Chapter Three: African Americans – When once asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong replied: “Man, if you don’t know, don’t mess with it.” The same could be said about race. For earlier generations, race, like religion or politics, was not seen as fair game for polite dinner conversation. At least not among whites. Things have always been different for African Americans, who at least in the company of each other, have always tended to talk freely about race and racism. Blacks have had their group identity forged in the fires of slavery and Jim Crow, a couple of words whites are not sure it’s even okay to mention. Race has been an integral part of the daily lives of most African Americans and its derivative, racism, is experienced in myriad forms: unemployment, incarceration, crime, getting turned down for loans, and missed taxicabs. For blacks, race has always been a subject that demands to be addressed. By David Morse / New America Dimensions
In 1968, the Kerner Commission warned of America becoming two nations, one black and one white, separate and unequal. The rift is narrowing. But for African Americans, it is difficult to sing “Kumbaya” about the state of things in America when the median household income for blacks is $33,000 per year compared to $57,000 for whites. It is impossible to relegate racial discrimination to the confines of history when study after study affirms that African Americans are more likely to be victims of racial profiling by police, denied housing or incarcerated more often than whites for the same crimes. It is too much of a stretch to accept that whites are colorblind, when ignoring racial disparities only serves to maintain a structurally unequal society.
Blacks are still significantly worse off than whites according to the 2016 National Urban League’s annual report “The State of Black America.” Still, since the League’s first report, forty years ago, there have been some gains: Eighty-six percent of African Americans are high school completers; the share with a bachelor’s degree or more has more than tripled (from 6.6% to 22.2%); and roughly one-third of 18-24 year-olds are enrolled in college. While whites have higher college enrollment than Blacks, between 1976 and 2014, the college completion gap narrowed 20 percentage points.
Despite the gains, African Americans are still at a significant disadvantage on multiple measures. In 2015, African American households had a household net worth of one-thirteenth that of whites, were three times as likely to live in poverty, and had an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, more than double that of whites. More than half of black families with children are headed by a single mother, compared to one-fifth of white families with children, and nearly 47 percent of families headed by a black single mother are in poverty. One-in-ten black homeowners who took out mortgages at the height of the housing boom eventually lost their home to foreclosure.
In health matters, for African-American men especially, the mortality gap is clear. The average life span for black men today is 4.7 years less than for white men, although the gap did narrow by 1.5 years since the first edition of this book. Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men aged 15 to 34, followed by unintentional injuries. (For white men in those ages, unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death, followed by suicide.) Once they become sick, blacks are more likely to suffer worse consequences and die sooner of the disease. According to the American Heart Association, the prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans is the highest in the world. The prevalence of diabetes is about 2.6 times the rate for whites, and diabetes significantly increases the risk of heart disease. African-Americans are disproportionately affected by obesity. Among non-Hispanic blacks age 20 and older, 63 percent of men and 77 percent of women are overweight or obese. Beyond these bleak statistics lies a new theory, that racism itself is detrimental to health.
Blacks and whites, as a rule, still don’t live in the same neighborhoods. Dissimilarity indices, a measure of integration, reveal a residentially segregated nation, despite improvements from a decade past. A majority of blacks and whites go to different schools, worship at different churches, watch and play different sports, and consume different media. Though intermarriage rates are soaring between whites, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, they remain remarkably low with blacks.
And let’s not ignore the fact that when it comes to using the English language, we speak it differently. Linguistic profiling, for example, is a research area that focuses on how differential treatment can occur through language and other verbal factors. Sociolinguist Dennis Preston of Michigan State University has studied how language is used to discriminate, particularly by violating fair housing laws. Preston said in housing discrimination, linguistic profiling occurs when an African-American, Latino or Middle-Eastern sounding prospective renter calls the landlord or representative of the property, and is told the property is no longer available just because of the way certain words have been pronounced. “In linguistic profiling, we know that it happens … we know that people are treated differently based on people’s perception of them over the telephone,” says Nancy Haynes, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan. “If someone believes you’re African American, whether or not you’re African American, you are going to be treated differently.” African Americans are more likely to be discriminated against than Latinos with an accent, the research found. “The discrimination rate against Spanish-accented speakers is a little less than the discrimination against African Americans. Apparently, African Americans are seen by some landlords as less desirable renters than Latin Americans,” said Preston.
Even names can be the source of discrimination. Economics professor Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago found in a recent study that employers apparently do discriminate based on whether names on résumés sound “white” or “black” — even when other credentials are equal. They found that résumés with white-sounding names generated twice as many callbacks as those with conspicuously “black” names like Jamal. For many African Americans, the possibility that names could hold their children back does affect their decisions.
Perhaps more than any other group, African Americans are acutely sensitive to how they are portrayed in the media, and given history, it’s not surprising. According to Pepper Miller and Herb Kemp in their seminal book “What’s Black About It?”, African Americans run their experience through a filter, a way of perceiving the world as a result of past experience with slavery, post slavery and discrimination: “The Filter is the nucleus of the black experience and black culture.… It has predisposed many African Americans to become overly sensitive about feeling stereotyped and not feeling valued, respected, included, and welcomed. It also explains why many African Americans want to be seen as a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous group, to desire real inclusion, to see more and see differently when it comes to marketing communications, to rely upon word-of-mouth, to use general market media, but to embrace black media.… As a result, many African Americans care about how they are represented, and how white Americans perceive them.”
So how do blacks want to be perceived? First, and most important, they do not want to be stereotyped. This goes for all cultural groups, but blacks, especially black men, have suffered disproportionate stereotyping for a longer period of time. Of course, we’ve come a long way from such images. But that still doesn’t mean blacks are depicted in the ways they want to be seen. There are images of African Americans created for white people by white people and there are images of African Americans created for African Americans. And there’s a big difference. Our research shows that African Americans like to see themselves portrayed in all their diversity.
African-American buying power is projected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021. Still, too many marketers don’t seem to get, or want to get, this segment. Or, if they used to get it, they don’t anymore, as evidenced by the dwindling dollars that make their way toward African-American marketing. Today’s African-American advertising agencies face increased competition from general-market agencies that have successfully convinced advertisers that they can deliver the same services. Additionally, the fast growing Hispanic market is attracting the lion’s share of “multicultural” marketing budgets, further threatening the viability of black agencies
Marketers still need to better understand what moves African American consumers. Without fully appreciating how they consume media, and, more importantly, the Filter through which they see their experience, a marketer’s efforts will, at best, fall flat. Said Eugene Morris, head of E. Morris Communications, a Chicago-based company that specializes in targeting African Americans: “Marketers assume that their message reaches African Americans. But reaching them is not selling them. African-American agencies develop culturally relevant messages.” He goes on to point out the widely divergent media habits between blacks and the general market.
Despite improvement, there are indications that anti-black racism is on the rise. One study by professors at Stanford, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan found that the proportion of voters answering questions with “explicit anti-black attitudes” increased to 51 percent in 2012 from 48 percent in 2008. They found a corresponding decrease among those expressing “pro-Black attitudes,” to 42 percent from 47 percent. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism – 79 percent among Republicans compared with 32 percent among Democrats – an implicit test, designed to measure unconscious attitudes, found little difference between the two parties. Said Jelani Cobb, a professor of African-American studies, “We have this false idea that there is uniformity in progress and that things change in one big step. That is not the way history has worked. When we’ve seen progress, we’ve also seen backlash.”
In the introduction to his eminent book Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “our truncated public discussions of race suppress the best of who and what we are as a people because they fail to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner.” If we ignore the intricacies of race, if we shy away from the difficulties or inconveniences that it imposes, we risk faulty judgment and simplistic understanding, something that as marketers (and human beings) we cannot afford to do.