We Americans are obsessed with race. Turn on the news on any given day and you’re sure to be presented with the latest racial incident. Maybe a celebrity said something he or she should not have about race. Maybe the theme is the latest racial profiling incident. Regrettably, in 2016, it might be the latest African-American man shot by a police officer.
Or maybe it’s more subtle. An African-American or Hispanic face in connection with some crime. Perhaps it’s a debate over affirmative action or immigration. Or the absence of people of color at the Oscars. Race, and our incessant dialogue about it, take many forms in our society.
Okay, I’m biased. After all, my day job is all about race. I do market research, with a specialization in multicultural consumers. I often find myself behind the two-way mirror at a focus group facility, as a group of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and often whites, are asked about how they feel about an advertising campaign or new product. This gives me a unique vantage point. I’m the unseen white guy, getting an insider’s glimpse into how today’s so-called minorities respond to marketing, and how that relates to their race.
The questions that my clients ask are often as revealing as the responses they receive from consumers. America is on its way to becoming a minority-majority country. According to the most recent projections, soon after the year 2040, whites will make up less than half of Americans. Largely driven by immigration from Latin America and Asia, our country is undergoing a demographic revolution. We’re also going through a cultural revolution. In 2012, America reelected its first African-American president. In 2015, the right of Americans to marry someone of the same sex was upheld by the Supreme Court. My clients ask what this means for marketing. I ask myself another question. Where is America headed?
It’s not an easy question to answer, and if the marketing world is any indication, we are indeed at crossroads, and marketers struggle to strike the right balance by appealing to a diverse consumer base without alienating the white mainstream. Take the case of General Mills, which sparked outrage on social media when it launched a Cheerios ad featuring a biracial family. Coca-Cola evoked fury when it featured a polyglot, multiracial cast singing “America the Beautiful” during its 2013 Super Bowl ad. Granted, in each case, thousands of supporters berated the protestors for their bigotry, and each company declared its ad to be an unqualified success. Still, any illusion that tolerance is the byword in today’s America was shattered. Post-racial we are not. Far from it.
We are at a unique point in our history. Largely gone are the days of overt racial slurs uttered in polite company. When they do occur, the result is often scandal, headlining the news and going viral on social media. In corporate America and government, diversity has become the Holy Grail. I owe my livelihood to a corporate obsession with ensuring that marketing communications resonate with multicultural consumers.
Yet as I sit from my vantage point behind the two-way mirror, I see so clearly that whites and nonwhites live in two different worlds. I hear so many African-American respondents talking about the ubiquity of racism. I listen to Hispanics talk about the rise in deportations, and how they, whether they are authorized to live in the United States or not, feel racialized by the stigma of “illegal aliens.” I watch as Asian Americans, some of whom have been here for generations, complain that someone complimented them on speaking English well.
Whites, on the other hand, more often than not, will say that they are colorblind. They are the victims of reverse discrimination, many protest. While the phrase “some of my best friends are black” is today considered a racist gaffe, its corollary surfaces in other remarks. “I have lots of black friends,” I am frequently told. “Close friends?” I ask, often getting a nervous reaction. More often than not, a colleague from work or an acquaintance from the gym is the person being referred to.
Quite literally, Americans live in two different worlds, one inhabited by whites, the other by people of color. In an analysis of segregation patterns in metropolitan areas, sociologists John R. Logan and Brian J. Stults found that the typical white American lives in a neighborhood that is 77 percent white. African Americans were less likely to live in neighborhoods surrounded by co-ethnics, but the segregation numbers are still high – the typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is 48 percent black. While Logan and Stults did find a trend toward “increasing diversity,” they note that whites tend to live with other whites, and minorities tend to live with minorities.
An alarming change in recent years has been the incarceration rate of young, African American males. Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of black incarceration nearly tripled. According to a study by the Pew Foundation in 2008, while one in thirty men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males the figure is one in nine. Writes Michelle Alexander, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C. … it is estimated that three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.”
Additionally, the relative recentness of large scale Hispanic and Asian immigration raises important sociological questions, questions that I am asked by marketers on a constant basis. Will these groups assimilate into the American mainstream as did the so-called ethnic whites of the 19th and early 20th century: the Irish, Italians, the Jews, the Slavs, not to mention the Germans, whose descendants continue to comprise the largest non-Anglo group in the United States, and the Scandinavians? Will their mother language fluency diminish or disappear with coming generations? Will they adopt more Anglicized customs, attitudes and behaviors as they acculturate?
By contrast, assimilation is essentially irrelevant for African Americans, most of whom can trace their American ancestry back for centuries. One cannot help wonder if the social and socio-economic distance between blacks and whites will diminish, particularly in 2016, a year in which Americans witnessed the rise of two seemingly opposing forces – Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president. In the case of African-Americans, the answers lie deep in America’s collective past, both remote and recent.
I contend that our national obsession with race has a long history, beginning with the enslavement of Africans and the genocidal treatment of Native Americans. However, the despicable and inhuman treatment of these two groups, while representing the most egregious cases of intolerance, were hardly exceptional cases in our national experience. Rather, Americans have consistently and predictably excoriated immigrants who were considered to be different than the mainstream, whenever they arrived in large numbers, as we are witnessing today.
My first book was published in 2008 at the dawn of the Obama era. It was a heady time, where scholars and pundits who should have known better – including myself – were tossing around phrases like “post-racial America.” Now, as I write this, at the advent of the administration of one of the most divisive presidential candidates in history, Donald Trump, one who openly courted white supremacists and who has called for a religious test for immigrants, I wonder how we could have been so naïve eight years ago.
Or maybe that’s the course of progress, the idea that the long arc of history bends toward justice. Right now for those of us who deeply want to see a more inclusive nation, one that recognizes racial differences but doesn’t demonize those who are different from us, it feels like two steps up, three steps back. Right now it is hard to imagine a nation where whites, blacks, and other people of color, come together to achieve a common identity, a shared interest in eradicating the iniquities of our so-called glorious past. But if the famous words of the philosopher Santayana still hold water – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – perhaps remembrance indeed is an appropriate next step.