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COVID-19, Race and the Marketplace

COVID-19, Race and the Marketplace

Sarah Steimer

A conversation on the overlooked role of race in the marketplace, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

In an essay that appears in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Sonya A. Grier, marketing professor at American University, and David Crockett, marketing professor and Moore Research Fellow at the University of South Carolina, explore the connection between race in the marketplace and COVID-19. Marketing News spoke with Grier and Crockett about how the marketplace contributes to racial oppression and how marketing scholars and practitioners can collaborate to track and analyze racial data that elicits change.

You write in your JMPP essay that “simply measuring the extent of racial disparity has proved needlessly challenging.” How has race been, as you noted in another article, an overlooked icon in the marketplace? 

Sonya A. Grier

Sonya A. Grier: There’s a couple of ways to think about that. One is the way race has been studied. In the literature, a lot of it talks about race as this individual variable that helps to show differences between groups. And that’s important because people may respond differently to ads that feature people who look like them, for example. However, that research doesn’t really incorporate the reality of race and racism and the way people experience race in the marketplace. It doesn’t necessarily incorporate either the personal and individual racism, interpersonal racism they face, nor does it incorporate structural racism, which are the systems and structures and patterns that are mutually reinforcing them and have an effect on the way people live—and in this case, people’s health or people’s lifestyles or their financial abilities. So that becomes really important to think about race beyond this narrow conceptualization as an individual difference variable.

David Crockett
David Crockett

David Crockett: From a data-gathering perspective, a lot of times what we have is a philosophical issue where sometimes the basic assumptions that some researchers make is that whatever you might learn by measuring or capturing race, you could learn by some other presumably more fundamental variable: income or education, etc. So people simply choose not to measure it because they think they could get more or better information from some other variable that they think is more fundamentally relevant.

A lot of times, particularly in the kind of work that Sonya does—she’s trying to collect data from public entities—there are public entities that have effectively refused to collect data on race for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that some of our governing bodies simply don’t want to know, they don’t want to measure racial disparities. Because once you know there’s a problem, then you are somewhat duty-bound to at least act like you’re trying to fix it. We’ve seen the same with COVID. Race is not the only place where this happens. This happens with a variety of social problems. There are folks who are committed to saying, “There’s nothing to see here, and so we’re not looking.” 

Watch Sarah Steimer’s full conversation with Sonya A. Grier and David Crockett about the connection between race in the marketplace and COVID-19


Can you dive into how marketing scholarship and data can be better used to fix the types of healthcare disparities the pandemic has highlighted?

SG: One of our key tools that we use is place and accessibility. For example, I read about drive-thru [COVID-19] testing in New Orleans back in April. When you look at the data, [it shows] that the hotspots were in predominantly African American areas where people didn’t have the same amount of cars. That drive-thru testing wasn’t going to help if you didn’t have a car. Therefore that kind of accessibility [and] location information data is used to inform the types of interventions. Once they discovered that, they were able to send in a mobile testing unit. But without that data, during that period when they had all this drive-thru testing, there were lots of people who were not able to be tested and who may have continued to spread the disease because they didn’t know. … It may have been because testing was not accessible to them. And that’s a key marketing component.

DC: The marketplace is not just the stage on which a variety of things play out, whether it’s about race or about gender, about social class or what-have-you. The marketplace is a social actor that, on the one hand, can perpetuate these systems of oppression, and on the other hand can challenge them— sometimes both at the same time, sometimes in ways where we can’t discern whether it’s perpetuating or challenging right now. Sometimes we have to let history unfold to give us the answer to those things. 

But what’s so critical about this moment is that the marketplace has become a central actor in this drama around race and COVID. We’ve been told for 40 years now that our system of governance that includes a capitalist economic system was the best of all possible worlds. And at the moment, not only has it not delivered healthcare very well, even to people who could afford it, much less people who can’t, it has not even delivered toilet paper very well, which is kind of the one thing that it should be able to do, right? What that says to me as a scholar is that we should be interrogating that. That should no longer simply be a piece of the background that we just assume away. We should bring the role of the marketplace to the fore as an object of study [and] investigation. How is its functioning contributing to racial oppression and other kinds of oppression? How is it contributing to counter hegemonic activity where people are issuing challenges to these systems of oppression? How is it operating there?

People of color have been disproportionately affected by the economic impact of sheltering in place as well. There are myriad reasons for this, but what are some of the most pressing areas of policy research that can be undertaken to help solve this issue or prevent it in the future? 

SG: One area I’ve been thinking a lot about is caregiving. I can’t actually think of one article in marketing about caregiving. And that is something that is very prevalent in the U.S. and around the world. It’s something that’s very gendered and very raced. It also has severe implications for this COVID pandemic. We see that even nursing homes are segregated, that people of color tend to live in more multigenerational households. This whole notion of “protect the elderly, keep them separate,” all these shelter-in-place notions that we would like to undertake can’t necessarily be done by everyone in the same way. Therefore, they might need different types of interventions.

But if we don’t have any research around that, then no one even thinks about it as an issue, much less begins to collect the data or discuss how we might develop interventions to address it.

This is a potentially transformative opportunity and time. And I hope that we can take it to move the field forward.

Sonya A. Grier

DC: Race and ethnicity are a part of every subject. It’s not necessarily a separate thing that needs to be studied—though that sometimes is the case—but it is also part and parcel to the functioning of a variety of systems that on the surface appear as if they are non-racial, that they have no race or ethnicity in them. 

The basic functioning of having a capitalist model of healthcare delivery has implications for race, gender, ethnicity. Part of our job as scholars is to bring those things to the fore. Even if that’s not what you study, it’s to not be conclusion-selective at the outset and say that those things don’t matter. Even if it is to say, “A limitation is that my study does not address this set of issues. That might be something someone else needs to study.” That’s OK, everybody doesn’t need to study everything. But we are still fighting this first principles battle with respect to race and ethnicity that is worthy of study not just as a distinct subfield, but as part and parcel of everything that we are doing, whether it’s marketing, economics, [political science], whatever it is, it’s part of it. 

SG: The fact that these things are mutually reinforcing across different sectors and domains, that’s one of the areas that RIM (Race in the Marketplace Research Network) really has seized upon, is this notion that it’s not just the marketplace in terms of the commercial outlets that we see. There’s also health and education, and art and entertainment, that all have the same types of institutional and structural racism in them that has an impact on people’s everyday lives. 

I’m not just an academic. I might also go out to the movies and want to see certain types of stories. I might also want to go out at night to the nightclub, I want to get healthcare, all of these … pieces of my life come together. That’s what attracted me to marketing, is this whole notion that you can really study anything because everything to me is marketing, that it’s a part and parcel across all these domains. If we limit it to thinking about race in this really narrow way, then we limit people to be these uni-dimensional beings that they are not. 

There’s still a lot of work to be done, and scholarly research isn’t known to be the fastest. But there are policies that need to be enacted immediately or maybe companies that could use help, politicians who could use help. How can scholars step up right now versus needing years to complete research? 

SG: It’s not one or the other. The first step is awareness and acceptance. There’s still not as much emphasis on race. At this present moment we have a lot of emphasis on race—I hope it lasts because it provides an opportunity for people to expand the way they think about topics. 

I see it as an opportunity. For example, there’s an increased emphasis on intersectionality across disciplines, but in marketing as well. We could encourage just by asking the questions, [by] the collection of certain types of data. We could partner with nonprofit public or private organizations so that government agencies who don’t have deep segmentation information to understand where the hot spots are, don’t have the geo-fencing capabilities and data, would be able to do that through these partnerships. We see that lots of research now gets done through these multi-sector, multi-partner types of partnerships and that presents a big opportunity.

Race and ethnicity are a part of every subject. It’s not necessarily a separate thing that needs to be studied.

David Crockett

DC: There is this notion that there’s so much work to be done, there’s a massive amount that we need to know but don’t know—that’s absolutely true. I would argue that is true for every discipline in the field. That is a fundamental condition of academic life. That particular premise, though true, can often be marshaled in a way to demotivate scholarship in an area that really needs it. Of course, there is much work to be done, there’s a whole lot we don’t know. But I presume that’s why anyone gets into any academic discipline. We are here to answer your questions. 

The most immediate thing that needs to be done is structuring research questions and data sets that even begin to allow us to explore. If we can clear that hurdle, we might actually be able to do something. We’ve got a lot of smart people, a lot of people of goodwill who are interested in these issues. If we could just tackle this first principle, we might actually be able to do some good work. 

What can practitioners do with academics and the research they’re doing to put these changes or policies into practice? 

DC: I’m working with a small consortium of retailers, with a sociologist, doing work specifically on racial inequality, particularly racial bias and exclusionary treatment, at retail. These are folks who want to understand something about how to craft store policy, from hiring all the way through merchandising: who we hire, what they say, how products are positioned in the store. They’re trying to get all of that right because even if it’s just superficial, they recognize that the world is changing. This was going on before the current moment; they recognize that the world is changing, and they’ve got to get it right. If they’re trying to compete, that’s a dimension on which they can compete. 

Sometimes we mystify these relationships in a way that they don’t really need to be. This was not my initiative. This was an initiative of this small consortium: They reached out, they made those connections and a set of academics responded to them. We’ve had a great working relationship, looking at everything from trying to collect data, to measure what needs to be measured, all the way through how they do some of their product branding and how they lay out their stores. It’s not that complicated. The work is complicated, but the process by which we begin to connect with each other is not that complicated. 

SG: Those connections are really necessary to help inform policy research. … If you started with, “I want to have an impact on what the practice of a certain industry or the practice of certain types of companies in a certain industry,” then beginning with that in mind and making those connections at the start, trying to identify ways that you might share data, that you might be able to use some of their data, then you can help inform the development of their policy. 

We’ve seen a lot in the marketplace most recently with everyone standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and saying what they’re going to do. Well, they’re going to need third parties if they really want to have transparency to be able to monitor and evaluate if they are really doing what they’re doing. That’s a perfect role for some partnerships between consumer researchers and marketing researchers to be able to step right in with practitioners and say, “Let me help you evaluate and monitor all these things that you’ve said that you’re going to do.”

We have to think about journals. Do they have reviewers who understand this type of work? Transformative Consumer Research has also been taking the lead in terms of creating connections with nonprofits who address social issues. Bringing together all these institutional pieces will also be necessary. Because if you have lots of people submit articles and you have reviewers who don’t understand or don’t accept, or who don’t think this is important, then that research doesn’t go anywhere. 

This is a potentially transformative opportunity and time. And I hope that we can take it to move the field forward so that we can be at the forefront of helping to inform policy-relevant and corporate-relevant, and societally relevant research. 

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.