Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.
The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.
But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.
I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.
To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.
The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.
Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.
Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.