The New Yorker Perpetuates Racist Framing: The Power of Pictures

In a useful July 23, 2008 commentary on his blog, “The Brain Who Mistook a Joke for a Fact,” Princeton biology professor Sam Wang has a very interesting take on the infamous New Yorker cover. First he notes just how dumb the various New Yorker editors are about how information is dealt with by the human brain:

. . . the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, has pointed out that the magazine’s liberal leanings are well-known. He wonders: can’t people take a joke? The short answer is that we would, but our brains won’t let us. After our brains store a fact, the information does not rest. Instead, as a piece of information is recalled, it may be “written” down again as part of the process of strengthening it. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from the context in which it was originally learned.

Of course, the New Yorker folks likely did not check with researchers or with the Black community before running the so-called satire. Wang then adds:

Most of the time this trick is useful. . . . But the same trick can lead people to forget whether a statement is even true. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. So any intended satire in the magazine cover may eventually be forgotten, leaving people to recall vaguely that Barack Obama is somehow un-American.

False memories develop especially easily in situations like the New Yorker cover:

Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues have shown that if people aren’t given enough time to think, they tend to automatically accept a statement as being true. Visual information is processed particularly rapidly. And what’s more immediate than a caricature?

The emotional dimension of a presentation is also very important:

. . . ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods. Indeed, unscrupulous campaign strategists know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.

Lesson one about framing is that by repeating a false framing a lot, even in countering it, one only reinforces it:

In covering the controversy . . . virtually every major TV journalist repeated the stereotyped charges against the candidate . . . before noting that the beliefs were false. . . . In television, which above all else is a visual medium, image can easily trump verbal content.

The old cliche works here: A picture is worth a thousand words. How then do we handle this type of negative presentation? Wang suggests this:

If journalists are to avoid adding to the public’s misinformation, they need to find other strategies, such as offering an equally competing, true storyline. . . . rather than repeating the false belief then denying that Obama is a Muslim, a less misleading approach would be to report on the candidate’s discovery of Christianity after a secular youth.

Offer the true storyline! Frame analysis would put this a bit clearer: You do not accept the framing of the negative story of your opponent or other false presentation, and you do not repeat words and images from that inaccurate or negative frame, but you reframe an issue from another and accurate frame.

Randy Newman Sings the Same White Racist Song

Singer Randy Newman released a new album yesterday, called “Harps and Angels.” I am not what you call an avid Randy Newman fan and this is not a plug urging you to go out and buy the album (image from Mike Bouchard). My musical tastes somewhat vary from the man perhaps most well known for his satirical song “Short People” (1977), and more recently known for his film scores on Disney films such as A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story. While many people interpreted Newman’s “Short People” song as a send-up of society’s superficial prejudices, the songwriter seems to have lost his way with this new release. Instead of skewering intolerance, he’s piling it on. Take for example a blurb at PopMatters about one of the tracks on the album entitled “Korean Parents.” The reviewer, Ron Hart, writes:

“Korean Parents”, however, might just be the biggest firecracker on this album, and perhaps the hottest potato of a song he’s tossed in our little hands since “Rednecks”. Using a “stereotypically Asian” melody, as he put it in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, he offers up a commentary on the competitive relationship between Asian and American students in the public school system. He suggests the Koreans sell their disciplinarian parents instead of their babies to possibly help get the American kids who “don’t have a clue” back on track before taking a crack at the WWII era by declaring that he’s “so sick of hearing ‘bout ‘The Greatest Generation’”, offering that such a generation could actually be the youth of today.

This review immediately set off some alarm bells for me. The melody used at the beginning of the song is actually a sample of the beginning of the 1970s hit “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974). This melodic little blip that is often accompanied with some racial teasing, taunting, or epithet to harass Asian Americans kids. Yet, Hart does not bother to differentiate between Asian and Asian American students, which reinforces this “forever foreigner” notion about Asian Americans who may even be fourth a fifth generation Americans.

I found the article in the Los Angeles Times that Hart references in his review, and it was seeking out answers for why Asian American students had higher scores than their Latino counterparts. Many of these Asian American students talked about the “model minority” expectations placed on them. However, the LA Times piece does not fully address the complexities and differences between these two racialized groups.

Lastly, as Newman attempts to explain the racial disparities among minority groups, he excludes whites from his commentary. Here are some of the lyrics:

Some Jewish kids still trying
Some white kids trying too
But millions of real American kids don’t have a clue
Right here on the lot
We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy…

Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair

Look at the numbers
That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off
Their parents make them do it…

Newman insists that Jewish and white kids are putting forth the same academic effort and not-so-subtly insinuates that these other American kids (who are not white, Asian, or Jewish) “don’t have a clue.” He is also insultingly typecasting Korean Americans. Evoking the stereotype of some cold, disciplinary household where the “culture” of academic excellence just occurs “naturally.” Rather than use his music to challenge and subvert these pervasive stereotypes of Asian Americans, Newman’s lyrics parrot the blatant, sweeping generalizations of Asian Americans as “model minorities.” This not only diminishes the subjectivity and diversity within and among Asian Americans, it also pits them against other people of color.
Interestingly, the way this has been framed Asian American kids are only at the head of the class because their parents “make them” and Newman suggests further militant control over these other children of color. However, white and Jewish students are working on their own accord, independently “trying.”

The song is troubling, but all too exemplary of the white racist framing in our society. Asian Americans did not coin the phrase “model minority,” whites did. Academic achievement is a survival strategy in the face of racial oppression.

The Asian students mentioned in the LA times article are in fact Americans too, as are the “Korean Parents” of Newman’s lyrics. Blacks, Latinos, and Native American kids do have a clue. I suggest it’s Randy Newman who needs to get a clue. And to help him, I intend to send him a copy of the book Joe and I wrote Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism.