Sell tolerance like soap

November 22, 1996|By Leonard Steinhorn

WASHINGTON -- The record $176 million settlement in the discrimination lawsuit against Texaco will no doubt be hailed as a triumph of justice over bigotry. But despite the clear vindication of Texaco's black employees, the settlement is a Pyrrhic victory in the history of American race relations.

Within days or weeks, the Texaco incident will be largely forgotten. The company's stock price already has rebounded. The intolerance that gave rise to the lawsuit will vanish from the news. As with similar episodes, white America will view Texaco as merely an aberration in a society that most whites believe to be equitable and even solicitous to blacks. And once again, we will have wasted an opportunity -- a teachable moment -- to confront creatively the racial problems that continue to beset our nation.

Rather than merely compensate victims of discrimination and toughen the corporation's diversity policies, settlements like the one with Texaco also should require the offending companies to dedicate a sum equivalent to their annual advertising budgets on a public-service advertising campaign to educate the public about the continuing problem of racial discrimination in America.

The advertising industry has the creativity and resourcefulness to sell people products they don't really need and candidates they don't really trust. Why not marshal this genius on behalf of an issue that cuts to the very core of our national identity?

Every year Texaco, a multi-billion dollar company, spends millions of dollars advertising gasoline. Denny's and Eddie Bauer -- two other companies that have been involved in discrimination lawsuits -- also devote huge budgets to hawking their products. The talk among civil-rights leaders is that we need a national conversation on race. The best place to begin it -- to bring it into every home -- is over the airwaves. Texaco should have been the first to pony up to get this conversation going.

According to polls, most whites believe that the passage of civil-rights legislation a generation ago leveled the playing field for blacks in America. The Texaco case proves otherwise. The taped conversations that broke the story have opened a window into the chilling racial realities of the American workplace. That window should not be closed simply because the lawsuit was settled. Our challenge must be to seize on this incident and show that the ''black jelly beans'' so disparagingly referred to in the tapes are real people whose hopes and aspirations continue to be stifled solely because of the color of their skin.

Many African Americans look at their lives as death by a thousand cuts. The Bull Connors of the past have given way to the more subtle indignities of the neighborhood and workplace, which are no less painful.

What whites don't know

Whites who go apartment hunting never face the prospect of being told the place was rented, though if wasn't. White professionals never live with the daily fear of being mistaken for a bellboy or clerk. White lawyers are never hidden from clients who do not want a black working on their case. Nor do whites begin to understand the humiliation of blacks living in predominantly white neighborhoods who are advised by real-estate agents to hide every family photo and trace of their ethnicity if they ever want to sell their home to a white family.

These stories need to be told over and over to the American public. No vehicle has more power to tell them than advertising. There's a reason corporations spend more than $150 billion a year on television ads -- because they work. It's the same reason political candidates spend millions of dollars on ads to get elected and organizations opposed to smoking, drunk driving and other social ills run public-service advertisements to influence people's behavior.

If the persuasive power of television advertising can be used for everything else in America, why not for race? The good news would be the beginning of a long-overdue national dialogue on race relations. The bad news would be the recognition that Texaco would merely be the first in a long line of corporate sponsors.

Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University, is writing a book about racial integration in America.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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