Boycotts of Georgia Will Only Make It Redder

Kwajelyn Jackson, the executive director at Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, at the Georgia state capitol on May 21. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

On May 7, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country. If allowed to take effect, it will outlaw abortion once an ultrasound can detect electrical activity where a heart develops in an embryo; it’s known as a “fetal heartbeat” despite the technical absence, in many cases, of either a fetus or a heart. Not to be outdone, Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama signed an even more draconian billon May 15. House Bill 314 more directly flouts the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roev. Wade decision by reclassifying all abortions in Alabama as Class A felonies. Both bills accompany a slate of related legislation across the South and Midwest that seeks to force SCOTUS to reconsider — and possibly overturn — Roe. And both are Republican projects in states that boast dismal health outcomes for mothers and newborns: Alabama has the sixth-highest infant-mortality rate in the United States, while Georgia has the second-highest maternal-mortality rate.

Taken together, these laws have prompted widespread calls for boycotts. Hollywood has been especially vocal, with the likes of Ben Stiller, Kerry Washington, and Alec Baldwin signing on. At least two productions have already scrapped plans to film in Georgia: Amazon Studios’ The Power and the Kristen Wiig comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Each year, the film and television industries account for several billion dollars in economic activity in the state, which, owing to its generous tax credits, hosts the highest number of film productions in the country. In theory, such a boycott would be devastating. In practice, Governor Kemp has been gleefully derisive, dismissing would-be protesters as “C-list celebrities” and insisting that Georgia will not back down from “standing up for precious life.” (Georgia had America’s 11th-highest execution rate per capita from 1976 to 2015.)

Hollywood’s impulse to cut ties with southern states over politics is not anomalous. Since the laws’ passage, social media has been awash in calls not just to boycott Georgia and Alabama but to encourage them to leave the Union altogether. Liberal punditry has toyed over the years with the notion that the South is incompatible with “blue America” and the two would be better off parting ways. Commentary on websites as varied as the Daily Beast, the Root, and Slate has argued that southern secession is a viable, even desirable solution to such rifts. One writer, Chuck Thompson, wrote an entire book endorsing the idea.

The implications of this outlook have become more evident to me since I moved to Atlanta two years ago with my wife, who is a native, after spending most of my life in Los Angeles and New York City. In my experience on the coasts, the Deep South is often dismissed as a region populated by bigots and Republican theocrats, a myopic view that these new laws have done little to contradict. These negative perceptions often hinge on a flawed understanding of the region as a network of backward white voters reaping what they have sown, rather than as the cradle of black American culture, politics, and resistance that I have experienced it to be. This misunderstanding results in a vicious irony: Black, brown, poor, and progressive residents of such states are hamstrung simultaneously by cruel GOP governance and the disdain of their supposed allies in other states, whose condemnation takes the form of divestment rather than investment geared toward change.

In the case of the anti-abortion bills, even the perception that they have majority support is false. Forty-nine percent of Georgians oppose the latest bill, compared with 44 percent in favor, according to polling by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The same poll found that seven out of ten people oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. Similarly, in Alabama, a Public Religion Research Institute poll found that just 26 percent of residents support abortion bans with no caveats. (The bill Governor Ivey signed contains no exceptions for rape or incest.)

It remains that a majority of Georgia and Alabama voters are white Republicans who backed politicians whose desire to pass such laws was known. At the same time, Georgia and Alabama are two of the blackest states in the country, at 32 and 27 percent of the population, respectively. As of the 2010 Census, 55 percent of all black Americans lived in the South. Paired with the fact that nearly 75 percent of Democratic voters in Georgia are black, the portrait that emerges is one of a racially polarized electorate and political structure composed of not just a conservative majority but also a significant black and progressive minority.

These demographics alone are a recipe for right-wing governance. But they are also a recipe for a fight. Where black resistance has taken hold in the South, it has consistently proved to be the most viable bulwark against reactionary rule. Last year, former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams inspired the state’s closest gubernatorial election in 52 years by rallying nonwhite and low-frequency voters. Rather than pursue national office in defeat, Abrams has thus far stayed local and continued her voting-rights work — registering new voters and combating the suppression measures that helped her opponent, Kemp, ensure victory.

Atlanta and its suburbs account for a massive share of the state’s population, and they vote more Democratic with each election. Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, have black mayors whose progressive bona fides rival those of any California or New York politician. To be sure, some black leaders have proved as uninterested in combating inequality as their white Republican counterparts. Still, with few exceptions, the black Democrats who occupy a large share of the party’s seats in the Georgia and Alabama statehouses voted against both Republican abortion bans. In Alabama, black state senators lambasted the Republican agenda on the capitol floor and, even when defeat was certain, sought to include exceptions that would have protected rape and incest survivors. In Georgia, 78 percent of black voters believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

So it is remarkable to me when I see progressives dismiss the region as irredeemably red on electoral maps, or see social-media posts insisting in protest that nobody spend money when they drive through. The civil-rights movement thrived on boycotts. But they were sustained by locals targeting businesses that practiced segregation, not by state sanctions. Abrams called for Hollywood to stay and fight alongside progressive Georgians to upend these laws and oust the politicians responsible. NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia has echoed her stance. Georgia representative Renitta Shannon added in Vice that such a boycott would harm workers. “Any loss in revenue will come from our state budget, which more than 50 percent of goes to schools,” Shannon said. (The film industry there employs about 92,000 people.)

None of which is to say that boycotts are futile — although the odds of getting Republicans to reverse their stance on abortion seem slim, to say the least, even when compared with the success of recent boycotts against North Carolina’s transgender bathroom laws. It is to say that the impulse to abandon the Deep South to the devices of its white leaders is a dubious strategy for change. Some people have responded in kind to Abrams’s call to stay and fight: Jordan Peele and J. J. Abrams have said they will donate their fees from their upcoming Georgia-filmed HBO series, Lovecraft Country, to the local ACLU and Fair Fight Georgia to challenge the new abortion laws. I do not know whether such efforts will prompt sustained change. I do believe they beat cutting ties and washing hands. They demonstrate investment — and the truly invested must not abandon the Deep South if they want its political order to fall. Resistance need not be fomented hundreds of miles away. The fight is here, alongside the black people of Georgia and Alabama and their allies. And it always has been.

*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Boycotts of Georgia Will Only Make It Redder