How Will White America Respond in the Obama Era?

Marketers Should Be Wary of Wishful Thinking About Assimilation, Racism

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Pepper Miller Pepper Miller
There is much discussion about the impact of the Obama presidency on the Black community. In particular, Obama's presidential election has illuminated kitchen-table conversations and buzz in the Black community about accountability, responsibility and, of course, pride. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about this mind-set and these conversations in "Obama and the Myth of the Black Messiah": "The truth is that the dominant conversation in the black community today is not about racism or victimization, but about self-improvement." This topic is not as new as the media tends to promote. Yet the Obama presidency will no doubt provide the African-American community a focal point to help keep it on track.

The burning question for me is how White America will respond to Black America during the Obama presidency. I'm sorry, but the "I-don't-see-race-when-I-see-a-black-person" statement has always bothered me. I realize that the person delivering it may mean well, but I tend to agree with Jonathan Jackson (the son of Jesse Jackson Sr.): "When people say they don't see race, it's another way of saying they don't want to see race. People should be proud to see African-American, Asian, Latino ..."

With that thought, I have observed, a range of conversations in mainstream journalistic articles and the blogosphere. But two stand out: 1) the end of racism and 2) an interest in Black America.

On one end, we see America hoisting the racism-is-over flag, with many believing that Obama's presidential victory is proof positive that racial equality has been achieved, though several journalists attempt to diffuse this mind-set, explaining that Obama is one man, one example, and not a panacea for fixing the racial problem in America. But this attitude has provided fodder for many marketers to permanently plant Black Americans into the general-market segment as they perceive the Obama win as confirmation that Black America has assimilated 100% into the predominate culture. Former radio executive-turned-media-company owner Zamira Jones explains: "We have seen the devaluation of the African-American segment over time. The better we have done, the more marketers have seen us a homogenized group. In essence, we are White people in waiting." It's amazing that the pundits tell us that in order to fit in, African Americans (and others) have to give up their culture when everything around us tells us that Black culture continues to influence mainstream.

On the other end, there appears to be an interest in Black America and a need to re-educate the public about who African Americans really are as a people, and the effect that the Obama win has had not only on the Black community, but also on mainstream America as well. Zamira Jones adds: "Obama's election has sparked an interest nationally and internationally in terms of not only wanting to understand 'Who is he?,' but also, 'Who are they [African Americans]?'"

Evidence of this interest is seen post election in major mainstream print media for example. In one week I came across a few key articles among my regular print news sources. Harvard professor Orlando Patterson writes about the Black influence and exclusion in "The New Mainstream" and provides a contrasting point of view to White America's perception about Black assimilation: "While Blacks have made absolute gains in income and education since the 1960s, their relative position has not changed. ... Socially, blacks are more separate now than at the end of the 1960s."

The Chicago Tribune's cover story in the Nov. 10 issue featured an article about diversity in the workplace, and primarily focused on African-American authority in the workplace. Luke Visconti, partner and co-founder of Diversity, which publishes a magazine on workplace diversity, said this in the article: "Obama's visibility on the national and world stage is an important step toward changing perceptions and cementing the idea that it's normal to have minority leaders. ... As we become very used to an authority figure who's Black, we're going to be much more comfortable with authority figures who are Black." Visconti called this overcoming the "the expectation of the exceptional."

And finally, Allison Samuels discussed the importance and potential lessons learned from Michelle Obama as the first Black First Lady in her article "What Michelle Can Teach Us" and in her cover story for Newsweek, "The Meaning of Michelle," Samuels writes: "Few mainstream publications have done in-depth features on regular African-American women (and no, Halle Berry, Oprah and Beyonce don't count). Little is known about who we are, what we think and what we face on a regular basis. The new First Lady will have the chance to knock down stereotypes about black women and educate the world about American black culture more generally." '

But for those stereotypes to be knocked down, for the education to happen, White America in general -- and marketers in particular -- will have to pay attention and be willing students.

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