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It's Time to Celebrate Automotive Design Diversity

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page G02

LOS ANGELES -- I once panned the wide-angled, hip-hop, big-tire looks of the Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle that's so popular here and across the rest of the country. I was the victim of acculturation, an assimilationist obliteration of the funk of my black New Orleans childhood.

In my pursuit of mainstream acceptance, I had put aside the blues and jazz of my youth, jettisoned the rock-and-roll and forgotten the smell of stale beer being bleach-washed from an early morning French Quarter sidewalk.

Yet, at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and in all subsequent venues where I was the only black, or one of a few people of color of any sort, I was hailed as a symbol of diversity, a token of a new, colorblind social order -- and that was the problem.

But diversity is not supposed to be the same thing as homogeneity. Diversity celebrates differences, incorporates them, makes them part of something innovative and exciting. The drive for social homogeneity, what we euphemistically call "integration" in the United States, tends to obliterate differences, to bleach out what is deemed unacceptable and/or inferior, and turn the remainder into a common cereal.

That corn-flake mentality has given us radio and TV commentators who sound alike, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or geography. It has reversed the requirements for celebrity: In the past, people became celebrities because they had genuinely unique talents. Ray Charles could sing and play the piano. Elvis Presley could sing, dance and play the guitar.

Today, the corn-flake mentality gives us celebrities in pursuit of talent. Need I mention Paris Hilton?

Perhaps nowhere has the corn-flake mentality manifested itself more than in the matter of automotive design, where, traditionally, mostly white men from similar backgrounds have chosen the styles of cars and trucks they thought we all would like. They had, in some cases, racially integrated design staffs. But in almost all cases, those racially integrated designers were styling cars and trucks for "mainstream" buyers -- who generally were seen as an amorphous group of white "Middle Americans."

This was not some act of deliberate racism or malevolence. It was the product of caution, the reliance on sameness and acceptability in a bid to reduce the enormous capital risks of introducing new cars and trucks. The result was universal boredom, best represented by the "jelly bean" look of the cars of the 1990s.

That all-things-round approach to automotive design often was excused as form following function -- a necessary bow to aerodynamic efficiency, a noble attempt to reduce vehicular wind drag in pursuit of better fuel economy. But that design statement had another purpose -- which is that it made absolutely no statement at all, which meant it pleased no one, but offended no one, either.

Somehow, along the way, I'd bought into that aspect of the corn-flake mentality, which measures the success of cars in terms of numbers sold, as opposed to driving miles enjoyed, or the sheer excitement of seeing sheet metal bent in rebellion against the norm. And so, when I first saw the current styling of the Cadillac Escalade a few years ago, I shook my head and said that it was too over the top, that it would never work.

I was supported in this misinterpretation of reality by many of my white peers in the automotive media who derisively dismissed the Cadillac Escalade's lines as "hip-hop" styling. I should have listened more to Kimatni D. Rawlins, a young black Washingtonian who publishes Automotive Rhythms, an online magazine devoted to young, restless, hip and urban people of all colors and persuasions.

"Damned straight! It's hip-hop," Rawlins said of the Escalade. "And it's going to sell." He was right.

Now, judging from the themes of international automotive shows currently underway here and in Detroit beginning this week, car manufacturers worldwide are beginning to grasp what Rawlins and his Automotive Rhythms crew have understood all along about diversity and its application to car styling and marketing: Diversity is much more than a matter of mixing people of different colors. It is more a matter of using their various backgrounds, perceptions, passions, beliefs and methods of expression to come up with something universal.

To that end, the Los Angeles Auto Show, beginning this year, is incorporating a permanent design theme in its annual exhibit. It's a natural fit, considering several global automotive design studios are located within a 120-mile radius of Los Angeles. Those studios include BMW Group DesignworksUSA, Ford's California Advanced Product Creation, Toyota's Calty Design Research, DaimlerChrysler's Pacifica Design Center, General Motors' 5350 Industrial Concepts, Honda Research & Development, Hyundai Kia American Design Center, Isuzu Motors America Design, Mazda Research & Development, Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design of North America, Mitsubishi Motors Research and Development of North America, Nissan Design America, Volkswagen/Audi Design Center California and Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center.

And in nearby Pasadena, there is the world-famous Art Center College of Design, whose graduates have turned out such head-turners as the Ferrari Enzo, Audi TT, BMW Z4 and Ford Thunderbird cars -- and impressive oddities such as the Honda Element wagon.

A noontime lunch on Sunset Boulevard, home of what amounts to a year-round, rolling stock automotive exhibit, readily shows why all of this is happening in the Los Angeles area. There is tremendous cultural diversity in the region; and all of those people from all of those different backgrounds love cars and trucks.

The Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Indians, white Americans and Europeans all seem to be in a contest to one-up one another in automotive expression, to add to or otherwise modify what the other has done to a car or truck. The result is an endless visual treat -- the automotive equivalent of the Louvre Museum.

I think I'll start coming here more often. It's a good place to be for me, for anyone who wants a real, working idea of what diversity is all about.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company