Harley-Davidson’s fans don’t want to hear about its racism problem
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Recently I published a piece on Harley-Davidson’s announced intent to introduce several electric motorcycles and other two wheelers by 2022. The thesis I advanced was that Harley-Davidson had a brand problem which made current fans unlikely to accept electric vehicles and millennials unlikely to embrace Harley-Davidson, electric or no. I made what I thought was the uncontroversial point that Harley-Davidson had a white nationalism problem and that the brand had been complicit in creating the issue.
Harley-Davidson fans were not amused.
To begin with, does Harley-Davidson have a racism issue?
Yes, they do.
A 2011 US Anti-Defamation League report makes clear that white supremacist groups are explicitly linking their brands to Harley-Davidson’s.
Now, however, bikers and white supremacists are commingling with increasing frequency in a number of different ways. All five of the major white supremacist movements in the United States — neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, Ku Klux Klan groups, racist prison gangs, and Christian Identity groups — have developed noteworthy ties to the biker subculture.
Academic papers such as Harley Culture from the Outside: Cowboys, Guns and Patriotism make the inherent racism and nationalism very clear.
Accompanying the iconography of the US west, the imagery of the US flag is ubiquitous among Harley-Davidson riders, along with a heritage of racism that has grown from the post-war antipathy to Japanese bikes, and from various “Buy American” campaigns. Jay Barbieri, a Harley purist, suggests in his Biker’s Handbook that “for 30 years it was a turf war” between Japanese and American-made motorcycles: “this war was so real and lasted so long that even into the 1990s, bar owners at rallies such as Sturgis and Daytona would hoist Japanese bikes up into trees and set them on fire as a symbol against the import motorcycle scene” (Barbieri, 17).
AdAge in a recent piece on the Trump-Harley showdown, Harley-Davidson is moving factories overseas, but don’t expect the ads to change, points out that Trump’s base is the same as Harley’s base.
It’s unlikely the news will lose Harley-Davidson any fans it hasn’t already lost to cheaper, smaller and more reliable brands that are often foreign-owned. The “Made in the U.S.A.” crowd has merged with the “Make America Great Again” masses, and neither really seem to care that red baseball caps are sewn in China.
Trump’s explicit and implicit appeals to white nationalism are as uncontroversially obvious as Harley-Davidson’s. Regarding the Charlottesville neo-Nazi marches and related counter-protestor death and numerous injuries, here’s Trump’s rejoinder:
You also had some very fine people on both sides
So has Harley-Davidson been complicit in this increasing racism?
Yes, they have.
The most blatant example was that in 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial, Harley-Davidson thought that the most obvious way to celebrate the USA was to celebrate the losing side in the civil war over slavery. It introduced six Confederate Edition motorcycles across its line.
Most currently maintained references to this series of motorcycles point out chidingly that Harley-Davidson doesn’t have an example of one in their museum and equally chidingly suggest that ‘political correctness’ is the reason.
As the Harley Culture from the Outside quote above points out, Harley-Davidson made no bones about the Buy American subtext, which was that bikes made by non-whites in another country were inferior. And their hardcore fans ate this up.
This relationship is well-understood. The exemplar of the hated mainstream-media of the far right, CNN, makes this obvious point.
Harley faces demographic challenges in the United States. “Their core customer is an older, Caucasian male, and they’re exiting the sport,” said Joseph Altobello, an analyst who covers the company at Raymond James. Sound familiar? Another American institution that has become extremely dependent on older white males is the Republican Party.
A great deal of this was to do with the overt and jingoistic American patriotism the brand tied itself to. This lengthy assessment of Harley-Davidson’s marketing approaches published in Quartz, Harley Davidson’s 100-year history is a case study in the marketing of the American maverick, makes this point clearly.
As the Liberty Edition suggested, nationalism was becoming a growing part of Harley’s brand. This intensified as Harley-Davidson’s business struggled against the Japanese competition.
White men, racism and nationalism. This is a bleedingly obvious combination and brand signifier to those of us on the outside of Harley culture, but rather painful for those inside of it to accept.
So what was the reaction from Harley-Davidson fans?
Some was relatively innocuous.
WOW — is there any evidence to support your claims/assumptions about HOGS?
As shown, yes, there is. It’s not like the Sons of Anarchy tv show, drenched as it was in white men, misogyny, violence and Harley-Davidsons, was at all emblematic of the problems that the brand had developed. Or that the show was part of Harley-Davidson’s brand recovery after the fiscal fallout of 2008. Oh wait, yes, it was.
Other comments were more pointed.
You left the motorcycle out of the article — why? Perhaps because it was built over 40 years ago in the 1970’s ( and they don’t have it in their museum) and your claim was that their “white nationalism dog whistle” marketing began in the early ‘80’s. The rest of the post is irrelevant — your claim was regarding Harley Davidson marketing “white nationalism dog whistles”. Gay boys have a connection with Barbie dolls regardless of whether Mattel markets with “gay dog whistles”.
The obvious white supremacy problems with Harley’s brand were referenced very briefly in the article. As has been shown in this more referenced piece, it’s reasonable to mention this problem in passing without requiring deep references. Fundamentally, if you have been paying attention to both Harley-Davidson and racism in the USA, it’s clear that they have a strong relationship.
This isn’t to say, of course, that Harley-Davidson owners and fans are racist by definition. At no point in the article I wrote did I say this or imply it. It’s clear that the brand has a problem and a lot of racists have attached themselves to it, but that doesn’t mean that individuals with Harley-Davidsons or who like Harley-Davidsons are automatically white nationalists.
Not that you would know that by the comments of one reader. Here’s an example:
Your hate flows through blinding you to real life and companies doing the right thing. I’d get that looked at.
That’s a reasonable response, for sure.
Important context is where this interaction occurred.
The original article was on CleanTechnica, which reasonably bills itself as the #1 cleantech-focused website in the US and the world.
CleanTechnica is a site which attracts progressives. A site which assumes global warming science as a base reality. Which is misogynistic only by accident of a bunch of nerdy men forgetting to mention women, not intentionally putting them in an inferior role.
And a site which ignores race and color. I’ve been publishing on the site since 2014, close to 100 articles. This is the first time I’ve seen any evidence of racism. And I’m aware of overt racism. CleanTechnica does not support racism in any way.
Yet in a comment thread on CleanTechnica, an uncontentious statement that Harley-Davidson’s brand had a racism problem and that Harley-Davidson had been somewhat complicit in that problem led to substantial comment threads attempting to deny that.
I’m bemused to think of what would have happened had I published this in a motorcycle magazine, a Harley-Davidson oriented site or Breitbart. And I’m much less bemused to think of the reaction if I had been a person of color or a woman. I suspect I would have had to delete my social media accounts.
What does this net out to?
Harley-Davidson has a racism problem. Even its most progressive brand adherents have challenges with that. And even its most progressive and rational adherents will cherry-pick, deny and obfuscate to avoid confronting unpleasant reality.
My interaction with this toxic sub-culture is about as positive as possible for it to be. I’m a white male writing in a progressive cleantech site with a historically well-curated comments section.
Imagine the reactions elsewhere. Imagine if I was a person of color or a woman.
Chief Strategist, TFIE Strategy Inc. Business and technical future-proofing. Top Writer Quora since 2013. CleanTechnica, Forbes, Quartz+ more. In 4 books.
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