Guess What, America? There Is a Black Middle Class

And You Should Learn How to Speak Its Language

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Moses Foster Moses Foster
I don't think it's a leap of logic to assume that many of the misconceptions attributed to minority groups are the result of stereotyping. The power of stereotypes to influence is phenomenally (and disappointingly) impressive. I've seen them blow up the best laid plans of well-educated, experienced professionals, and leave them stammering, backtracking, and chagrined shells of their former selves in a matter of seconds.

That's why I want to shatter one right now.

To all the marketers out there trying to reach us black folks, I'd like to issue this declaration: There is a black middle class.

Experienced marketers everywhere are probably throwing up their arms, shaking their heads, and rolling their eyes right about now. "Thank you, very much, Moses. We're aware of that," they're saying. "The whole black community isn't made up of hip-hoppers. We learned that circa 1999. And then the movie 'Crash' came out and reinforced the point. And isn't that Barack Obama impressive? Yeah, Moses, we got it ... thank you very much."


Do we? Do we really have it?

Here's why I ask.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference. It was full of the kind of intelligent, well-educated business professionals, entrepreneurs and executives I spoke of earlier. After the conference there was a reception, where these professionals traded their business attire in for more leisurely attire, had some drinks and let loose a bit. During the reception my friend Andre and I began conversing with one reception attendee who seemed quite fascinated with us. I entered into a conversation that, believe it or not, we are still having in 2008.

"I expect that you two like white women," was the assertion directed at us by our newfound acquaintance.

I admit to being stunned by the confidence in the declaration. But I was exponentially more interested in hearing the supporting rationale than in catching some attitude at that particular moment.

"Oh yeah? Why's that?" I asked.

"Because you talk white. You're so articulate."

Huh? What? I'm sorry? Run that by me again? Did you just say what I thought you said?

Now let me state for the record that I love all people -- black, white, brown, blue or green. I'm sure Andre feels the same.

But the contention that, because two black men can functionally assemble subjects and predicates, we feel that white women have become our recompense is both a glaringly non-parallel argument and a fundamental misunderstanding of our community.

I implore you as marketers to get it right, even if no one else does.

We have an obligation to know our target audiences, so that these misconceptions don't bleed into our communications and feed the stereotype engine. The results can be disastrous -- both to company's trying to build brands within diverse audiences, as well as young, impressionable members of those diverse audiences whose perceptions are shaped in large part by the messaging that accosts them day to day.

So marketers, heed me now.

It's not a curiosity. There is a vibrant, thriving black-middle class, and we think middle-class thoughts. If you want to reach me with an advertising message, then let's talk about these things:
  • I'm interested in leveraging my education, my career, my background and even my esteemed (according to the conference attendee) oratory skills to increase access for Black people to the tools, resources, and people that are going to help the community. I'd like to hear in your advertisement about how your product helps me do that.

  • I'm interested in improving my lot in life so that I can ensure the people I care about in life are secure. How does your product or company benefit me in that way?

  • I'm interested in helping less fortunate members of the community visualize the possibilities when they think about their future. Can you show me how your offerings help me accomplish this?

  • Believe it or not, the race of my prospective mate didn't crack my "top 10 best thoughts of the day" list.
Yes, America, there is indeed a black middle-class -- and we are quite a fascinating lot indeed.

We can use proper English, fight the compulsion to put rotating rims on our vehicles, and we have a considerable amount of discretionary income that we will employ ... with those that take the time to get to know us.

So the next time you're struggling to root out consumer insights for the big campaign targeted at African Americans, and an articulate black person captures your imagination, you might want to think about it the way Andre put it:

"I don't talk white," he said, "I talk like I've got $100,000 of education invested in me."
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