David Reviews

 "You're not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems." Don Draper.

WHITE NOISE
19 June 2020

During a 1964 address at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Martin Luther King memorably observed that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

It was a considerable note of optimism... the civil rights movement which he led was being confronted by violent opposition on multiple fronts, and King himself was being targeted by a pernicious FBI investigation.

Four years later, King was slain in Memphis and the righteous anger of those he sought to free from the tyranny of discrimination led to riots in more than a hundred American cities.

Fifty-two years after King's death, what can we conclude about the moral arc's progress towards justice? In truth, its curve has been barely perceptible and - to judge by recent events - it may have plateaued altogether.

In the midst of a pandemic, protestors have risked their own lives and those of others to fill the streets with their anger and their hurt as yet another black American has had his life extinguished by a murderous policeman, this time watched by three cravenly passive colleagues.

George Floyd's name has been added to the litany of those whose deaths have become emblematic of an infection in the Western body politic. And until all of the countries which are afflicted by systemic racism confront their inherent prejudices, this untreated wound will continue to fester.


So how are white people supposed to respond to the rallying cry of #BlackLivesmatter? Not only as individuals but within our various institutions... and make no mistake about it, they are our institutions.

The way forward for us as individuals is relatively straightforward and involves three separate courses of action.

First, we must pay more attention to what's going on around us. Enough attention to notice racism when it's happening in front of us. And then we must have the courage to act. In this context, silence is complicity.

Second, we must listen and act in accordance with what we hear. Many, many black voices on social media are urging us to educate ourselves about racism - watch the clip below of actor David Harewood describing the insidious nature of it.

But try to refrain from asking black acquaintances or black people on social media what you should read because they largely recognise this virtuous showboating for what it is. Use Google. You'll find resources such as this excellent list curated by BAME staff at adam&eveDDB.

Be grateful that white people get to find out about racism by reading about it; that's not a luxury afforded to those who learn about it by experiencing it and watching their children experience it.

Third, if you are in a position of power then take action. Quietly. This is a time for private resolution... not public declarations. Two weeks ago, a number of those in senior positions in the advertising industry co-signed a letter setting out a framework of good intentions. Why? Who were they urging to act upon their manifesto? Themselves?

Had this letter been written by interns and others on the lowest rungs of the career ladder, then it would be easy to understand what they were trying to communicate and to whom. But it wasn't. It was signed by the very people who have the relevant levers of power at their disposal. Just do it.

We need to recognise that some of the language used around this issue is extremely unhelpful. 'Tolerance' is not a concept that belongs anywhere near matters of race because it sets too low a bar. If the best one group can hope for is to be 'tolerated' by another then we can safely say that no harmony lies ahead.

Similarly, we need to give some thought to the term 'inclusivity'. While it's truthful to admit that white people have ownership of the power structures and that the 'inclusion' of anyone else is in our gift, this is not a state of affairs that we should simply accept. The term 'inclusivity' underlines the idea that whiteness is the default, and anything outside of it needs to be granted white approval before it can be 'included' in a culture we own and control.

Ultimately, for Western society to stop being slanted against its BAME population, white people are going to have to give up their dominance of power, wealth and influence. Many may feel that equality of opportunity can be achieved without an accompanying shift in power, wealth and influence but that's simply not logical. If you think it's undesirable or unrealistic for the power structures of Western countries to properly reflect their populations' diversity, then you really need to ask yourself why and what it says about you.


On 16 April 1963, Martin Luther King wrote a letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a powerful indictment of those who would not recognise the need to break the law to achieve justice. In it, he wrote this:

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season'."

King was right. The slipperiest opponents of progress are those who say things like "I don't see colour" and want the rest of us to believe that their avowed dislike of prominent non-white public figures is just a weird coincidence. These are people who lack the introspection to recognise that all of us - even those with the best possible intentions - are prone to unconscious bias in a society where whiteness is the default position. These are people who believe that initiatives designed to level the playing field are inherently unfair... bizarrely labelling them as 'racist' because they're exclusively aimed at disadvantaged BAME communities.

These people will condemn protests for #blacklivesmatter when they turn violent, but find some other problem with them when they don't. They will pay lip service to the idea of racial discrimination while believing their own kind to be its real victims. They will not recognise the problem with muttering 'all lives matter' as a riposte to 'black lives matter' no matter how many times it's explained to them.

As King wearily suggests in his lucid and brilliant 1963 letter, these are racists without the courage of their convictions, cowering behind societal respectability as they pull obstruction after obstruction into the path of progress.

When threatened by something which could reduce their grip, the traditional power bases of our society move into 'shock absorber' mode. They know that direct opposition to a movement like #BlackLivesMatter will not serve their purposes, any more than it did when #MeToo was the prevailing threat. Instead they confront these movements with platitudes of solidarity.

They lay down huge paving slabs of good intentions on what they know to be a road to hell, lined on either side by loudspeakers emitting useless white noise.

Like #MeToo before it, #BlackLivesMatter has become a fashionable cause, and brands have pivoted in its direction with thoughtless ease. Although this phenomenon confers welcome respectability upon a movement still viewed with suspicion by many, these expressions of support have no meaning if they are not accompanied by action.

Already, individuals and companies whose pro-BLM statements were motivated by a need to be seen on the right side of the argument have quite rightly faced condemnation for tokenism.

"This you?" These two simple words have been the undoing of many of these bandwagon joy riders.


This has happened among ad industry companies too. Skeletons in the cupboard are having a light shone on them whenever a public display of support for #BlackLivesMatter is at odds with current or past behaviour. This may seem unfair but, in reality, if it helps to stamp out unhelpful grandstanding, and if it forces companies and individuals to properly consider how they can be true allies to a cause they purportedly support then it has to be a good thing.

So what can your company really do to help? The answer lies in measurable change. Think about every area of your company's activity and ask yourself what needs to improve. Then devise a timetabled plan and implement it.

As you do so, keep this in mind. By ensuring you have a more diverse team, you are not granting favours... you're asking for them. The ability of creative companies to tell interesting stories will be enhanced by broadening the scope of those who are telling them. More so, if we're willing to recognise that our sense of what is 'good' is wholly based on a template established under white male dominance.

There are a lot of people working in advertising who complain that it's not as creative as it used to be. Interestingly, the era often identified as its heyday owed a lot to a diversification towards people from more varied social backgrounds. Working class heroes from all over the country changed the complexion of advertising by bringing a completely different set of experiences and cultural influences into the equation. But it had little impact on the complexion of those who make advertising as these insurgents were almost universally white men.

Now there is an opportunity for a new advertising revolution, and - as well as being a just and fair development - it will improve the industry's capability beyond measure.

We must all do everything we can to help. And not just now, while the anger is at fever pitch. We must continue helping when the news cycle moves on. That's when our support will really count and maybe, just maybe, through our collective effort, we will see the arc of the moral universe once again curving towards justice.

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David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.