News & Politics

Can Bud Close the Racial Drinking Gap?

In a bold effort to close the racial drinking gap, Budweiser has launched a campaign to teach black collegians how to "drink white."
African-American college students have fallen far behind their Caucasian counterparts in achieving inebriation, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. In a bold effort to close the gap, Budweiser has launched a campaign called "True" to teach black collegians how to "drink white."

The early returns are promising: The campaign's catch-phrase -- "Whassup?" -- is sweeping the nation, and the black buddies who comprise the cast have embarked on their fifteen minutes of fame. But one should not underestimate the immensity of the challenge.

According to Harvard's latest "College Alcohol Study," a survey of 14,000 students at 119 nationally representative four-year schools, in 1999 a robust 49.2 percent of white collegians were "binge drinkers," meaning that at least once in the previous two weeks they had consumed five or more drinks in a row (four or more for women). But only 15.5 percent of black collegians binge drank in 1999, meaning whites out-binged them by a staggering three-to-one ratio.

Sadly, black students fared even worse at "frequent binge drinking" -- i.e., consuming five/four or more drinks in a row on three or more occasions in the previous two weeks. While 26.3 percent of whites frequently binged, only 6.5 percent of blacks did so. That is, blacks were four times less likely to be heavy drinkers than whites.

An alarming 38 percent of black students abstained from alcohol altogether, more than twice the percentage for whites (15.6).

"Whassup?" indeed.

Why are so few black college students getting drunk on a regular basis? Gina Vivinetto, a reporter and pop music critic for the St. Petersburg Times, discovered the answer on a recent trip to the University of Florida -- the Number Two "partying" (i.e., "drinking") school in the nation, according to the Princeton Review.

(A word about that ranking: It rankles. "The day a university can drink more than we do is the day I die," a twenty-year-old Gator told Vivinetto as he pounded beers on a Thursday afternoon.)

Vivinetto learned from countless white guzzlers that, for them, drinking is an activity in and of itself. That is, the student's primary objective when going out to a club or to a private party or hanging out at home is not to dance, to meet new people, to hear a favorite band, or to play cards or chess. It is to get drunk. Even for those dancing at a club or singing in a karaoke bar, the dancing and singing complement the drinking, not vice versa.

Vivinetto chatted as well with black students, two of whom told her that alcohol is present at all-black parties, but it isn't the reason for the parties.

"I don't want to make it racial," said one young woman, "but if you came to one of our parties and took away all the alcohol, we'd still have a party going on. We'd still be dancing. If you go to the white frat parties and take away all the beer, there's no party anymore. That's their whole focus."

In a nutshell, that is the problem: The inability of black students to properly "focus." This is where Budweiser comes in. It's an audacious experiment, teaching black college students to drink in the manner and amounts of their white counterparts. Handled indelicately, it could lead to cries of "racism" and "cultural insensitivity."

Budweiser has avoided such missteps by hiring black actors who look and sound "black" but who lead lives (within the commercial) that are typical of heavy-drinking white students: They drink out of habit or boredom; they drink during the day and sometimes alone; they drink on the couch in couch-potato mode. Whereas unsophisticated black students might squander an afternoon or evening playing a game, the "True" characters prefer to get trashed at the bar while watching one (taking time out, of course, to ring up their buddy and slur "Whassup?").

Social scientists use the term "modeling" to describe the behavior modification Budweiser is attempting. If kids can learn karate from TV superheroes, maybe, just maybe, black collegians can learn to "drink white" from "True" commercial characters.

This isn't the first time Budweiser's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has acted in the greater public good. Along with tobacco giant Phillip Morris, it donated generously to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, enabling that talented team of advertising pros to alert citizens to the dangers of marijuana in the years before the Partnership joined forces with the drug czar. Anheuser-Busch also has contributed substantially to John McCain and countless congresspersons on both sides of the aisle, thereby reducing their dependence on the "special interests" seeking to regulate the marketing of alcohol.

Such efforts, noble though they be, pale in comparison to the campaign to teach black collegians to "drink white." For all you do, Budweiser, this Whassup's for you.

Dennis Hans is a satirist and pundit whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He teaches at the University of South Florida.