Why aren't black people driving electric cars?

Here is something you will not hear come out of a black person's mouth: "That 2012 Toyota Prius? I need that." I hate to generalize but think about it, when was the last time you heard any one of your black friends hype up a Prius, a Nissan Leaf or any other environmentally-safe automobile? You haven't.

And as much as we complain about the rising cost of gas, unfortunately, environmentally conscious vehicles and black folks just don't seem to be mixing right now. But is this really just a black thing?


According to recent research, it just might be. The Greenlining Institute released a report on hybrid and electric vehicle, or EV, usage among California residents and discovered that 70% of hybrid owners in California are white, even though the overall state population is 60% non-White. Likewise, only 20% of hybrid owners are Latinos and even fewer are African-Americans. The researchers have concluded that lack of enthusiasm from people of color in the alternative fueled vehicle revolution has to do with a combination of cost, education and attainability.

Initially, I thought that this might be the case. Previously research has shown that African-Americans still lag in environmental advocacy, although they are most likely to be effected by environmental issues. However, even as President Obama has called on the general American citizenship, along with automakers, to embrace the electric car, and become less dependent on oil, the reality is that hybrids only represented approximately 2.5 percent of the overall market. In December 2010, that equated to only 28,592 vehicles. So the meme of black and brown people's being the only ones not driving off into a pollution-free sunset doesn't quite fit.

Nevertheless, we can't simply ignore that for whatever reason, EV have a lack of appeal in our communities. So I decided to do an informal and very unscientific poll on my Facebook wall and ask some very smart people, why are Black & Brown folks generally opposed to stuntin' in an EV or hybrid?


First and foremost was the concern about the overall cost of the vehicle. A 2011 Prius ranges from $23,225 to $30,700 while a 2011 Honda Insight will run you around $23,000 well-equipped. Even with the $7,500 federal tax credit, these vehicles are not exactly priced to move. Moreover, the lack of recharging stations in urban areas combined with the cost of regular maintenance and up-keep, which requires ordering special parts from the dealer, pretty much diminishes whatever practical values the vehicle may offer for the everyday user. However, it can't all be about cost considering that a Cadillac Escalade is almost double the price of a Prius and the average owner will spend about $100 filling up at the pump. Yet still there is no shortage of Caddy trucks, and other gas-guzzlers, in the ‘hood. And rarely – if ever – have we seen a basketball player, hip-hop artist, actor or other Black folks of means stepping out of a Chevy Volt.

And another one of my Facebook friends pointed me in the direction of this study, done by the Strategic Visions, which suggested that pride and individuality are key aspects in an African American's choice of vehicle. Call it the Maslow's Hierarchy of Need of car buying but according to this study, African-Americans tend to see themselves as strong, very successful and highly motivated. Likewise, they seek out traits in a vehicle that tends to reflect this strong sense of self-esteem.


Unfortunately for vehicles like the Prius, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the overall design doesn't seem to denote high strength and high self-esteem. In short, A Prius with its bugged-eyes and hunched-back are aesthetically challenged. Technically, it is not really the vehicle-makers fault as the body on the Prius has to be shaped that way to package the battery inside the passenger compartment behind the rear seat to keep the battery cool. However, for drivers, particularly African-American, who see a vehicle as an extension of our personality, driving around in a Prius just doesn't seem to promote the images as successful and strong as a Mercedes or a BMW.

Now whether or not you agree with black people's motivations is irrelevant. Because we are consumers, we shouldn't have to conform to a product but rather a product should conform to us. However, if the EV and hybrid makers can't find a way to change the design of the vehicle or manage to bring the upfront cost down of owning one, I'm afraid that this EV revolution might be passing us by – that is until somehow manufacturers can convince Rick Ross to squeeze in a plug and make a song called Prius Music.


Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things. Photo Credit: Charley Gallay/WireImage, Mark Mainz/Getty Images

This story originally appeared on The Atlanta Post on August 2, 2011, and was republished with permission.


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