“All lives matter” is the rebuttal to which many default when confronted with Black Lives Matter, the social justice movement that arose from police brutality toward African-Americans in our country. Aside from the horror and anger I felt while seeing these events unfold, I noticed something: The work that I do, although not dealing with the life-or-death stakes of BLM, has clear parallels to the movement.
I produce “Here Are All the Black People,” a New York-based multicultural career fair that aims to address racial inequality in advertising and media, but some people are rankled by the name, arguing that it is exclusionary, antithetical to the openness of diversity programs. In other words, all professionals matter.
Here’s a little background for this debate. Two leaders in our industry, Jimmy Smith and Jeff Goodby, had a conversation about the lack of African-Americans in advertising, prompting Mr. Goodby to exclaim, “Where are all the black people?” That day, our career fair was born.
“Here Are All the Black People” addresses a specific need: the glaring, disproportionate scarcity of black professionals in our industry. That’s not to devalue the struggles that other groups face, or even the struggles that any young aspiring creative faces in a very competitive field, but you can’t solve everything all at once. You need to look at the challenges you face and select the most pressing ones first. In our industry, a shortage of black creatives, especially at the upper echelons, is a big issue, one that is worthy of emphasis.
The word “emphasis” brings me to another important point: Emphasis does not equal exclusion. Saying that black people need more opportunities and more jobs, for example, is not equivalent to saying that white people or Asian Americans or Latinos don’t need more opportunities, no more than supporting a cancer foundation is equivalent to not supporting a heart disease charity.
While the majority of attendees at our event are black, there are also many young people of Latino, Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern and European origins. As a diversity and inclusion event, we provide opportunities for ALL young people who walk through our doors, thirsty for opportunity, but that doesn’t prevent us from highlighting the challenges of a specific group of people.
To say that black lives matter is not to say that white lives don’t matter or that Latino lives don’t matter or that Native American lives don’t matter or that Asian lives don’t matter or that Middle Eastern lives don’t matter. Some have argued that white people also suffer at the hands of police brutality, that tragedy, hardship and discrimination is not the exclusive province of black people. I won’t even delve into historical precedence or statistics, which can be fudged to uphold confirmation bias, but I will say that if you are a person experiencing your own struggles, surely you can empathize with people of other races and ethnicities experiencing their own, right? Surely, you can empathize with the black families in Charlotte and Ferguson and Sanford who have lost loved ones. That pain is real, and it is colorblind.
Seven years after Mr. Goodby, vexed and exasperated, asked his question, “Where are all the black people?,” we still don’t have an answer that puts the issue to rest. We’re not even certain of the question that leads to the answer. Is it the industry’s hiring practices? Is it systemic bias? Is it societal? Is it cultural? Is it socioeconomic? Is it education? Is it who you know? Or don’t know? Is it some permutation of all of the above? Is it a question we haven’t even thought of?
What we know for sure is that African-American underrepresentation persists. As long as that’s the case, as long we don’t know the answer, we will keep asking the question:
Where are all the black people?