The implosion of the Richards Group–at one point the U.S.’s largest independent ad agency–as a result of its octogenarian founder’s critique that a proposed campaign for Motel 6 was “too black” will live in infamy alongside the Grey/Color Wheel and Campbell Ewald scandals that most people have long forgotten at this point.
The broad repudiation of Stan Richards’ racist words and the mass exodus of client accounts from his eponymous agency were warranted, but absent from the subsequent rush to cancel Richards and broadcast corporate platitudes about diversity and inclusion was any serious discussion about the systemic racism that forms the basis for executive attitudes about the business economics of black communities and black consumers in the U.S.
Data from the Federal Reserve starkly illustrates the vast disparity between the net worth (graphed below in 000s of dollars) that White families have compared to Black, Hispanic, and other ethnicity families in the U.S. It’s probably fair to assume that most wealthy white business executives know and understand this reality–most simply don’t have the audacity to verbalize its influence on their decision-making processes.
Until systemic racism and historical injustices have been fundamentally addressed in the U.S., no amount of cancel culture or heartfelt statements from corporate communication departments will have any impact on the harsh economic realities that average black families endure in this country. Featuring more diverse actors and models in positive representations in advertisements isn’t a bad thing–doing so can undoubtedly cultivate better attitudes and perceptions of minority individuals and communities, but without real policies that successfully address fairness in educational and employment opportunities and–ultimately–economic disparities, all the feel-good, diversity-inclusive ads in the world will make little difference to the financial conditions of Black families.
The topic of reparations tends to be a controversial subject for my students, which is why I often use it to initiate classroom discussions about economic equity. I tend to start with a question that asks students to agree or disagree that the descendants of wealthy families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies benefit from the vast wealth that their relatives built. Nearly all agree that they do. My next question–and the jumping off point for the discussion–is, “If those descendants still benefit from the conditions of their ancestors, how can we possibly think that the descendants of enslaved people don’t still suffer from the injustices inflicted upon theirs?” It’s a question we would all do well to reckon with if we hope to actually fix the problem of things in the U.S. being too black instead of just papering over it with kinder, more politically correct words.