Television Racism

Television plays a central role in perpetuating the four-centuries-old white racist framing of African Americans. I was reading today a 2008 article by Travis Dixon (Travis Dixon, “Crime News and Racialized Beliefs,” Journal of Communication March 2008).
Creative Commons License photo credit: Orin Optiglot

Dixon did a Los Angeles county survey of 506 respondents in 2002-2003 and found that a person’s time spent viewing local television news programs’ overrepresentation of black criminals, as well as his or her attention to crime news and trust of local news, predicted well stereotypes of blacks as criminals. This was true after controls were applied for local neighborhood diversity and local crime rate. Those who paid most attention to television crime news were the most likely to be obsessed with local crime and to give harsher culpability ratings of hypothetical black criminal suspects as compared to white criminal suspects. Television exposure was also found to be directly related to racially stereotyped images of blacks as violent. Dixon has concluded that “News viewing may be part of a process that makes the construct or cognitive linkage between Blacks and criminality frequently activated and therefore chronically accessible.”

Numerous other studies by Dixon and various researchers show similar patterns. (See chapters 7-8 here) Today, one major source of many negative images of black Americans (and other Americans of color) is television. Eight in ten Americans watch local television news at least four nights a week. These local news programs, now the major source of information for a majority, often accent violent crime. One study of fifty-six cities found that crime was the subject of one-third of such local programming. Studies also show that local violent crimes get extensive coverage, while local nonviolent crimes such as fraud and embezzlement usually get little. Black suspects are commonly over-represented relative to actual arrest rates, while the opposite is true for whites.

In an earlier 2002 study Dixon and D. Linz suggested that this media criminality imagery likely influences the way many whites view their chances of being victims, as well as the way they might decide guilt or innocence on juries in cases involving black defendants. The media theory called “cultivation theory” argues that heavy exposure to television content about the social world tends to influence how people see the outside society, even if that outside world is not at all like that in the television programming.

Television thus constantly reinforces four-centuries-old stereotypes from the white racist framing of African Americans and other Americans of color like the Latino whose death we blogged on recently –which is one major reason that there cannot be a “post-racial America” any time soon. At a minimum, the white racial frame’s constant perpetuation and reinforcement in the media will have to come to an end before whites’ racist views of African Americans can come to an end.

All White Jury, All White Justice

At the end of July, 2008 in a small town in Pennsylvania, two drunken white boys (ages 16 and 17) attacked Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant, striking him repeatedly with their fists then kicking him in the head once he lay on the ground. According to one report, by the time help arrived, Ramirez lay convulsing in the middle of the street, foam running from his mouth. As they ran away from beating and kicking this man to death, witnesses heard the one of the white boys say to a woman who was with Ramirez: ” ‘You effin bitch, tell your effin Mexican friends get the eff out of Shenandoah or you’re gonna be laying effin next to him.’ ” These facts are not in dispute.

And yet, the two white boys – who were charged as adults with homicide and racial intimidation – were acquitted yesterday. Here’s a short report from CNN (3:21) about the verdict:

One of the experts in this clip, Avery Friedman, contends that this is a pretty clear-cut case of jury nullification. In other words, the all-white jury in this case effectively nullified the law by acquitting these two white thugs. This kind of result: white justice by all-white juries, is a common feature of American justice, although it is most often associated with the South during the Civil Rights struggle. For example, in the Emmet Till case, an all-white jury refused toconvict (typo corrected – thanks for catching that Alston!) the Klan members who had all but confessed to kidnapping and murdering Till. In the recent Pennsylvania case, the all-white jury failed to convict two white men in the murder of a Mexican immigrant. As Friedman says, “the only reason he is dead is because he was Mexican.” The murder of Emmet Till fifty years ago, and the white justice handed out by an all-white jury, proved to be a catalyst for a social movement for racial equality. I can only hope that Ramirez’s death sparks another such movement.

Thanks to Victor Ray for his comment about this case.

[Updated 5/14/09: Sign the Luis Ramirez Hate Crime Petition sponsored by MALDEF.]

May 6th and Freud

Well May 6th has some interesting birthdays. In 1856 Sigmund Freud, Austrian cigar smoker and father of psychology/psychotherapy was born on this day…… Lots of theories of individual racism have been influenced by Freud, especially the large set of Frustration-Aggression theories.

Sociological analysts of stereotyping tend to emphasize group pressures on individuals for conformity/rationalization, while psychological analysts tend to stress individual irrationality or personality defects. Much research has highlighted the expressive function of prejudice for the individual. Frustration–aggression theories, psychoanalytic theories, and authoritarian personality perspectives focus on the externalization function of prejudice—the transfer of an individual’s internal psychological problem onto an external object as a solution to that problem. Psychologically oriented interpretations often attribute racial or ethnic prejudice to special emotional problems of “sick” or “abnormal” individuals, such as a deep hatred of their own fathers.

In a classic study of prejudice and personality, The Authoritarian Personality, one heavily shaped by the Frankfort school’s take on Freudianism, T. W. Adorno and his colleagues argued that people who hate such groups as Jewish Americans typically differ from tolerant people in regard to central personality traits—specifically, that they tend to exhibit “authoritarian personalities.” Those with authoritarian personalities differ from others in their greater submission to authority, tendency to stereotype, superstition, and great concern for social status. They often see the world as sinister and threatening, a view that easily leads to intolerance of outgroups that occupy subordinate positions in the social world around them. Thus, the Nazis and neo-Nazis, of the past and the present……

Then, too, some other folks were of course born on this day, like me:)

Optimism & Everyday Racism

Time for shoppingA recent article called, “Voices Reflect Rising Sense of Optimism,” by Susan Saulny in The New York Times, trumpets the usual exuberance over the improvement in “race relations” in the wake the election of President Obama (Creative Commons License photo credit: Bjørn Giesenbauer).

I want to offer a different interpretation of some of the data in the article.

The reporting in this article is based on interviews in seven states throughout the U.S.    It is meant to add some personal stories (what newspaper people used to call “color” and what sociologists might refer to as “qualitative data”) to support findings in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll (the quantitative data) in which two-thirds of Americans said race relations were generally good.    Rather than a unequivocally optimistic story, as the headline suggests, the qualitative data (e.g., reporting) that the NYTimes presents here offers a glimpse into the micro-level interactions of how everyday racism operates.  Let me show you what I mean.

The article starts with a description of what the past 30 years have been like for one working-class black man – a Mr. Sallis, 69 –  in Milwaukee, WI, where being black “meant being mostly ignored, living a life invisible and unacknowledged in a larger white world.” Then, Mr. Sallis, 69, noticed a change.

“Since President Obama started campaigning, if I go almost anywhere, it’s: ‘Hi! Hello, how are you, sir?’ I’m talking about strangers. Calling me ‘sir.’ It makes you feel different, like, hey — maybe we are all equals. I’m no different than before. It’s just that other people seem to be realizing these things all around me.” [emphasis added]

Mr. Sallis is being euphemistic here when he says “strangers” – and the NYTimes doesn’t clarify – but he means “white people.”  So, the big improvement in “race relations” is that white people have begun to say “Hi! Hellow, how are you sir?” to a black man that they presumably walked past for thirty years previously without acknowledging.    I can see how this might qualify as ‘news’ but pardon me if I don’t quite share the optimism here.  It seems to me that the broader pattern here is that white people routinely ignore and try to pretend that black people are invisible.   So, yes, recognizing black people’s humanity is a big step forward.    Mr. Sallis’ story is not an isolated example.

There are other examples of the shift in the micro-level of everyday racism, such as that of Kevin Chaison, a 39-year-old telemarketer in St. Louis, who also says that, as a black man, he used to feel invisible.

“I get more of a sense that I belong now.  Now I’m getting more of a, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ than I was a year ago.”[emphasis added]

Again, note that Mr. Chaison is expressing optimism here about the fact that white people have acknowledged his existence with a simple, polite greeting.   While it’s certainly good news, it also highlights the fact that until the historic election of the first African American president, white people were in the habit of not speaking to their fellow citizens who happen to be black.  Perhaps this is what some white people mean when they insist that they’re colorblind and “don’t see race.”

A third black man quoted in the article, Chester J. Fontenot Jr., 59, a professor of English and director of Africana studies at Mercer University in Macon, GA, says that he has felt a shift on his campus in terms of the micro-level interactions.  Here’s Professor Fontenot:

“I think what’s happened with a number of white people who have come up and started talking to me is they feel comfortable with him (President Obama), and that makes it O.K. to come up and engage me. They feel like they have something in common with me now, we have something to talk about. Now you get the head nod, or a smile that you just didn’t get a year or two ago. For me, it was like, ‘I’m not even going to acknowledge this black person.’ They’d just keep on their merry way. But now, I get acknowledged.” [emphasis added]

Once again, the mere fact of being acknowledged is noteworthy because it is such a dramatic shift in the micro-level interactions that make up everyday racism.

While I think there’s room for some optimism, I also think that it’s important to recognize that what seems to have changed is white people’s behavior.    And, the changes being reported here are at an incredibly small, micro-level of interaction.    This is progress to be sure, but it’s a long way from dismantling the institutionalized discrimination that operates whether or not someone says “Hey, how you doing?”

Police Brutality and the National Political Agenda

The Root ( a Scales Of Justicevery good source on racial issues) has a recent post by Sherrilyn Ifill, University of Maryland law professor and civil rights lawyer, on the continuing reality of police malpractice and brutality, most of it directed against men of color—most especially, black men (Creative Commons License photo credit: srqpix). She begins with the sad “talk”:

It’s one of the depressing ironies of black life that in the Obama era, black mothers and fathers must continue giving their teenage sons “the talk.” I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the “how to act when the police stop you” talk. Rule 1. Don’t talk back to the officer. Rule 2. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Rule 3. And this is critical, don’t reach for your wallet without asking the officer first. Supplemental rule. Carry a pink cell phone if you can. A black cell phone may look like a gun to a nervous cop.

She lists some of the many police killings in the last couple of years, such as brutal taser death of Baron Pikes in Winnfield in 2008:

Tasered nine times within 14 minutes by a 21-year-old white officer, Pikes may well have been dead – handcuffed and unresponsive in a police cruiser—when the last two 50,000-volt charges were delivered directly to his chest. The officer reportedly admitted that he began using his Taser on Pikes when the handcuffed black man responded too slowly to the officer’s demand that Pikes get up and walk to the police car.

Then mentions others like this one:

In Dallas, 23-year-old Robbie Tolan, a minor league baseball player and the son of former Major League Baseball player Bobbie Tolan, was shot in his own driveway in an affluent white suburb on New Year’s Eve. White police officers, purportedly believing that the SUV driven by Tolan and his cousin was stolen, approached the young black men and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The car belonged to Tolan’s parents, and the officers reportedly did not identify themselves. When Tolan’s parents came outside to find out what was happening, one of the officers allegedly shoved Mrs. Tolan against the garage. Robbie Tolan yelled to the officer to stop pushing his mother, and that, witnesses say, is when he was shot by one of the officers.

She notes a Youtube video of

The recent case involving the cell phone video of a drunk, white, off-duty police officer in Erie, Pa., making crude jokes about a black murder victim and ridiculing the victim’s grieving mother, illustrates part of the problem.

We have discussed some of these major instances of police brutality on this blog numerous times.

In conclusion, Ifill makes this on-target comment:

The results of these incidents are depressingly predictable. Outrage. Marches. Most often no indictment. Sometimes an indictment. Always an acquittal. More marches. Next incident. The stunning lack of change suggests that our protest-oriented approach to police brutality must focus less on punishment for individual officers, and more on systemic institutional changes within our police academies and departments.

Just how systemic the police harassment and brutality is can be seen in polls and in social science research. For example, one 2001 Gallup poll found 83 percent of black respondents had experienced racial profiling in the last year. In addition, in a 2007 Gallup poll a fifth of the black respondents reported that had suffered discrimination at the hands of police officers, a proportion that has increased in recent years.

Lest some think that we are ignoring lots of white victims of police brutality here, we might note that one social science study back in the 1990s analyzed 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the country. In that reviews of cases, criminologist Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality, while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved were white. Police brutality overwhelmingly involves white-on-black or other white-on-minority violence. (See discussion in Chapter 5 here.)

Happy May Day!

Industrial Workers of the World’s website points out that the country that founded May Day (May 1) seems to have forgotten it:

Most people living in the United States know little about the International Workers’ Day of May Day. For many others there is an assumption that it is a holiday celebrated in state communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union.

Most Americans don’t realize that May Day has its origins here in this country and is as “American” as baseball and apple pie, and stemmed from the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.

In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860’s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn’t until the late 1880’s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.

Unions and other worker organizations have brought much in the way of better lives for many Americans and others across the globe. And most of the world’s workers are workers of color–often working ultimately for white-controlled corporations. They still need much new organization to end various types of oppression they face.

Racism as Reality TV

If you’re reading here and you have cable tv, you might want to set the DVR to record a new reality television show that addresses racism (hat tip: @BlackInformant via Twitter).   On Sunday (5/3), The Learning Channel’s (TLC’s) will debut a new show called “Guess Who’s Coming Over” in which a self-described “redneck” and his (white) family are matched with a young, urban black man.

I admit that I’m both curious and skeptical about this show.   I’ll post an update here after I’ve had a chance to see it and review it.

Nominate Kimberlé Crenshaw for Supreme Court

With the soon-to-be vacant seat on the Supreme Court due to the retirement of Justice Souter, President Obama has a unique opportunity to make history with his nominee to fill that position.   I want to add my voice to Melissa Lacewell Harris’ call to nominate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to the Supreme Court (hat tip: @bfp @harrislacewell via Twitter).    Crenshaw is, as Harris describes her, a “field-defining scholar” in the area of race, gender and the law.

Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama joined other women at the U.S. Capitol to dedicate a bust of Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and early advocate for women’s right to vote.   At that ceremony, Mrs. Obama said, “I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America.”

To really bring change and fulfill the legacy of Sojourner Truth, President Obama has a unique opportunity to seat the first black woman on the Supreme Court.   Crenshaw is that woman.

Racism, Reporting and 100 Days

This week marked President Obama’s first 100 days in office (Creative Commons License photo credit: Alexander van Dijk).  Lots of reporters took the opportunity of this somewhat artificial marker to evaluate Obama’s achievements and popularity.  The reporting on his first 100 days was also the occasion for some racism in journalism that it’s important to call out.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, is right when he says that he finds Byron York’s (Washington Examiner) “incredibly racist.”  Here’s the relevant passage:

On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

Coates writes about his hesitancy to call out York for the racism in this passage because of what he calls “political correctness run amok” in which identifying racism is seen as more egregious than the racism itself.     Coates is more eloquent:

We live in a country that may well be offended by racism, but it’s equally offended that anyone might actually charge as much.

For evidence, he cites some of the recent examples of overt racist expressions by James Watson, Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Richards, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, which were then all followed by plaintive wails of racial innocence and crys of “offense” by these white folks at being labeled racist.

And, in a support show of support for Coates’ assessment, Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress, says:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an important post here that I think could probably use an “amen” from a white person. It’s absurd how totally disproportionate the volume of public concern is about black people “playing the race card” or about “political correctness” stifling someone or other to the volume of public concern about actual racism.

I can add another hardy “amen” to the white people that agree with Coates.   Of course, I agree with Yglesias that actual racism is a much bigger problem than the putative threat of “playing the race card,” and I commend him for saying so publicly.

Clearly, this is not a widely held opinion among the (supposedly liberal) readers at Think Progress.   Have a look at the comments (120 and growing rapidly last I checked) over there; most are from white people who do not agree with Yglesias.

Update @ 12:05pmET: Coates punches out another post about this ongoing controversy, “Byron York is Not a Racist.”