Last Wednesday I had a bit of an existential moment as I was wasting time on the commuter train into D.C. Sifting through my friends’ Facebook posts, I came across an article noting the upcoming 35th anniversary of a very famous 1979 Coca-Cola commercial. We all know this commercial. It’s one of the greatest commercials ever aired, featuring football legend Mean Joe Greene, a little boy, and a bottle of Coke.
Let me refresh the memories of those born during the Clinton Administration. In the commercial, a very tired and cranky Mean Joe Greene is walking through a stadium tunnel to the locker room after an apparently bad day on the football field. He’s met by a little boy, they talk a bit, and the little boy hands him a Coke. Greene chugs it, and then throws his jersey to the boy as thanks.
That’s all the commercial is and, until Wednesday on the train, it’s how I remembered seeing it as an eight-year old boy. But reading the article, I saw there was more to this commercial than I had realized as a child. With a tender dynamic playing out between a small white boy and a large black man, the commercial was also a statement by Coca-Cola on race.
Imagine how stunned I was to read this. First, understand that I’ve always remembered this commercial through the eyes of the eight-year old boy I was when I had watched it in 1979 and 1980. Not once did it ever occur to me as an eight-year old that the boy in the commercial – who was about my age – should look at Mean Joe Greene as anything other than another human being because of his skin tone. Thus, for the last 35 years, this commercial had only been to me a short story about a small boy and a tired, grumpy man who bond a little over a bottle of Coke. Until this article, the commercial meant nothing to me as far as race was concerned.
In the moments after my realization, I remembered how careful my parents had been not to teach me and my siblings that a person’s race had any bearing on their worth as a human. Mom, being a college English professor, would carefully explain the logical inconsistencies of equating race to human worth. Dad, being a redneck who also held a masters in computer engineering and a law degree, had his own way of explaining race.
“Matthew,” Dad had told me on more than one occasion, “if you hate somebody based on the color of their skin, that means you’re stupid. And if you don’t understand why you’re stupid, that makes you doubly stupid.” Dad wasn’t a deep man emotionally, but he still managed to get his points across in his own way.
The following day, the world heard about the death of Nelson Mandela, a man who will always be remembered for the incredible love he showed his white oppressors after the fall of Apartheid. “No person is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he had famously spoke. “People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Yes, I admit that Nelson Mandela was more eloquent than Dad, but they’re both pointing out how it’s nurture – and not nature – that leads to hate and all hate’s evils. I only wish I could keep remembering that old Coke commercial with the same childlike innocence I had up until last Wednesday.
Written By Matt Haarington
Director of Policy Anaysis