Patrick Grieve
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Honda Reminds Us That Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist

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Honda discriminatory lending practices revealed

Honda’s ASIMO robot is programmed to treat all cultures with equal respect, but the company’s other employees are far more human

Last week, the federal government found that American Honda Financial Corporation had violated fair lending laws by routinely charging minority customers $150 to $250 more for loans than their white counterparts. As a result, the automaker will be sending $24 million in rebate checks to the thousands of black, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander borrowers who were affected by the discriminatory practice. Additionally, Honda has pledged to begin capping dealer markups and providing its workforce with greater diversity training in the future.

The controversy hasn’t gained a lot of traction in the national news cycle (that’s what happens when your company’s other ongoing scandal involves more headline-friendly exploding airbags), but it’s actually a pretty interesting story, albeit for unpleasant reasons.

Believe it or not, like the Takata airbag crisis, Honda’s discrimination was seemingly unintentional. Obviously, it’s not company policy to short-change minority customers, and Honda was apparently completely unaware that it was going on until statistical analysis revealed the troubling trend. So what gives?

Writing for the Houston Chronicle, Chris Tomlinson proposes that the cause was most likely chronic and widespread acts of “microaggression”—little subconscious acts of racism, like a white woman holding her purse a little tighter when she passes a black man on the sidewalk. Honda dealers’ microaggressions were probably even less noticeable than that example, though ultimately (and unintentionally) more sinister:

In the Honda case, the company allowed dealers to adjust the interest rates on loans by as much as 2.25 percentage points when striking a deal. Honda sales staff are predominately white and they probably felt more comfortable talking to white customers. They probably talked about family or sports during the negotiation. A good salesperson knows how to form a relationship with a customer.

What the sales person probably wasn’t paying attention to was the bond they were forming based on physical and social commonalities. It’s perfectly normal.

That’s why when the computer produced an interest rate, the sales person was more likely to give the white person a greater discount. The minority ended up paying more because the bond was not there.

In other words, those puppets from the 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q were right: everyone is a little bit racist!

Of course, the thesis of that show tune was that it’s okay that we’re all mildly racist, as long as we just accept the undeniable fact of our bigotry and stop being so damn politically correct, because it’s not really hurting anyone anyway. As the recent Honda scandal proves, though, there actually are significant real-life inequalities created by even the most subconscious of prejudices.

In ways both obvious and subtle, Honda—like almost all companies—caters to white customers at the consequential exclusion of others. Just take a look at the brand’s own marketing campaigns for evidence of this phenomenon.

The latest television ad for the new Pilot was directed by Jason Reitman (Juno), son and nepotism-beneficiary of filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), and features an all-white nuclear family singing along to the classic 1990s Weezer song “Buddy Holly,” paired with a voiceover from former Wonder Years star Fred Savage.

Now, be honest—if you tried, could you possibly compose a whiter sentence than the one I just wrote?

The commercial features so many Caucasian touchstones that Honda felt obliged to throw in a shot of a couple token black motorists parked at a stop sign, briefly shown chuckling at the silly white family that drives by them singing an alternative rock song by a famous white band about a famous white singer.

Now, I’m well aware that Honda commercials are not art (well, except for that M.C. Escher-inspired CR-V one), and I realize that Jason Reitman therefore has no artistic obligation to portray the ethnic diversity of all Pilot drivers, be they black or white; gay or straight; leasing or buying. The point of advertising is to sell the most products to the most people, and if most people in the US are white, then why not pander to that demographic?

After all, Honda is a mainstream automaker catering to an American market, where white people are a mainstream race. A majority of Honda dealership employees are white, and a majority of Honda dealership customers are white, and those two groups are probably likely to connect with each other over shared cultural experiences… like Buddy Holly (either the Weezer song or the actual person, depending on the ages involved). None of these things are inherently wrong, but when they combine to create an environment that unconsciously breeds discrimination, well, then we’ve got a problem.

But Honda’s problems with discrimination are a lot like its vehicles: not particularly unique. This controversy is indicative of America as a whole, and at a time when some people are fervently insisting that we live in a post-racial society (“THE PRESIDENT’S A BLACK GUY, FOR PETE’S SAKE!!!”), it’s sobering but necessary to be reminded that systemic racism does indeed still exist.

It’s pretty clear that primarily white car salesmen subconsciously gave preferential treatment to the white customers they more comfortably interacted with. Knowing that, is it really so hard to imagine that primarily white police forces may also subconsciously give preferential treatment to the white citizens they more comfortably interact with? Or that primarily white hirers may also subconsciously give preferential treatment to the white job applicants they more comfortably interact with? And so on and so on…

None of the Honda salesmen involved in this loan scandal went to work everyday with a hood over their head. The vast majority of them probably sincerely detest the concept of racism, or would at least claim to if asked—and yet, over the last four years, they collectively swindled black and brown people out of $24 million.

And this is why the ultimate toll of racism in America is terrifyingly unknowable—most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re engaged in it.