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Are We Plugged In?

From left to right: Mike Robinson, VP Sustainability and Government Regulatory Affairs, GM; David Strickland, Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); Regina Wilson, Executive Director California Black Media; Clifton Harris, Publisher, American News; David Miller, Co-Publisher Our Weekly; and George White, New American Media

By Charlene Muhammad, CBM Contributor

Like many Black Californians, Chearon Raye faces a dilemma when the time comes to make a purchase as substantial as a new automobile.

As the owner of two Mercedes-Benzes (one is a six-cylinder, the other eight), Raye’s daily 200-mile round-trip to and from work takes a heavy toll on her bottom line — making her the ideal customer for the hybrid cars that are all the rage among consumers seeking the dual benefit of environmental consciousness and freedom from fluctuating gasoline prices.  At the same time, automobiles that run on alternative fuel are quite expensive; so when deciding to indebt herself with a such a pricey purchase, Raye likes to know whether the companies seeking her business invest anything in the African-American community beyond sales pitches designed to lure more Black customers into showrooms.

“Do I want a hybrid? Absolutely,” said Raye. “Something that’s going to give me the mileage that I need, some type of comfort, and I want a luxury vehicle. That’s why I got the Mercedes. But as … an educated consumer and one that does travel to and from work quite a bit, before I would get back into any of their products, I’d want to see them doing something more specifically for us.”

She added: “They want to advertise to us and get our money, but what are they doing in the interim to make sure they care about African American communities?”

As they put a larger push behind getting more African-Americans into hybrid cars, U.S. automakers are hearing more and more from consumers like Raye. In large part, that was the motivation behind a recent gathering at the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles — where Black leaders in business, politics and the clean-air and -fuel industries joined with General Motors, the California Electric Transportation Coalition and the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies to discuss topics that included cleaner cars and healthier communities.

The event featured a panel discussion moderated by Danielle Dean, director of the Joint Center’s Energy & Environmental Program. Panelists were Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association; Janea Scott, a member of the California Energy Commission); and Sabin Blake, a GM marketing manager.

Guests at the gathering experienced the first public test-drive of the new Cadillac ELR, the first plug-in electric vehicle by a full-line luxury car maker. They also heard from forces in the Black community that helped to bring about implementation of a law requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.

“It seems like new fuel economy standards was a pretty logical step, not that much effort, not that much strife to get there. And there was a lot of pretty pictures and the president standing up with all the automakers when he announced the standards for 2017 to 2025,” said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In fact, Strickland noted, that picture was the culmination of approximately 30 years of discussion, strife and angst. Part of the push came when then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007, forcing it to act on California’s request to make the reduction.

According to the Environmental Resource Center, the lawsuit charged the EPA with “an unreasonable delay in reaching a decision on California’s landmark law, known as the Pavley bill, which mandates a 30% reduction in motor vehicle emissions by 2016.”

The Obama administration shepherded the mandates through under former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the first African-American to head the agency. But it was possible because California kept the issue of greenhouse gas emissions alive until President Obama could lay the foundation for regulation, Strickland said.

Now that the groundwork is laid, Strickland said the task at hand is to address the cultural change required to embrace a new paradigm at the nexus of transportation needs, clean fuel and environmental awareness.

Strickland thanked GM for its leadership in highway safety and on issues like traffic accidents that adversely impact Black communities nationwide. “But talking about environmental protection, fuel economy and independence on foreign oil, their opportunity to help change culture and provide the product … for us to change the culture is incredibly important,” he said.
Another way to facilitate cultural change is acknowledgment of the fact that Blacks have been involved in this struggle for a long time, said Carolyn Green, managing partner of EnerGreen Capital Management and a member of the Joint Center’s Commission to Engage African Americans on Energy.

She has long been concerned about the depiction of Blacks in the media, largely because they’re primarily seen as victims of environmental injustice, Green said.

“Our neighborhoods are the depository of all sorts of problems … but we’re not seen necessarily as people interested in change or people who are involved in making that change happen,” said Green. “And tonight is a celebration of that fact, the fact that we are doers, not just people who are acted upon.”

To that end, Assemblyman Steven Bradford encouraged companies like GM to saturate the Black communities with vehicle charging stations.

San Francisco and Los Angeles have the state’s highest rates of electric vehicle ownership, followed closely by Sacramento and San Diego. “But the real truth … is the majority of these cars are owned by wealthy folks that don’t look like folks in this room, or by state, federal or local government entities as part of their fleet,” said Bradford. “So the penetration into those who really need it have yet to reach those communities.”

Bradford urged the state to expand the debate legislatively. “I’m not trying to be critical of any of our regulatory boards,” he said, “but at the end of the day, if we’re committed to clean air, and we’re committed to reducing greenhouse gas … emissions, we should be as consumed about what’s under the hood and more focused on what comes out the tailpipe.”

California Black Media executive director Regina Brown Wilson commended excitement over the direction of public policy, but also asked the panelists to develop a plan that binds all of the elements together and ensures the Black community is very informed about an issue that could prove critical to its environmental and economic future.

“Obviously, we’re writing about it, but how will marketing dollars, advertising dollars … support those efforts?” she asked. Replied Blake: “It’s important that the dollars that we spend talking about and promoting ELR makes the space more inclusive to all folks, but not just with the ELR, for the company as a whole.”

Lamman Rucker, an actor who serves on the board of board of Green For All, a national organization which works to build an inclusive green economy to help lift people out of poverty, feels information shared during the evening is what people in general must have but that people of color don’t have and aren’t exposed to.

“Even in this environment right here, this is the informed [crowd], so it’s a matter of getting this information out and having other people have access to this vehicle, to other vehicles like that, to the technology, to the information, and to the opportunity,” Rucker told California Black Media.

If done with purpose and in partnership, that part of the mission may prove to be easier than it appears. Over the course of the evening, several people joked about the long-standing relationship between Cadillacs and the Black community, where the brand has often been viewed as the ultimate status symbol.

Quipped one guest, drawing uproarious laughter from the audience in the hall: “October 14 is a national Black holiday. That’s when the Cadillacs come out.”

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