Steve Stoute on Racism: We Have to Fight In Ad Industry's Backyard

Exec Wonders Why We're Still Debating the Value of a Black Life in America

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Steve Stoute
Steve Stoute Credit: Courtesy Translation

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 Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation. (Here are the answers from Amusement Park Entertainment's Jimmy Smith, 135th Street Agency's Shante Bacon 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?

Steve Stoute: What is done in the dark always comes to the light. And the events of the past few weeks have once again put a spotlight on police brutality as a structural, legitimatized and state-sponsored assault on black men and women in this country. But these recent deaths are not a new phenomenon. The democratization of access to camera phones and the advent of social media are. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile's lives were taken from them without cause, but perhaps what is even scarier to think about is how many black lives are taken when there are no cameras to bear witness.

Worse still is the fact that even when these violent acts are caught on camera, often the perpetrators aren't brought to justice (in the cases of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice to highlight a few).

We live in a world where trained police officers can panic and act on impulse, but untrained civilians have to remain calm with a gun in their face to avoid being murdered. We live in a world that justifies that murder, by claiming that an officer had reasonable cause to act or fear for their lives. One where the police force in question is then allowed to "thoroughly investigate" itself, only to find no wrongdoing. We live in a world where although non-white Americans make up less than 38% of the population, they account for almost half of those killed by police, and over 53% when you look at those killed while unarmed.

Over the past few years, we've seen video after video of black men being murdered at the hands of police, and it's almost as though we, as a nation, are becoming desensitized to what we are seeing on camera. We can't. There's too much at stake.

We are seeing police officers effectively seeking out opportunities to create confrontation where it did not live. We watch them literally create that conflict, escalate its severity and then justify the assassination of another human being because of the fear they, themselves, created. And what's more, we're watching families be destroyed, the value of black lives diminished and a nation becoming more divided.

I've heard it said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.

To that end, I think it's worth noting that the very first police force in America was created as a "patrol" to keep slave populations under control. They were literally empowered to brutalize black bodies in order to "keep the peace."

Our policing systems today are still rooted in many of those same ideals, a system that continues to empower officers to police communities other than their own, communities they often have implicit bias towards, communities that they want (whether consciously or subconsciously) to control.

But a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect. The elements of a system that continue to legalize and legitimize the murder of black people in this country have to be destroyed at all levels.

I believe that starts with changing the perception and narrative around race in this country.

Today, we are still asking the question, "What is the value of a black life in America?"

The irony of even having to ask a question such as this—when black people have contributed so much to society, culturally, economically, politically—is not lost on me, and still, it's a question that we have to answer. We can't stop fighting until the answer is obvious to everyone in this country and world regardless of their race.

We have a right to be here. We have a right to feel safe. We have a right to a system and government built to protect us too.

In "Strength to Love," Martin Luther King Jr. states: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

If only love can drive out hate, we have to remember that love is a verb. It requires action. If only light can drive out the darkness, we have to be that light. To choose goodness in the face of all of this tragedy is an act of protest.

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

Mr. Stoute: The turmoil and devastation felt in this country is palpable. And those feelings of sadness, confusion and hopelessness don't leave employees once they step foot at work. In fact, that pain is likely exacerbated by attempting to work through the grief, especially since so much of the job requires us to react in real time to current events.

Because of the nature of this business, it's often hard to know exactly what to say to your agency in times like these. In fact, I don't think there is a "right thing."

You don't tell them, "Everything is going to be OK," and you certainly can't tell them how to feel.

What we can do -- and what we have done -- is create a safe space for Translators to come together and discuss current events, garner support from one another and grieve first.

We acknowledge that it might be difficult for many employees to just return to business as usual, and we want to be sensitive to the fact that many of us are experiencing trauma in the face of everything happening in this country.

At Translation, we pride ourselves on being one of the most diverse agencies in the industry -- and with that diversity comes a wealth of different talents, and perspectives. The onus is on us to empower our employees to use those considerable talents to create real systemic change.

To that end, we don't just have the senior executives or any singular department or individual deciding how we respond publicly as an agency. Instead we've opted for a collaborative process focused on creating solutions. Rather than just make a statement, we're inciting action.

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

Mr. Stoute: At the root of any societal issue is human truth, especially those truths we find hard to confront. The advertising business has always been about telling stories around human truths, and making those stories accessible to and consumable by the masses.

Today, the truth is that racism is alive and well in this country. The truth is that due to ignorance, lack of education and socially conditioned prejudice, the value of a black life is still being questioned.

How can we as a community come together to speak out against racial injustice, when we perpetuate that very injustice within the walls of our own agencies? We can never properly use the power of this platform as long as the industry continues to perpetuate the same cycle while justifying a lack of diversity not only throughout hiring practices, but in the work that we create.

Just take a look at the numbers -- only about 5.85% of the advertising world is made up of African-Americans, and it is the only minority group to have seen a decrease in representation over the last four years. African-American men are one the most underrepresented groups in the entire industry, at just 2.58%. It doesn't have to be this way.

I want to challenge all agency leads to execute a company-wide diversity check and strategize on creating pathways to improve the diversity of their staff and by extension, the creative. This is not just about diversity in terms of race, but a diversity of perspective.

African-Americans, women and other minorities have so many barriers to entry, and if those walls were torn down, they would bring so much to this community and to the work. In these trying times, we must come together to end racism in all of the places it lives. We cannot be afraid to start that fight in our own backyards.

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

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