05/17/2010 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Race Relations in NASCAR

Does our skin color need to match that of our heroes? This may be precisely the kind of thinking responsible for the difficulty African-American drivers find in getting major NASCAR sponsorship. Leonard T. Miller is a race-car driver, President of Miller Racing Group Inc., and author of the new book Racing While Black: How an African-American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on NASCAR. Said Miller in a May 15, 2010 radio interview with Tavis Smiley:

"I mean, when you go to these corporate marketing departments, they'll tell us that there's not any African-Americans in the grand stands, in live attendance. But then again, when you look at Serena Williams and Venus Williams you don't have a lot of African American attendance sitting in the stands and the same thing with Tiger Woods on the golf course."

In 1972, Miller's Father Leonard W. Miller was the first African-American to enter his team for the much vaunted Indianapolis 500. In 1991, the Miller Racing Group gave Dr. Pepper its first win on the track. Yet, said Miller to Tavis Smiley, when approaching a corporate marketing department for sponsorship, such accomplishments are "discounted" and the team's request for sponsorship is instead diverted to "Diversity Departments."

Could the majority-white live audience for NASCAR really be the reason for corporate reticence in doling out the dough? If so, it is insulting on many levels. I hail from a part of the country with a large contingent of white NASCAR fans, but an equal number of white Tiger Woods fans as well. So, I'd like to think that I know a little something about this subject.

If NASCAR sponsors really aren't giving Miller's group a fair shot at their dollars because of race, then they underestimate the talent he has assembled, as well as the evolving NASCAR audience which also includes statistically significant numbers of Asian, Latino and African-American fans, according to Sports Business Daily.

To be sure, racism still exists everywhere, and there are, no doubt, some in the audience who wouldn't cheer for Miller's team because of race. Still, to assume that NO ONE, or even just a small minority would accept a black team, is to perpetuate a stereotype created in movies and comedic routines of NASCAR fans as beer-swilling, stars and bars flying, racist yokels. Again, to look at the numbers, that just ain't so.

NASCAR is not the only organization to assume that whites can't be interested in a black hero. A field-trip in Ann Arbor, Michigan recently made national headlines when a group of exclusively black students were taken to see a University of Michigan rocket scientist.

In a letter home to parents, Principal Mike Matthews of the now embattled Dicken Elementary School wrote:

The intent of our field trip was not to segregate or exclude students ... but rather to address the societal issues, roadblocks and challenges that our African-American children will face as they pursue a successful academic education here in our community.

As a result of their segregated field trip, students returning from the outing were booed by those left behind. Segregation in any form is another type of "societal issue" that must be addressed.

The kind of logic that prompts a school to take only black students to see a black Professor for inspiration would seem also to inform the comparatively small number of dollars many corporations are willing to dole out to tested African-American race-car drivers. Both instances damage our national progress on race-related issues. Both actions send a message to whites and blacks alike that their heroes must have the same color skin as they do. This is no way to achieve unity and a great way to perpetuate racism.