Racial injustices and inequality aren’t new problems in the U.S. These issues have been ingrained in the American fabric and many other countries, for centuries. 

And in 2020, we’re seeing widespread acknowledgement and action around this truth – probably the most transformative awakening since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, among other Black Americans, have sparked global outrage. It’s forced individuals and societies around the world, including governments and brands, to look inwardly and address their own racial prejudices and behaviors. 

For too long, the issue of systemic racism has been swept under the rug or disregarded by many who felt it wasn’t a big issue in their country or simply wasn’t their problem. But it’s too easy to just turn a blind eye.   

Dismantling systemic racism involves making considerable shifts in how we think and behave from the inside out and from the ground up – together, as individuals and as a society.

Most importantly, this means empowering black voices, listening to what they’re saying, and taking meaningful steps together to create long-lasting change. 

Many people, businesses, and media outlets use the term “minorities” to describe non-white ethnic groups or in the UK “BAME” – Black, Asian, and minority ethnic – and while it might seem pretty innocent at first, both terms fail to recognize that each ethnic or racial group being lumped under those terms have very different life experiences and backgrounds.

Getting to know the attitudes of different ethnic and racial groups is essential at a time where the impetus for change is being vocally recognized on multiple levels. 

Our new dataset, GWI USA, was created to help brands keep pace with every pivotal movement affecting American consumers’ lives. It offers powerful insight into different U.S. racial and ethnic communities, including their attitudes, interests, hopes, fears, and aspirations.

By leveraging this data, we can shine a spotlight on what actually matters to Black Americans.

Better representation is long overdue. 

Firstly, there’s a big elephant in the room – the issue of representation in advertising and media. 

Close to 1 in 3 Black Americans say they prefer ads that reflect their culture and just over 1 in 4 say they prefer brands that feature celebrities who look like them on TV.

This audience is more likely to say this than other racial/ethnic groups; for example, they’re 38% more likely than Asian Americans to say they prefer ads that reflect their culture. It makes sense why they want this – people naturally empathize and relate to others who go through the same issues or experiences as they do. 

Yet, just 11% of Black Americans agree they feel represented in the advertising they see, reaching a low of 9% among Gen X and baby boomers. 

This is a big problem across the board, and has been for some time now.

Representation in advertising

Advertising and media companies have significant control over how they shape people’s perceptions and how they influence others’ behaviors – especially considering the average American spends over 9 hours and 30 minutes per day consuming different media content, including online and print press, broadcast and online TV, social media, and radio.

It’s important that the messages and content that gets shared with the world by advertising and media industries is free from discrimination and racial predjudices. Unfortunately, many misguided attempts have been made.

Many advertisements have notoriously missed the mark completely throughout the years, receiving widespread backlash from consumers. One advertisement from a drinks brand in 2017 was pulled after it faced immediate scrutiny for co-opting the imagery of protest movements.

Similarly, this year an ad by a car manufacturer received criticism after it appeared to show a white power gesture and racial slurs. It begs the questions: Why does this keep happening? Why are we not learning?

Part of the issue is that in so many organizations internally, there’s a lack of representation and diversity. This problem is especially obvious when you look at the employees who occupy senior level positions – in many advertising and media companies, and beyond.

Crucially, placing greater value on workforces made up of employees with different opinions and experiences might mean that tone-deaf content doesn’t even get a chance to make it to the public domain. 

We’ve now reached a point where inappropriate and potentially harmful content won’t be tolerated by consumers.

And, as the pressure mounts, many brands are rethinking their branding as a result: Quaker Oats says its Aunt Jemima range of products will be rebranded after 130 years based on a racial stereotype, Mars is evaluating its Uncle Ben’s branding, and many others are following suit

It’s time for brands to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

Equality is a priority.

Turning our attention to what Black Americans care about most, we get a clear picture of how deeply important equality is to them, and perhaps more importantly, the scale of the issue. 

Out of a list of 20 options – including things like making money, staying fit, and being respected – equal rights takes the top spot, with 56% of Black Americans saying this is important to them. 

Equal rights is the number one priority across both high and low income groups among Black Americans, and slightly more important among lower earners than higher earners (58% vs 53%, respectively).

The gap widens significantly when comparing different ethnicities. For example, 53% of high-income Black Americans say equal rights is important compared to 38% of white American high earners.

The story is similar when comparing lower earners – 58% of low-income Black Americans say equal rights is important vs. 42% of white American lower earners.

Equality a priority

Across all three of the other ethnic and racial groups we analyzed – Asian Americans, White/Caucasians, and Hispanics – they’re all more likely to choose other things ahead of equal rights.

Among Hispanics, being respected and making money are more important; while Asian Americans say things like staying fit, making money, being respected, and exploring the world are more important. 

This makes sense, considering the historical pervasiveness of discrimination toward Black people specifically, and the increased emphasis on racial equality now as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We see some differences emerge among Black Americans across age groups. The importance of equal rights is largely driven by older generations – 73% of baby boomers say equal rights is important to them compared to 46% of Gen Z, whose top priority is making money.

This is understandable, considering Gen Z are only starting out in their professional lives and at quite a difficult time too; while older generations have likely experienced and been affected more by discrimination during their lifetimes.

As well as this, they’re not afraid to be vocal about the issues closest to their hearts, with 33% of Black Americans saying they’re outspoken about issues they care about. They’re not going to be silenced so brands, individuals, and governments need to listen and act. 

They’re driven by ambition, but an unequal playing field persists.

When asked how they’d describe themselves, Black Americans are considerably more likely than the average American to say they’re ambitious, talented, outspoken, driven, and strong-minded. These are all adjectives which reflect a strong focus on self-development and a willingness to succeed. 

This sense of conviction is evident in their future education ambitions, particularly among younger Black Americans.

Black Americans aged 16-34:

  • Are the most likely to express interest in studying for an Associate’s/Bachelor’s or Professional School degree in the future (37% say this) compared to the overall U.S. average and other ethnic/racial groups analyzed in this age group.
  • Express a desire to pursue a Master’s/Doctoral degree in the future (27% say this).
  • Have an entrepreneurial side: close to 1 in 5 say they’re interested in entrepreneurship.
  • Are the most likely to say they plan to start a business in the next six months at 21% – more than double that of white Americans in the same age group (where only 10% express this same sentiment). 

Black Americans overall are 30% more likely than the average American to say they see themselves as natural leaders (31% vs 24%). 

Their focus on self-development comes to light even more when looking at what they say is important to them – 40% say learning new skills is one of the most important attributes for them (meaning they’re 10% more likely than the average American to say this). 

With bags full of drive, talent, and ambition, it’s a sad realization knowing that today many Black people still face racial discrimination and a more unequal playing field when it comes to their educational and professional opportunities.

Last year, Pew Research Center laid down some hard facts: the majority of U.S. adults across racial and ethnic groups say being white helps people’s ability to get ahead in the country at least a little, increasing to 63% among Black Americans.

When asked why Black people may have a harder time than white people getting ahead, more point to racial discrimination and less access to good schools or high-paying jobs as the major reasons for this. 

And in June this year when the U.S. experienced a surprise uptick in jobs, the effects weren’t felt equally across demographics, with the unemployment rate among Black Americans on the rise. 

This problem is complex and it won’t be solved overnight, but with collective efforts from brands, governments, and other individuals to make equality their business, we might make progress toward a long-lasting fairer and equal society for all. 

Less talk, more action

Looking at what Black Americans want brands to do sheds some light on what matters to them, and where brands can step it up.

Based on a list of attributes, the following are what they say they most want brands to do:

40% say they want brands to be socially responsible, 37% want brands to listen to feedback, and 36% want brands to support diversity and equality in the workplace.

These things aren’t necessarily hard to do, but they do require a conscious, and genuine, effort. And for some, it might mean a complete change of mindset or breaking the status quo.

Put simply, nobody wants to hear “well that’s how we’ve always done things” anymore. Let’s finally take action to create lasting, positive change, and let that be our compass. What are you waiting for?

Key takeaways:

  • Translate words into action: many brands have made public pledges of solidarity or donations, but that’s not enough. Ongoing, meaningful action is needed and it’s up to brands and businesses to set an example others can learn from and follow.   
  • Be consistent: it’s not just about marketing or what you put out there publicly – your brand, your values, and internal practices also need to reflect diversity. From reviewing hiring policies to reevaluating company culture, championing diverse viewpoints and opinions across racial and ethnic backgrounds (and gender) is necessary to have the best outcomes.
  • Avoid tokenism: don’t “act” diverse to tick a box – consumers will see through it. This involves more than just having a Black person in an advertisement or posting on social media showing support just because it seems like the right thing to do. If diversity and inclusion hasn’t been high on the business agenda so far, ask yourself: Why am I making these changes now? Why do I care? Any action needs to come from a place of sincerity and a genuine commitment to do better.
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Written by

Katie is a Senior Trends Manager at GWI. She’s an avid baker and Harry Potter fanatic, who loves to binge-watch all the latest shows. When she’s not busy whipping up a cheesecake or watching murder-mysteries, you’ll find her exploring what makes consumers tick.

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