Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pepsi Max and the Continuing Racial Debate

At first blush, the commercial seems to play to a racial stereotype. But I wonder if that's the case only because we use a racial lens through which to view this ad. From a national standpoint, the debate rages on regarding whether we are a racially conscious or racially blind society. Indeed, the Supreme Court has weighed in on these issues extensively. In fact, I'd like to evaluate the Pepsi ad within the context of a comment by Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1. In that case, the Court considered the constitutionality of busing students from the suburbs of Seattle into the inner city in order to achieve racial balance within the inner city schools. Faced with the question of whether such a practice constituted racial discrimination, Roberts' replied simply that "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." The comment proved to be controversial. In fact, Associate Justice Sotomayor said outright that Roberts was "wrong." To Sotomayor, the U.S. still has significant racial issues to deal with. And I'd like to evaluate that claim with respect to this ad.

Some claim that the ad plays to a racial stereotype of a black woman lording over her husband. The kick under the restaurant table, the bar of soap in the bathtub as punishment for eating a cheeseburger, and the "up-down" of the white jogger all, allegedly, cater to that stereotype. Perhaps it's overly-simplistic to ask the question of whether we would raise any of these questions at all if the couple in the ad was caucasian. But I doubt we'd be asking the same questions. After all, would a white woman react any differently? I think the signs in this ad appeal more to the marital dynamic in general rather than the marital dynamic among a particular race. So, on one level, Justice Roberts has it right. If we take off our racist lenses, we avoid creating the problem we wish to avoid. But Sotomayor also has a point. The fact that we still have those lenses and that these questions pervade our psyches means that we may still have work to do with regard to race relations in this country.

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