The racial reckoning in recent years, which hit a boiling point with the death of George Floyd in May 2020, ignited an exploration of the structural and systemic issues that defined the inequality, injustice, and emergent cultural trends between Blacks and Whites in our nation’s history — and how those same issues continue to affect the daily lives for people of color across America.
This deep look into the racial inequality that has historically affected people of color caused many people to challenge and rethink their own perceptions of Black Americans. Many dominant perceptions are negative stereotypes that gloss over the realities of daily living, motivations, and desires. These stereotypes affect how Black Americans are represented in market research, advertising, and strategy.
Corporate leaders have struggled with this topic — some are tiptoeing around it or avoiding it entirely so they don’t seem polarizing. But employers need to understand that these issues impact their employees, whether they address it or not. According to our May 2023 Pulse Survey, 81% of Americans believe we’re getting more divided, and only 4 in 10 Americans have a daily meaningful interaction with someone of a different race or ethnicity.
In this divisive climate, championing our shared humanity is more important than ever. We met with two incredible leaders in this space for this purpose ourselves — Pepper Miller is an author, Black-American consumer subject matter expert, and president + senior analyst at Hunter-Miller, a recognized Black-American market research and strategic planning firm. Jean Accius is president + CEO at Creating Healthier Communities, a nonprofit organization that brings nonprofits, businesses, and communities together to improve community health, with a focus on health equity, addressing underlying issues, and removing barriers so everyone can thrive. Together, we explored the historic discrimination against Black Americans, how broken systems largely affect people of color, and how to create actual change in our society on these issues, starting with ourselves as individuals.
In Order to Move Forward, We Have to Look Back
Race has always played an unfortunate, important role in America’s history, creating racial divides and systemic inequalities that continue to affect Black Americans today. Though it can be difficult to look back at the way people of color have been treated in this country, it’s vital to understand the history of race relations in order to understand how this history has shaped daily realities for Black Americans.
“One of the most important insights about understanding Black people and race relations is history,” Miller said. “It is the most important insight for marketing, for politics, for religion…It’s everything, because our beliefs and behavior ladder back up to this history. But with this history, there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of shame associated with it. People would rather just not talk about it. It makes people uncomfortable. People say it’s divisive and some people say it’s rude actually to talk about it. But that is the key to understanding who we are and what we do and how we can come together — and it takes courage.”
Miller also mentioned that Black people have to think about their Blackness 90% of the time — which affects behavior like where they go, what they do, and how they speak, causing them to be hyperaware of their environment in a way that White people don’t have to worry about. This vigilance and constant need to be alert, in order to change the way they’re perceived, stems from the long history of mistreatment and discrimination aimed at Black Americans.
“I love being Black,” Miller said. “I love my culture. We are colorful. We are loud. We are emotional…It’s also exhausting…I did some work with the symphony orchestra and they’re like, the Black people aren’t coming to the symphony. They said that the symphony was a place where even White people said it was very White. But wherever we go, many of us tend to look for each other all the time. We’re looking especially in spaces where we’re not there. We’re looking for each other, we’re looking for representation, and we’re looking for positive realism, particularly when it comes to advertising and marketing and not stereotypes.”
Accius also talked poignantly about the reality of being a Black man, and how his gender presents an entirely different set of stereotypes and perceptions — again stemming from the historical treatment of Black men — that he has to counter in his daily life.
“It comes to constantly having to counter those stereotypes or constantly having to be in fear of me being an African American male,” Accius said. “Having to be in fear if there’s a police officer driving behind me. I have to do certain things. I have to make sure that my hands are up. If I get pulled over because I was driving too fast, I need to say, officer, I’m going to take out my wallet now. Is that okay? I mean there’s all of these things you go through. Will I be able to see my kids? Will I get home safely? You just never know…Those are lived experiences.”
Broken Systems and The Importance of Racial Equity
Many of our nation’s economic institutions, structures, and systems were designed by White people, for White people, which means they place Black and other people of color at an inherent disadvantage. In her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson refers to this as a form of a caste system based upon race that exists in our society to this day. Some may find that statement offensive, unfair, or difficult to hear. But a review of our history shows this systemic injustice created a new set of hurdles Black Americans have to navigate even in society today.
“The Civil Rights movement was not just about race, it was about economic justice,” Accius said. “What [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] said was the fact that this idea of pulling yourself by your own bootstraps is the equivalent to basically tying a person’s leg and then saying, go run the race, right? Meaning that there’s a difference between equality and equity and that these structural inequalities, whether it’s redlining or other forms of inherent or unintended consequences of discrimination, really puts certain groups further behind, even though they’re willing to run the race. The hurdles that African Americans have had to jump over has been much higher in many ways for many of the things that we’re talking about.”
The difference between equality and equity is important — equality means that we are all given the same opportunities, while equity recognizes we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to right these imbalances. Part of the problem with these economic systems is that they are not designed to consider equity, so the burden of navigating through these broken systems falls largely upon communities of color. This leads to generational cycles of inequity.
“One of the blind spots that we have is misunderstanding that we are not post-racial,” Miller said. “Black people have come a long way since civil rights…I don’t even think it’s 60 years old yet. We were enslaved longer than we’ve had civil rights. But people look at a Jean Accius and a Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and Rosalind Brewer and Ken Chenault, and what they fail to understand is that…we are still navigating through broken systems. Education, broken. Housing, broken. Finance, as Jean mentioned, broken. Healthcare, broken, and of course the justice system is broken. Those are huge barriers to the success of Black people…When you think about Black people and what our opportunities are, we have a funnel versus others who may have an opportunity of a three or four lane highway.”
How to Close the Gap on Racial Injustice
Miller emphasized the need for change in the market research industry when it comes to the lack of diversity and inclusivity. For example, focus groups — both in person and online — are typically recruited by someone who is White. They are greeted and moderated by someone who is White. And Black respondents who have participated in enough focus groups will know that they are most likely being observed by someone who is White, too. All of this can affect the way people of color respond in focus groups and research studies, because they’re aware that their answers are being analyzed by someone who does not look like them or understand their experience. To gain more accurate insights, better representation, and a deeper understanding of communities of color, market research needs to be more diverse and inclusive.
“The research industry is notorious for not being inclusive,” Miller said. “It’s shameful. I am one of three raisins in a bowl of vanilla ice cream…We have to change the way we are doing research. We have to make the questions, the tools relevant. We have to make the experience relevant…We have to invite them to be Black. I think we need to do that for Hispanic, for Asian…We have to invite them to be comfortable with themselves because these segments will tell the truth, but they don’t tell the whole truth because they’re trying to fit in. And again, that’s part of that exhaustion, trying to fit in. Even though you ask people to tell their truth, they don’t always tell the truth because they’re like, what’s happening here? What’s going on here? So, making sure that market research is more inclusive in terms of the people, in terms of the tools that we use. It’s got to change.”
What role do businesses and corporate leaders play in addressing this complex and difficult issue? Accius pointed to efforts in shaping office cultures, policies, and the way communities of color are represented at work.
“Business has important and significant role to play,” Accius said. “There’s a huge gap between what CEOs and executive team members think they’re doing relative to what their workers think they should be doing. There’s a significant amount of opportunity to really think about how you close those gaps. When we talk about equity, what does that look like in terms of who’s getting promoted? What does that look like in terms of the salary increases? What does that actually look like in terms of who’s sitting on the board level?
Change must be intentional, Accius explained.
“Employers have to be very intentional both about creating that culture of inclusion and also being very clear about what it looks like as it relates to the business operations,” Accius said. “You can’t assume that what is happening in the broader ecosystem doesn’t impact your workers. We have a lot of work to do both in terms of creating the space for these conversations within our organizations, and then not just creating the space to talk about it, but also doing something about it that is tangible.”
On an individual level, how can we create positive, societal change? This, too, has to be intentional to combat the divisive nature of our current society. Accius emphasized the importance of being an active partner, as opposed to being a passive ally. It takes more effort to overcome centuries of historical discrimination. It takes active partners, acting and working together to change how we see each other.
“How do we start to become more socially connected and how do we take the time to get to know someone who looks different from us?” Accius said. “We as a society need to become more intentional about ensuring that whatever we do from a policy, from a business, from a programmatic perspective, that we’re elevating the voices…It has to be very intentional and active representation at the table to ensure that as we’re designing new policies, practices, programs, that those lived experiences are being embedded in what we’re actually doing.”
We addressed this topic in our Heart+Mind Connections series to challenge perceptions and inspire action. We acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and we also recognize the solutions seem simple in nature but can be difficult to implement for many reasons. It starts with seeing each other as humans, asking and listening to the answers to the “why,” and acting differently as we learn. Change is needed in all facets of life to remove the color of skin as an indicator of opportunity and perception.
At Heart+Mind Strategies, we believe in people and the power of choice. We seek to champion the human by helping organizations, businesses, and governments connect with the people who matter most to their success. We are all in this together. Take action. Be a partner in the effort to drive this change in the spheres of influence you have in your life.