Instagram posts celebrating Pride, they have collectively donated over $1 million to politicians who opposed the Equality Act, which would increase LGBTQ legislative protections.

As with Pride, American corporations saw the newly and officially recognized Juneteenth as an opportunity for marketing. Dollar Tree released Juneteenth themed products, like “Juneteenth” branded napkins, paper plates and party decor in the pan-African colors red, black and green (the actual colors of Juneteenth are the same colors as the American flag: red, white and blue). Meanwhile, the company’s practices target low-income, often predominantly Black areas to expand their stores— overtaking the possibility of healthier grocery stores and food suppliers, contributing to food deserts in impoverished neighborhoods.

And while the official recognition of Juneteenth feels like progress for Black Americans, it’s also happening during a time of regression and antagonism against the racial justice movement. According to a May 2022 survey, support for BLM goals has decreased from 48 percent to 31 percent. According to EdWeek, since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or other legislation to limit the teaching or discussion of race or gender. 17 states have already imposed bans. “As ironies go, here is perhaps the biggest one: Juneteenth becomes a holiday at the very moment when teachers in a growing number of states won’t be able to even explain the full story of why our country is commemorating emancipation,” wrote Michele L. Norris in the Washington Post.

It’s easy for companies to brainstorm themed products for celebrations like Pride or Juneteenth, or proclaim support on social media, but much harder to do the actual work of reckoning with the history and pain that made these momentous dates in the first place.

This “rainbow capitalism” is a lazy way to pay lip service to the history of oppression and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and creates the illusion that the fight for LGBTQ rights is aligned with wealth and corporate sponsors. In fact, 22 percent of LGBTQ people in the U.S. still live in poverty (the rate is even higher for women and BIPOC). Juneteenth products provide a way for companies to profit from a history of suffering, while not having to pay reparations or create systemic policies that actually benefit Black workers and shoppers.

What We Can Do Differently

Fortunately, workers and consumers are starting to hold companies accountable for their hypocrisy. In March of this year, for instance, hundreds of employees of The Walt Disney company walked out of their jobs to protest the company’s lack of a clear response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which would ban discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. “Our community will not sit silently while TWDC fails in its obligations to advocate for employees it claims to support with ‘unwavering commitment’, profits off our labor, and boasts of record profits it has used to fund politicians who legislate unsafe schools for our youth,” the Disney strikers wrote in an open letter to the company.

To really stand behind and support LGBTQ and Black communities, we have to look past the marketing and hold companies accountable, especially companies who are using social justice to look good while creating policies and donating to politicians that actively harm the communities they claim to support.

We can avoid companies that support anti-LGBTQ legislation, companies with policies that hurt Black people, and companies with poor diversity stats (or companies that refuse to release stats at all). We can build something new in their place, starting with supporting and uplifting Black and queer spaces. And not only in the month of June.

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