What We Can Learn From the Census' 'Negro' Option

A Lesson About Overreaction, Dividing Lines and the Truth About 'Post-Racial' America

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Pepper Miller
Pepper Miller
David A. Wilson, managing director and founder of thegrio.com, an African-American "video-centric news community," was a guest last week on the Rachel Maddow Show. Thegrio.com was the first to break the story about the controversial "Negro" option on the 2010 Census form. Thanks to viral media, the story is making national headlines in the blogosphere, and on major TV news programs and print media.

After having conducted research for the 2000 and 2010 Census African-American ad campaigns, I was neither surprised nor turned off by the Census Bureau's intent to develop inclusive options, especially given that more that 50,000 people wrote in "Negro" as their race during the 2000 Census.

I'm not the only one who thinks Wilson's allegation that some first-timers may not participate because of the "Negro" option may be an overreaction.

"I doubt that younger voters would be that turned off, given that terms like "Ho and Ni***ga are acceptable to many of them," says a consultant on the African-American consumer market, Jacklynn Topping. "While the word 'Negro' has certainly fallen out of favor, it's more dated than offensive." Topping adds. "In my opinion, had it never been brought up, many young people might laugh at the term, if they noticed it at all, and check it anyway."

Topping raises an interesting point given that the upcoming 2010 African-American Census campaign tested well across all age groups and various segments of the Black population.

Created by Globalhue, the campaign received positive feedback for explaining the purpose of the Census and for using relevant images and situations that motivated the target to want to participate.

Separately, the marketing community is quick to believe that younger Blacks are "post-racial" and want to skip conversations about race while embracing images of multiracial harmony. Not true. Black identity combined with the need for equal treatment and respect is always an important aspect of the Black-American experience.

In support of The Jena Six, Black media brought together the often divided pre- and post-Civil Rights generations together as a unified front. Black newspapers, urban and talk radio mobilized Black Boomers while online activists, bloggers and urban radio reached Black Gen Xers and Echo Boomers.

Dr. Beverly Tatum's 2003 landmark book "Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" uncovers the realities of African-American children who search for their own identity and social acceptance by clustering toward their own racial group. The prevalence of African-American bloggers, like thegriot.com, are reaching millions of Black people both young, and old, everyday-- influencing opinion and driving the conversation.

Most Blacks, young or old don't believe in post-racialism, nor are they post-racial i.e. overlooking someone's race. They may not care what race someone is, but they do notice and understand the cultural cues behind race. To succeed in reaching and engaging Black America it is important that marketers understand that African Americans are always "Black when they need to be" and are likely to unite in the common cause of racial equality and against discrimination and stereotyping when needed.

The community is more united on participating in the Census than not, but are divided on this issue. In this case, there will be some tension arising from a younger generation not necessarily keen on the word 'Negro,' but I don't expect it to become a huge issue.

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