Are we plugged in?

By all measures, Black consumers in car-crazy California are the ideal customers for electric cars. But many wonder whether major automakers take African Americans into consideration when they roll o

Charlene Muhammad | 12/5/2013, midnight

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 bigger 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 and 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.