Shante Bacon Thinks Ad Industry Can 'Absolutely' Help Heal Racial Divide

But It Must Acknowledge Pain Felt by Racism

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Shante Bacon
Shante Bacon  Credit: Courtesy of 135th Street Agency

Editor's Note: In the past few years, marketers and agencies have grown comfortable taking stands about sometimes controversial topics, including mass shootings and terror attacks. But in the wake of recent police-related shootings and the attack on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the industry has been mostly silent. It's understandable. Race in America is still the toughest thing for us to talk about. We often talk about talking about it -- let's have a conversation, let's raise awareness. But we thought we'd reach out to a few African-American industry leaders and ask their thoughts on recent events. Their answers were refreshingly frank and honest. In print, we ran excerpts. Online we're running their answers at length.

Below are the answers from Shante Bacon, founder and CEO of 135th Street Agency. (Here are the answers from Amusement Park Entertainment's Jimmy Smith, Translation's Steve Stoute and MING's Tara DeVeaux. This might make some people uncomfortable, but if you want to have a dialogue, this is the only way to start: by listening. -- Ken Wheaton

What's your personal take on what's happened with the shooting by police officers and the shooting of police officers?

Personally, I am hurt, frustrated, disappointed, tired and 100 other emotions. The one thing I am not, is surprised. For some reason, we are stuck in a stalemate over whether or not black lives should matter enough to prosecute public executions.

It is stunning on one hand and exhausting on the other. While police brutality and over-use of force is nothing new to the African-American community, what is new is that, thanks to technology, we now have the ability to capture these moments on camera to prove what we have been saying for many decades.

But even when we see innocent citizens publicly executed for the smallest infractions, it is still not enough for American grand juries to find those murders punishable. It's as if we are still stuck in a time when black men were considered 3/5th of a man -- not quite human, so what is done to them is not quite murder. There is always a caveat, an exception, a justification to their murders.

I remember hearing Trayvon Martin's mother lament over how stunned she was that there was a non-guilty verdict in Trayvon's murder because she "thought the jury would at least see Trayvon as a human being." There is so much truth to that statement. When you have law-abiding, god-fearing citizens who continue to sit on juries, watch live murders on camera and still walk away not truly convinced that it is a punishable crime, there is a perception that this person deserved it, brought it on themselves or that they are that scary that the officer in question had no other choice because he was afraid for his life.

Many officers do not interact/engage with people of color on a regular basis, except when they are on a job empowered to police them. That is a breeding ground for misunderstanding and perception issues. When this officer is confronted with fear in a split moment because he feels that there is no way he can overpower someone larger than him or that this man is not backing down quickly enough, he is going to make a decision that is not well thought-out because he wants to make it home to his family. The problem is that if he sees this person as not quite human or like an animal, he might shoot first to save himself and then think about it later.

That has to be punishable in some sort of way. If it was, there would be a decrease in how often these happen. I guarantee it.

There are so many issues that factor into this racial divide in America including but not limited to racism, socio-economic oppression, the proliferation of violent images of black men in movies and music, a general lack of understanding, complete indifference when it comes to mainstream America trying to understand what the concept of white privilege really means and why people of color are frustrated.

When we hear President Obama constantly trying to say things at the podium to help "mainstream America" understand that the Black Lives Matter movement is no slight against them, is not accusing them, is not racist and is not saying that whites don't matter, you have 50% of the country that is completely unwilling to consider the point of view of citizens who feel oppressed (and finally have lots of video to prove it).

That is the part that hurts the most.

As far as the retaliation shootings of police officers is concerned, from the moment I heard about it, I was immediately infuriated -- as was every black person I know. It was disgusting, did not help black people at all and there is simply no justification nor sense to be made out of robbing other families of their loved ones. I lost my father at the age of 16 to a stroke and all I could personally do was cry for the daughters and sons who have to go through life fatherless, daughters who won't have their father to walk them down the aisle or protect them growing up -- it is truly terrifying. I don't wish it on anyone ever.

The majority of police became policemen to serve and protect communities across the country and they do just that. When black people are hurt, in danger or in crisis, we call on the cops just like any other person. We have respect for police and the sacrifices they make every day and we are very clear that black people need cops in our community just like any other community.

All of us have uncles, cousins and family that serve as policemen. We are not now, nor have we ever been anti-police as a community. The truth is, everyone watching the weekly videos of public executions of black men by law enforcement is affected in a different, personal way.

Watching those videos over and over again knocks the wind out of you and stays with you for a long time. When you have a person who is already mentally imbalanced and extremely hurt by the way that their lives are not valued, the reaction can be unpredictable and volatile.

It accomplishes nothing to harm policemen; all it truly does is provide a platform and justification to those who refuse to acknowledge the genocide against black men.

The nationwide narrative switched from the collective gasp we all had after watching the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile's murders and changed to a comfortable narrative that we all knew already. That cops are heroic, that they have a dangerous job, that they are underappreciated, etc. Those are all things that black people are well aware of and agree with.

We know there are heroic cops out there who risk their lives every day to help people they don't know and never met before. We know that their job is dangerous we know that they are underappreciated. (The way they are paid by this country is the biggest way that they are underappreciated, but I digress.)

None of this changes the fact that public executions of black men for being passively intimidating to you because of size or personality should be a punishable crime. Period.

How does this affect the staff at an ad agency? What do you say to your people?

At a communications and marketing firm like mine, your team is empowered to be creative, to be natural connectors and communicators with finesse. It's what makes you stand out from your competition and what achieves desirable results for your clients. When national tragedies from gun violence and racism happen, it affects everyone whether they appear affected or not.

Watching videos of American citizens taking their last breath when they had every intention of going home and having dinner with their families is traumatizing to everyone, everywhere. If it isn't, I would call into question that individual's stability.

It has been my experience that creatives and communications professionals operate at their highest selves when they feel safe, rewarded, respected and upwardly mobile. When you have professionals who, at their core, feel devalued, disrespected and like their opinions and feelings don't matter, it will definitely affect their productivity, morale, behavior and ultimately results on the job.

We have an open communication structure here at 135th. Everyone on the team knows that they can approach myself or my business partner and tell us what they are feeling/thinking about something and we will have a conversation. It has always been our policy since day one to troubleshoot through conversation. It's worked for the past 11 years and we will continue it.

There is nothing that I can say to my people to change how they are feeling and most of them know that I feel the same hurt, frustration and fear about what is happening not only with police brutality in our community, but gun violence overall.

We have three members of our team whom are LGBT and they were devastated after the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub in June. We let them share how they are feeling on our weekly team calls and we are all committed to setting an example for black excellence and excellence in communications/marketing and moving forward with renewed optimism that prayer works, solidarity works and that this nation is ever-slowly evolving into a better version of itself.

Is this the sort of thing the ad agency community can tackle?

Absolutely this is the sort of thing that the advertising/marketing/communications community can tackle and make a difference with. There have been many social justice issues that the marketing/communications industry has taken a leading role in helping to bring about change, like interracial marriages back in the '80s and '90s and recently LGBT civil rights issues.

The way the industry embraced gay marriage and families and weaved them into highly visible campaigns for traditionally safe, family-friendly brands. The way that the communications industry chose to empower spokespersons and ambassadors from the LGBT community was admirable.

These are the creatives and communicators that shape public opinion and how the public is informed.

All brands and their global budgets benefit from a more harmonious marketplace with a spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood. No industry benefits from hatred & division in the marketplace, except for the gun industry and the NRA.

It would be a stealth move and quite strategic for global brands to get involved and help bring Americans closer together rather than be a bystander waiting for the turmoil to blow over. At the ESPYs, we all saw how the sports industry and athletes have committed to taking a stand and being a voice to speak up for those who are constantly victimized by police brutality, gun violence, violence against police and racial inequality and are not afraid to say that enough is enough, and that this must stop. They were widely applauded for not remaining silent and carrying on business as usual with their awards ceremony.

There is no risk in participating in a solution-oriented collective strategy. The real risk is in allowing these divides to grow and get bigger. Everyone is affected, therefore everyone should do their part in bringing about evolution and resolution to these challenges. If they don't know where to start, let's have a conversation and get each other started.

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Please check out the other pieces in this series from Tara DeVeaux, Jimmy Smith and Steve Stoute.

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