We Need to Drop 'Post-Racial' From Our Vocabulary

Equality Doesn't Mean Overlooking Ethnicity

By Published on .

Stephen Palacios
Stephen Palacios
"Why hasn't America moved beyond the old, stultifying debate on race in the age of Obama?" asked a recent New York Times article.

Every time an issue related to race relations in the U.S. hits the news, we are inundated with references to the idea President Obama purportedly represents: the post-racial society. Articles and pundits fill the airwaves lamenting the shortfall of this generally undefined state of being. This has been happening increasingly since the day Obama was elected. I think this should stop and that as marketers, we should help change the terms of the debate. Here's why:

New ways of thinking require new language
I will define "post-racial society" as an era of greater equality between black people and non-Hispanic white people in the U.S. We need to dump this inherently flawed phrase and replace it. This phrase was popularized by pundits older than 45 (and closer to 55-year-old baby boomers, who are 85% white and 60 million strong vs. 50% non-white for generations that follow). Let's break the phrase down.

"Post": after; to get past. This idea suggests we are going to or, even more, should get past acknowledging differences in skin color. I think this idea, tied to the vaunted notion of a "colorblind" society, was brought into boomer consciousness by an interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

My theory is that those who created and now routinely use post-racial are well intended, but are unwittingly propagating a negative racial paradigm. The idea we should stop acknowledging skin color suggests there is something inherently wrong with differences in pigmentation and all that it represents. With skin color often come distinctive traditions, cultures and elements of personal identity that are deep, rich and formative. How do you get past this and, really, should you?

Acknowledging a key dimension of a person's identity means accepting it, not overlooking it. According to Essence's 2010 "State of the African American Women" study, 25% of African-American millennial women have inter-racial dating relationships. Do we think they don't notice their partner's skin color? In this same study, 83% of all non-Hispanic white respondents, women 18-64, think interracial marriage is acceptable for their kids. Interracial marriages are skyrocketing. It's not colorblind. It's color-aware.

It might make sense to get onto this bandwagon soon. Quintessentially, American brand icon McDonald's, which has a stated marketing philosophy of "leading with ethnic insights," does 40% of its U.S. business with ethnic minorities, and half that group is under 13 years old. Over 45% of "young people" today in the U.S. are either African American or Hispanic.

So let's ditch the whole "post" concept.

Now onto "racial."

When it comes to race, there are several definitions that relate to a "category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits." However, there is one definition that doesn't get into the mix. It is the notion that race is an artifice, at least as it relates to the genetic and anthropological definition. As David Hollinger has observed, "Two of the most eloquent non-believers in race, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Tzvetan Todorov, have carried on a vehement debate over whether the word race should be placed in quotation marks within the pages of a book about the role of race in literature, the contributors to which agreed that there was no such thing as race."

Why is this important? Many assumptions of racial supremacy are predicated on the false belief of immutable genetic distinction. As Christopher Hitchens recently wrote, "One of the great advantages possessed by Homo sapiens is the amazing lack of variation between its different 'branches.' Since we left Africa, we have diverged as a species hardly at all. If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed. We do not suffer from the enormous differences that separate other primates, let alone other mammals."

Here is the conundrum: On the one hand, acknowledging skin color and all its attributes is needed. On the other, wrapping them into a generally misunderstood term -- "racial" -- is larded with historical assumptions of genetic distinctions and therefore deterministic beliefs of who is better than whom. To move this conversation forward, I agree with Hollinger that we need to migrate to the term "ethnic." While ethnic is not totally guilt free, it generally is a less value-laden term than "racial" in the U.S.

I think ethnicity has what we need -- implications of strong societal bonds, deep traditions, distinctive value systems -- yet is more malleable than "racial," which feels like it will include elements that falsely suggest inherent genetic difference.

But there seems to be a monumental shift in attitudes toward "ethnicity." In addition to the interracial attitudes already cited, in study after study there is a snowball effect under way relating to cultural openness. How did we get here? What forces are driving this new reality? Simply put, demographics, technology, globalization and urbanization.

For example, let's look at urbanization. Between 1970 and 2009, urban centers in the U.S. grew dramatically. "Metropolitan areas housed more than 80% of the U.S. population and produced nearly 90% of U.S. GDP during the 2001 to 2005 period. In 2005, for example, the metropolitan area with the largest GDP -- New York City -- produced over $1 trillion in final goods and services, while the smallest metropolitan area -- Lewiston, Idaho -- produced only $1.5 billion in final goods and services; a more than 600-fold difference in the size of each metropolitan area's economy," according to the 2009 Federal Reserve Report. The top 15 urban areas in the U.S. account for the majority of total economic activity. In the U.S., this is the "market."

Within the borders of the U.S., outside the borders of the U.S. and with the increasingly diminishing borders of the globe, the U.S. consumer market has more reason to understand and be understood on the basis of cultural identity and values orientation. U.S. companies such as Pepsi and Time Warner are starting to respond with new thinking, new organizational structures and new tools of analysis and execution to serve this dynamic.

And what we should all consider going forward is a new lexicon.

Post New
General Market Mainstream
Racial Ethnic or Intercultural
Color Blind Color Aware
Multicultural Intercultural

How about we use "Intercultural New Mainstream" or "New Mainstream" for short? Intercultural means "sharing of culture," whereby different ethnicities can (and by the way have always) adopt elements of one another's culture. The history of the U.S. is replete with this experience, and African American culture has often set the trend.

This affects everyone
I think this shift is becoming increasingly more important as less empowered non-Hispanic whites are starting to wonder where they net out in the post-racial society. If we are accepting each other more in a color-aware manner and judging each other on the content of our character, where does that lead? Shirley Sherrod's recent poignant personal story on racial reconciliation speaks of the shared experience of disempowerment between poor blacks and poor whites. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., argues in "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege" society should be allocating benefits on the basis of socio-economic status, not skin color -- except for African-Americans. In a New York Times column entitled "Roots of White Anxiety," Ross Douthat recently warned of white concerns, citing a comprehensive study titled "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life" that suggests poor whites are being penalized in admission to elite colleges

These examples speak to the need to reaffirm what we declare to be fundamentally American virutes -- meritocracy, personal responsibility and equality. In "The Ordeal of Integration," Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that the path to ethnic reconciliation starts with a "path of personal autonomy," with a moral declaration and focus on personal responsibility. While not negating the structural and systematic dimensions of racial inequality, Patterson argues for an individual self-determination that is quintessentially American.

Maybe, if we change the language from "post-racial society" to the "new mainstream," and allow the principals of our American ideal to better guide us, the stultifying debate can change.

Maybe, in accepting new language, appreciating progress and acknowledging our ability to self-define, the next generations will change the debate.

Maybe younger generations have already figured a lot of this out. I hope so.

Stephen Palacios is exec VP of Cheskin Added Value, New York.
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