Commentary

Race And Politics In The Age Of Anger

The financial market debacle-- catalyzed by the S&P's downgrade of American debt-- and its future repercussions have been blamed by many on politicians who have haggled too long over minutia (driven by anger, ego and small-minded power-mongering) at the expense of America's strong financial standing. Anger, fear and uncertainty are all common themes regardless of ethnicity, and there is not one person in this country that the current crisis does not impact. The fact that demographers predict that the country as a whole will become majority "minority" before 2045 makes the question of how race and ethnicity play a part in the current political situation quite interesting -- not to mention how this will likely be a determining factor in many 2012 battleground states.

Let's first tackle the economic side of the crisis. It is widely known that Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to be optimistic about the future in general -- even during times of uncertainty like the one we currently live in. In the case of Hispanics, this optimism is to some extent rooted in the nature of the Latin culture, but it is also the result of a practical benchmark with how life would be in their countries of origin in Latin America: Regardless of how bad things are now, many still believe that they are in better shape here in the United States. When it comes to African-Americans, the innate optimism of the segment has with no doubt been boosted by the fact that we now have the first African-American president in office.

But make no mistake -- being more optimistic does not mean that Hispanics and African-Americans do not care, and politicians would be making a huge mistake if they underestimated the seriousness of the situation when talking to voters within these ethnic segments. In fact, government figures indicate that both groups have been hit hardest by the crisis, and poll after poll clearly show that jobs and the economy are also the most important factors for these voters. Therefore, politicians would be wise to acknowledge the severity of the problem in their message to these constituents. In doing so, however, it is important that they keep a positive tone that is more in line with voters' attitude. Rather than emphasizing how dire the situation is now and playing the blame game -- like most politicians do in the mainstream media today -- they should focus on how they plan to get us out of this economic mess.

The political side of the issue is not that different, but there are some additional factors that politicians should consider when trying to win the ethnic vote:

First let's demystify a common misconception about Hispanic voters -- while immigration might be a topic that many are interested in, it is definitely not at the top of their list of priorities. In fact, I'd go ahead and hypothesize that the immigration issue is actually more prevalent among mainstream voters, whether they are for or against reforms. The economy and other aspects that affect them directly are indeed more relevant to Hispanic voters. So politicians should not expect to gain much support if they focus solely on immigration. With that said, however, all other things equal, being too outspoken against immigration reform can have an impact on the vote too.

Another crucial fact of the Latino segment is that they are a very diverse community, even more diverse than the mainstream in many aspects -- several countries of origin, important generational nuances, economic disparities, different lifestyles, and so on. While language can be a unifying factor, there are conservative and liberal Hispanics, and yes, I am sure there are a lot of independents too. While in the 2008 election Obama and the Democrats won among this segment, I wouldn't count blindly on the Hispanic vote moving forward. Things could go the other way easily, as has happened in the past. Let's not forget that several of Republicans' conservative values do resonate with traditional Hispanic values, like the role of family in our society.

Like Hispanics, African-Americans are also a very diverse group that for the most part, is concerned about the same issues affecting our country -- jobs and the economy at the top of the list. From a values perspective, our research clearly shows that there are also conservative and liberal African-Americans. With that said, however, the fact is that Barack Obama seems to be having a strong influence on how African-Americans vote. Electing the first African-American President was a huge achievement for the nation at large, but it was understandably monumental for African-Americans in particular. This was crystal clear in the 2008 elections, but continues to be evident today in the approval ratings that Obama has within this segment -- holding steadily in the 90 percentages.

The natural affinity of African-Americans with Obama in no way means that voters will blindly follow the President anywhere. Politicians would be making a huge mistake by assuming so, especially Democrats. As mentioned before, jobs, the economy and other factors that affect African-Americans are what matter and the message should focus on them. The advantage point that Obama has could be easily lost if his proposals do not align with the expectations of African-American voters.

Interestingly, the racial group that seems to be playing quite a prominent part in the current political discussion is Whites. Because they are still the majority of the population, politicians -- and marketers -- tend to downplay the role of Whites in a multicultural America. This way of thinking has some validity. In the world of advertising, for example, we have found that White consumers do not necessarily perceive commercials with Black-only or Asian-only casting to actually be targeted to Black or Asian consumers, respectively. They see them just as being targeted to them, regardless of the casting's race.

Therefore, there is no need to develop communication targeted to Whites as a racial group, right? Well, not so fast. As the U.S. becomes a nation of minorities and their racial segment continues to shrink proportionally, some Whites seem to be becoming more race conscious. I don't see this trend consolidating in the marketing world yet, but the Tea Party movement -- which is extremely much Whiter than what America is today-- is a clear evidence of this already happening in the political field.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with the group's economic message, which is actually shared by people of different races. It is more about their claim to "reinstate traditional American values." This is a real social phenomenon that -- politics and extremisms apart -- is understandable and should be discussed openly at every level. Let's not repeat mistakes of the past for the sake of being politically correct.

As politicians craft their campaigns, it is important for them to consider the nuances of each ethnic segment, including Whites. Obviously not just with the goal of winning their vote -- which I understand is important to them, but more importantly to ensure that the actions they take, if elected, are indeed in line with the multicultural nation the United States has become -- which is what matters to us, the people.

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