Is Race Dying?

Race, Marketing and the Obama Factor

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Pepper Miller Pepper Miller
In November 2007, Gary Kamiya wrote a provocative piece for salon.com entitled "Is race dying?" He concluded that America was getting away from the race issue.

Alluding to popular black vs. white events such as the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson case, Hurricane Katrina, and slavery, Kamiya alleged that since 9/11, these events are "no longer at the center of the national consciousness." Kamiya's conclusions were primarily influenced by the findings from the 2007 Pew Study on black progress. The study reported a decline in black optimism (the "erosion of Black racial solidarity") and an alignment of the same values between blacks and America in general.

There are also media images that provide a semblance of support for Kamiya's point of view. Examples include: the black/white buddy characters in the TV cable show "Psyche"; "The View" regulars Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd, who provide an equal racial balance to counterpart co-hosts Joy Behar and Elizabeth Hasselbeck; in its new season, "Brothers and Sisters" introduced the interracial love interest between characters portrayed by Danny Glover and Sallie Field; and although Hanna Montana appeals to a majority of white tweens, she is gaining popularity among black tweens as well.

In my opinion, America has never been more colorful, yet America is still very segregated, and very sensitive about race. There are various arguments against Kaimya's conclusions:
  • Jerome D. Williams, professor of African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says, "If you look at the United States in terms of where we live and who our friends are, and where we go to church, we live in different worlds." The conclusion here is that diversity, for the most part, occurs primarily in the workplace.

  • The Pew study also reported that discrimination remains a pervasive fact of life for Black Americans. Blacks often face discrimination when applying for a job, renting an apartment, buying a house, shopping, eating at restaurants or when applying for college or university. By contrast, whites, by majorities of two to one, largely believe blacks rarely face bias in such situations.

  • The current presidential race represents one of the strongest examples of the (perceived vs. real) changing ideas about race in America. Barack Obama's appeal transcends race and gender and has galvanized young people to participate in the voting process. But, don't be fooled by the Obama Factor. Both Senators Obama and Clinton's positions in this presidential race are indeed historic. What's disturbing about Obama's participation is the Emperor's-new-clothes-mindset that the public and some media have about race. If we don't speak about race, then it's not there.
In A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, Shelby Steele writes about Obama's challenge to self-identify (or not) with his blackness. Steele, who like Obama is bi-racial, writes: "American blacks have two great masks that are worn for advantage in American mainstream: bargaining and challenging." According to Steele, "Bargainers make a deal with white America. They give them the benefit of the doubt: I will not rub American history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me." Steel identifies Obama and Oprah as two bargainers.

"Challengers, on the other hand," says Steele, "never give white America the benefit of the doubt. They assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise." Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are described as challengers. Steele attests, "Today's Black identity is grounded in challenging. Thus, Obama is a bound man. He has to drop all masks, all obsessions with identity."

Given the fact that Blacks were brought to America for the purpose of being enslaved, there is a lot of shame (among blacks and whites) associated with slavery. As a result, many Blacks yearn to be respected by America and detest the idea of being labeled as "too black."

In a Los Angeles Times article titled "Racism in post racial America," Uzodinma Iweala writes:
"The desire that the subject of race be set aside in the current "post-racial" political conversation shows that society is unwilling to openly face its worst fear: Not only could a black man ably lead this nation, but the mere fact of a black president would force both the majority and minority populations to reset our parameters for normalcy."
Finally, the misunderstanding of multicultural vs. multiracial marketing is ongoing. The assumption that lifestyle marketing is the end-all and that race is no longer an issue for consumers is a huge misstep by many marketers.

Jacklynn Topping is an African-American business strategist. Her response to marketers' cultural and racial assimilation myths is great: "I know America is a melting pot of different people, races and culture, but why do I have to melt white?"
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