Archive for stereotyping
In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.
Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.
Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.
This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.
The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.
[The following analysis was sent to us by an experienced academic administrator.]
A Los Angeles Times article published on October 18, 2013 notes that an independent investigative report conducted at UCLA found instances of overt and covert racism involving minority faculty members. This information was gathered by an investigative review team appointed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Scott L. Waugh, under the direction of Chancellor Gene Block and involves findings from interviews with eighteen faculty members in individual interviews as well from ten written statements submitted after a Town Hall meeting. The external review team consisted of a panel of experts including former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, UCLA Professor emeritus Gary Nash, Bob Suzuki, former President of Cal Poly Pomona, Dr. Maga Jackson-Triche, former UC Davis Professor, and attorney Constance Rice.
The findings of the report include the identification of conflict involving a racial component in two UCLA departments, two reports of egregious incidents of bias experienced by UCLA faculty members, and three reports of perceived bias in hiring, advancement, and retention.
The academic department is the cultural environment that shapes how minority and women faculty are supported and welcomed, the way conflicts are resolved, and how power is distributed. The department chair sets the tone in the academic department, but the makeup of faculty in a given setting, such as the predominance of long-serving tenured faculty, also impacts the departmental dynamic.
Case in point, the study highlights allegations of systematic exclusion of minority and female faculty in what is called “Department A” that ranged from telling junior faculty of color that they would not attain tenure, to discriminatory remarks such as “I thought Asian women were supposed to be submissive.” A white faculty member who was tenured and subsequently left the department indicated that he had spoken out against such conduct, been retaliated against by the department chair through a recommendation against a merit increase in pay, and he then retired rather than continue in that atmosphere.
In “Department B” two faculty members alleged that the department was divided along racial lines, indicating that they had experienced incidents of bias or discrimination by other faculty members, including senior faculty. One faculty member indicated what he perceived to be a clique of Caucasian male professor who ran the department, and said he had personally witnessed senior faculty use racially or ethnically insensitive language.
Incidents of racism noted in the panel’s findings include the report of a Latino faculty member in the health sciences, who indicated that shortly after his hire as a fully tenured faculty member, a senior faculty member in his department, upon encountering him for the first time in the hallway, asked in a loud voice in front of a group of students “What is that fucking spic doing here?” When the Latino faculty member reported it to his assistant dean, the assistant dean, although sympathetic, advised him against going to the dean since it would cause more trouble. The Latino faculty member feels threatened by the senior faculty member, and also believes that the individual left a screwdriver in his mailbox in 2010.
The majority of incidents identified to the reviewers involved process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement, and retention. Faculty members believed that they were denied advancement due to bias and discrimination, usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and a negative departmental vote.
Recommendations for action in the report include the need for: 1) adequate training of UCLA employees, including faculty, on what constitutes biased or discriminatory behavior; 2) review of UCLA’s policies and procedures for clarity in how to report incidents of perceived discrimination and the subsequent investigative process; and 3) a centralized Discrimination Officer to address incidents of alleged bias, discrimination, and intolerance. The Discrimination Officer would have independent authority to conduct fact-finding investigations as a core responsibility of the office, would plan education and training, and ensure appropriate followup and recordkeeping. In essence, the Discrimination Officer would create the needed infrastructure to address informal and formal complaints and implement proactive and preventative measures to address forms of covert and overt discrimination.
The UCLA report highlights the importance of a framework of structural components that support an inclusive environment within the decentralized organizational environment of university departments. Recent research on academic departments finds a high degree of variability in the climate and interactions within academic departments that can be strongly influenced by the leadership of the dean and department chair.
Given the decentralized structure of universities with varying micro-climates and cultures, the experiences of women and minorities within departments can reflect very different realities depending on how power is operationalized through leadership, demographic makeup of the department, and intradepartmental interactions. The steps UCLA is taking are important by not only calling attention to the persistence of forms of subtle and covert discrimination, but also in creating the clear and unequivocal leadership expectation for an inclusive work climate throughout the university that supports the progress and contributions of diverse faculty and staff.
The pattern is fairly clear for those who are paying attention. The recent rash of mass killings in the past 15 years seem to be predominately committed by young, white, middle-class males living in mental isolation and painted as “outcasts,” many having a history of early childhood trauma. Routinely, these young men felt unloved, underappreciated and invisible; some were bullied, tormented and chastised for being “different.” There’s another similar pattern of violence emerging in black middle-class males where isolation, doubt, and despair exist exerting more emotional labor to cope with constant microaggressions and other power dynamics working to undermine their character and dignity.
African Americans are routinely branded as incompetent, insubordinate, and incapable of measuring up to an unattainable white standard. Many professional black men find themselves having to defend their credentials and right to exist in the workplace as an equal on a daily basis. In a forthcoming publication on workplace mistreatment among physician assistants (health care providers) by Smith and Jacobson, black PAs were found to experience discrimination at a rate of forty times that of their white counterparts. In other words, for every one white person that felt discriminated against in the workplace, there are forty blacks that feel similarly. Taking this idea a step further, where three white providers report feeling undervalued and mistreated, there are 120 black Physicians’ Assistants (PAs) that report similar experiences. The shear magnitude of mistreatment in this context underscores the daily hassles that black Americans face. These experiences do not dissipate; they accumulate within the souls of black folks, always teetering on that one tipping point. Everyone internalizes his or her experiences differently. Some suffer in silence, only to have it play out in the form of physiological disease and early death. Some take this pain and frustration out on themselves and those closest to them, causing strife in their home life. And others still, without social support of any kind, eventually turn to random acts of violence, mayhem, and even murder.
The nation experienced another tragedy as innocent victims fell at the hands of a seemingly deranged man with no known cause. Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor for the Navy, reported similar accounts to Christopher Dorner with feelings of shame and disrespect at the hands of Whites. Beneath the carnage of unimaginable hurt and suffering of the families who lost loved ones at the hands of Alexis, of those physically and emotionally wounded by the actions of Dorner, and of those forever scared by the terror of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo lies an early desire for humans to connect, to be loved, and to feel as though we matter in life. These distraught men and many others like them, driven to kill innocent people in a fit of rage or despair, just as Klebold and Harris did at Columbine High School in 1999, are a reflection of our deep and unresolved inequalities as a society. As we overly pathologize the suspects, we fail to go deeper into the structural and unequal institutional arrangements in society that make these men feel as though they have been singled out for exclusion in the first place. Though the actions and reactions of these young men are deplorable and even considered evil by many, it does not discount the origins of their despair—our unequal society.
American racism imposes constraints on the material conditions of life by limiting access to society’s valued resources, which are the fundamental building blocks of good mental health and social well-being. When opportunities to fully participate in society as co-equals are denied or restricted because of arbitrary and superficial differences in melanin, some black Americans, understandably, crack under the constant pressure of having to measure up to white societal standards and norms of a community where the rhetoric of colorblindness prevail. Though most do not see murder as the outlet, black men in America from all socio-economic strata can relate to Christopher Dorner and Aaron Alexis in at least one important way, their persistent frustration working in a predominately white and hostile work environment where people of color are made to feel devalued in a supposedly equal society.
Most Americans refuse to talk about race, believing it does not exist the workplace. Yet, corporate America is teeming with unexamined white racial attitudes that Blacks must reconcile in some particular way. Because black men have largely been shut out, left out, locked up and left behind, there is very little else to turn to but one’s pride. We humans care a great deal of what others think and feel about us. The threat of being shamed and humiliated are often the trigger for violence, particularly in African Americans who are more vulnerable to these shame-producing and debilitating effects.
The degree of social isolation and exclusion that Dorner and Alexis both professed is a reality for many black people, especially black professionals, who know all too well about the difficult and isolated experiences they encounter in white spaces. Ignoring the perceived experiences and lived realities of subaltern peoples and seeing them as less competent than their white counterparts has been shown to result in a higher probability of mental health disorders among Blacks. So maybe it was mental illness and reports of schizophrenia that drove Alexis to commit these unspeakable acts. And maybe it was also the pressure of being black and male in a society of white domination and group entitlement that at least contributed to his collapse. These very public displays of mental corrosion by black men are a growing cancer in our society, a scourge that, in part, stems from deep systemic inequalities. And just maybe, we are asking the wrong questions when it comes to efforts of stopping these horrific and tragic events.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
On January 15, 2013 the Oxygen network released a tentative statement about discontinuing the production of All My Babies’ Mamas. This reality TV show would peek into the life of the not-so-well-known U.S. rapper Shawty Lo who currently has 11 children by 10 different women, a 19 year-old girlfriend, and is rumored to have another baby on the way by his ex-girlfriend Jai Jai. Thankfully, on January 16th the network canceled the show after receiving almost 40,000 signatures from Change.org. In response to the cancellation requests, Oxygen V.P. Julie Rothman said, “[this show] is not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross section of society. It is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life.” Yet, Rothman’s statement leaves lingering questions. With all the unique families out there, why did Oxygen choose this family? Why didn’t Oxygen pursue a celebrity like Bill Clinton for a reality show? The focus could be upon Clinton’s many extra-marital affairs.
In the media, Black families have become representative of dysfunction. Americans have been laughing about stereotypical “Black people” for so long, such comic relief has become an addiction that many, like Julie Rothman, defend. Black parents often find themselves at the receiving end of media-based jokes about Black families. “Baby Daddy”/“Baby Mama” labels have become an omnipresent symbolic representation of broken Black families. The portrayal of unmarried Black mothers becomes yet another way in which dominant group values are juxtaposed against marginalized identities. These so-called “Baby Mamas” are most often caricaturized as being poor- but gold digging- welfare recipients who want nothing more than money, child support, and the latest hairstyle. Media portrayals frequently present uncaring mothers who leave their children in abject poverty while they go to receive beauty treatments or find another man to victimize in an effort to acquire more child support. These deleterious stereotypes become crystallized and reinforced through what the media decides to broadcast and rebroadcast to the public. For a more thorough discussion about media stereotypes of African Americans (see The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Now back to Shawty Lo. There are men from various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. who father children out of wedlock, including Levi Johnston (the father of Sara Palin’s grandson) and Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has seven children by five different women though he has only married twice. Yet a show called “All Clint’s Babies’ Mamas” ridiculing Eastwood would never occur to reality show producers. And the mothers of Eastwood’s children would not become sideshow attractions to his extra-marital exploits. Why? Because he is White + Male + Affluent and in the U.S. we humanize those who fit these intersecting categories regardless of their transgressions. Shawty Lo represents those who are Black + Male + “Ghetto” and persons who fit these intersecting categories tend to be reduced to the transgressions they make.
In “Al My Babies’ Mamas” the mothers of Carlos Walker’s (aka Shawty Lo’s) children are cast as laughable, sideshow attractions in a nation where the disproportionately high number of Black single mothers is no laughing matter. In 2011, it was estimated by the Annie E. Casey Data Center that 67% of Black children grow up in single parent households; and 38.4% of children in Black female-headed households live in poverty according to 2011 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Given Julie Rothman’s claims above, why didn’t Oxygen take the more humanistic route of creating a documentary on the struggles of single mothers instead of a reality show that ridicules them? A documentary would do a far better job of presenting lives that are “complicated” and “intertwined”. “All My Babies’ Mamas” would have only served to keep African Americans wrapped in and warped by age-old dehumanizing stereotypes.
Nicole DeLoatch is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.
In this week’s edition of Inside Higher Education, Scott Jaschik reports on a picture taken of a group of Penn State Chi Omega sorority sisters mocking Mexicans. It is offensive enough that the picture depicts the group dressed in spaghetti western attire, but even more despicable are the signs featured in the picture:
“Will mow lawn for weed and beer” and “I don’t cut grass, I smoke it.”
What does this say about the collective views this group has of Mexicans? We have expectations about where certain groups belong based on generations of ethnic and racial stereotypes and societal stratification that are illustrated in this example. These views not only shape our expectations about one another, but also impact the way we treat each another.
For example, Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez writes about the experience of being mistaken as a criminal defendant in a federal courthouse. He states:
Let me mention for example attorneys of color who are sometimes in criminal cases mistaken for the defendant by the participants. How do we respond to that? Sometimes we are overly formal, by making sure that we’re dressed particularly well and that our speech is particularly professional, just to let people know who we are because we’re not always given the benefit of the doubt. I remember when I was a federal prosecutor I was traveling with my wife to Texas and we went to the federal courthouse in Laredo, Texas. I was curious, I thought I’m part of the federal family, so I’m going to go in and see what a different federal courthouse looks like. When I went into the courthouse I started getting tailed by security; they followed me through the courthouse, and when I walked into a courtroom the clerk said, “Defendants sit to the left.” That was the first thing she said to me as I walked in. And I realized that out of my suit, I looked to them like a suspicious person or a defendant in that context.
(soon available here)
Being out of his suit is only part of the story. The other part is the fact that there are negative stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican Americans that follow us wherever we go. Latino professionals universally encounter these challenges as I highlighted in my book on Latino lawyers. The notion that we should be mowing lawns, drinking a beer (presumably under a cactus), or working as maids/custodians has certainly impacted my life both personally and professionally. The impact of the views represented by the Chi Omega sorority picture penetrate into all aspects of Latinos’ lives and certainly bring to mind many memories of my own experiences.
Some of mine include being asked for a my social security card during a routine traffic stop for speeding (it took me years to stop carrying my social security card), or being asked for a “green card and an ID” before being allowed to go into a club or being asked rather aggressively by an older woman at a health club I used to belong in, to bring her some water while I was sitting down on a bench waiting for my daughter to finish tennis lessons. (The coach teaching the lessons recognized what was going on before I did and turned to the woman after she’d asked me for water for the third time and tells her he’ll get it for her when he was done giving his lesson). These examples pale in comparison to the examples I’ve experienced as a professor. I am not alone. It has been recently documented in a book on academic women of color, Presumed Incompetent that cover topics from campus climate to tenure and promotion as experienced by female faculty of color.
At the heart of all these examples is the way Latinos continue to be stereotyped by others as so grossly illustrated in the Penn State Chi Omega sorority example.
As a byproduct of the recent presidential campaign, a troubling and explicit depiction of China as the primary source of America’s recessionary loss of jobs and economic woes reached a new level. A video presented by in stark black and white tones by the Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW), a fiscally conservative non-profit organization, creates a sense of impending doom by portraying America’s future failure to China’s economic insurgency. Set in Beijing in 2030 A.D., this politically-based video is in Chinese with English subtitles and shows a meeting of Chinese citizens held in Beijing led by a Machiavellian-like Chinese leader. The sinister-looking leader attributes America’s failure to spending and taxing itself out of a great recession through enormous “stimulus” spending, massive changes to healthcare and crushing debt. He derisively declares, “Now they work for us,” while the Chinese audience laughs appreciatively and gleefully.
This explicit calling out of China as the principal reason for America’s economic woes occurred on several fronts during the campaign and was bipartisan in nature. As Zachary Karabell, president of River Twice Research, points out in his article, “Don’t blame China for America’s decline”, the Obama administration has intensified pressure on Chinese trade and investments that have made it difficult for some American companies such as solar panel installers to compete. And in the town hall debates, Mitt Romney declared emphatically,
On day one, I will label China a currency manipulator which will allow me as President to be able to put in place if necessary tariffs where I believe they are taking unfair advantage of our manufacturers. So we are going to make sure the people that we trade with around the rules are playing by the rules.
Karabell points out also that this trend has occurred in other presidential campaigns: in 1992, Bill Clinton accused President George H.W. Bush of coddling Chinese dictators, while in 2004 John Kerry called corporate leaders “Benedict Arnold CEOs” for shipping jobs to China.
What is worrisome about this anti-Asian virulence is the possible return to historical animosity toward Americans of Asian descent that expressed itself in Anti-Asian legislation and actions over more than a century. Recall the so-called “yellow peril” ascribed to the influx of Asian immigrant labor to the West coast in the 19th century and the resulting Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that that sprang up in response and was not repealed until 1943. Or the wholesale internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.
Note also in the present-day example the lack of accountability ascribed to American corporations who have chosen to outsource work overseas, in search of cheap labor and greater profitability. While clearly the Chinese Communist government represents the antithesis of American democratic practices toward its people, the “rise of the rest” as Fareed Zakaria puts it in The Post-American World means that globalization is creating a new and highly competitive economic playing field. Tom Friedman in his famous book, The World is Flat notes that the current phase of globalization will be driven by a diverse group of individuals likely to be non-Western and nonwhite. In Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education, Alvin Evans and I describe globalization as a catalyst and mandate for remedying underrepresentation and achieving greater inclusion in our American institutions.
In Karabell’s view, American prosperity “will not be determined by decisions made in Beijing” but by “how American approaches the global economy of the 21st century.” He concludes:
If the U.S. focuses on nurturing the optimism, drive and skills that yield . . . results in the 20th century, it will thrive; if Americans obsess about looming threats from the East, it may indeed enter the economic twilight. The choice is ours.
In this era of globalization, the strength of our demographically diverse nation lies in our ability to rise above the distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability to achieve success. When mischaracterizations and exaggerations occupy our mindsets and airwaves, then we are less able to draw upon the strength of our representative democracy, the capabilities of our diverse citizenry, and our capacity for innovation.
Anna Holmes has an excellent post on the great achievement of Gabrielle Douglas, the first African American to win the women’s all-around gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics. (And to win the two particular gold medals she got in this one Olympics.) What an achievement for any 16-year-old, but especially for one who has faced the barriers she has faced.
Holmes demonstrates the extraordinarily naïveté and role in systemic gendered racism of key white commentators, in this case the famous Bob Costas. Costas interviewed Douglas and asserted this:
“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”
As you might expect, this type of white racial framing, in its colorblind Pollyanna-ism, was Holmes’s
In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president…) is often called into question, Costas’s scripted deep thought .. . was at worst dishonest . . .. What leveled barriers … was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered … would believe the assertion that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by … the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?
Other writers echoed this same white racial framing, reverberating Costas’s colorblindism.
Holmes then picks up on the Costas point that our view of ourselves does makes a difference. But, she adds, structural situations often create that problem for people of color:
Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: A minority in a historically “white” sport. . . . a 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61% of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black.
Numerous members of USA Gymnastics, the mostly white coaches and other leaders in the field, often had a negative reaction to this honest report. Many whites there and elsewhere have tended, as they often do, to blame everything but white agents and white decisionmakers for this systemic-racism condition.
Holmes concludes by accenting how powerful the Douglas achievement was, especially for girls and young women around the globe, most of whom are girls and women of color. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media treat Douglas, and the general white (and other) public too, when this great gymnast and her fine team return to the United States. Holmes concludes with this fine sharp point:
The 16-year-old’s triumph—not to mention her poise, her maturity, her focus, her elegance—will help recalibrate what young females of color believe is within their reach, while also influencing Western ideas and concepts of black womanhood, strength, agency and femininity—which has been historically objectified, sexualized and, it should be noted, feared.
It is way past time for these negative images of black women in the common white racial frame to be attacked for the mythological and racist framing they have always been–and indeed attacked constantly in the mainstream media until they are eliminated in the heads of way too many white (and some other) Americans.
[Written with Brenda Juarez]
Regardless of whether they believe them or not, most people in US society are well aware of the many visceral stereotypes and images surrounding Black males. These negative representations of Black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through the news, film, music videos, reality television and other programming and forms of media—the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies’ man, the absentee father, and most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.
These stereotypical one-dimensional characters in film negate the broader and deeper experience of Black life and the lives of Black men in particular. Reaching into people’s homes through the media, these negative images influence personal opinions, ideas and racial attitudes. As Dates and Barlow explain, “Images in the mass media are infused with color-coded positive and negative moralistic features. Once these symbols become familiar and accepted, they fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the races.” Indeed, negative understandings of Black males are consistently used to justify the racial disparities they experience in exclusionary school discipline practices, underachievement in higher education, and rates of poverty, homicide, unemployment, and over involvement in the criminal system.
Capturing our imagination as a society, film exemplifies how media images provide us with a reality of misrepresentations that guides societal perceptions of Black men. Take the 2001 film Training Day, for example. Denzel Washington’s role as Alonzo Harris provides one of the most enduring and threatening depictions of Black men as violent criminals. The criminality of Washington’s character is underscored by the contrast to the antithesis of his character, Ethan Hawke, who plays the role of good cop, a moral and righteous man.
Will Smith, in successfully becoming one of film’s leading men, has strategically flipped Hollywood’s stereotypical white perceptions of blacks in the media as always violent and criminal. He is often seen starring as a protagonist fighting the good fight rather than the criminal to be apprehended. Although applauded for seeking and earning leading male roles in Hollywood, his often heroic and hyper-masculine characters play into the theme of protecting whiteness and its virtuous subthemes of justice and freedom such as in the films Independence Day and I Am Legend. In fact, in extreme attempts to avoid the villain prototype, Smith frequently plays the role of the “Magic Negro” archetype in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch, for example, where his efforts to save and teach whites about what it means to be good facilitates a mystical theme in the minds of white people about the supernatural powers of a few exceptional Blacks, among a people perceived as being closer to nature.
News media has a similar effect on white consciousness as film in popular media. News, written and conveyed by purportedly unbiased and objective reporters, are nevertheless also influenced by negative images of blacks circulating in larger society reflected in popular American film. For instance, the Internet sports blog site Deadspin broke a story in April of 2011 that illustrates how news media representations of black male athletes reinforces the mythology of them as oversexed, aggressive rule-breakers. In this case, the story centers on a private confessional of a young black man that was leaked to the public.
A basketball player at Brigham Young University, a predominately white Christian school, Brandon Davies was suspended for breaking the honor code by having premarital sex. The elements were present that would make for a sensational story: race, religion, sex and sports. The news of his suspension came about in the midst of the NCAA tournament, and the school was heralded in Sports Illustrated as “America’s University” for upholding its values and standards in suspending him due to an honor code violation.
However, the news media, in its stereotypical portrayal of this young man, failed to report an important aspect of the story. As Deadspin noted upon closer examination of the honor code office at BYU, a troubling pattern emerged for athletes of color, especially African American men, going back to 1993. Athletes of color are more likely to be disciplined than white athletes despite their significantly lower numbers on campus and in the sporting arena. This creates the impression that only black men engage in illicit sex or other honor code violations while white men rarely, if ever, violate these standards, which holds a glaring resemblance to the criminal justice system where black males are convicted and locked up at much higher rates than their white male counterparts for similar crimes committed. As this story highlights, this trend is in part a direct result of negative media representations of Black males that strongly influence white perceptions and racial attitudes.
This is not to say that some African Americans don’t participate in their own marginalization, from music videos and reality TV to roles on the big screen. Yet, the parts they are offered leave black actors with limited options. Conventionally white screenwriters, who view the world through the prism of a white lens, write about subject matters that reflect their own narrow experiences living and existing in a highly racialized society.
As a result, the predominately white film industry (from producers to screenwriters to directors), in the market of pleasing their predominately white consumer base, lacks diversity in the depth of their characters. This would explain why most popular shows or cinematic themes of American life reflect the interest of white people with strong white themes and often very little representation of difference with respects to writing and casting. Based on past and current Nielsen ratings, the most popular shows consist of the likes of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Friends, and Seinfeld.
Darron Smith and Brenda Juarez
Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Arizona (or other states such as Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah which all have some type of tough state immigration laws) have little room to legislate regarding immigration policy. The Supreme Court declared immigration enforcement is a federal issue. However, the Court ruled that law enforcement officials in Arizona could still ask about immigration status if they had reasonable suspicion that the person being stopped was undocumented. I wrote about how this would target Latinos in my first blog on racismreview stating that I would not go visit my parents in Arizona without my passport.
Based on today’s Supreme Court ruling, I will still not travel to Arizona without my passport.
The fact that the arguments of the case turned to issues of federalism rather than arguments about equal protection and/or civil rights violations should come as no surprise. It was set up that way from the start. Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli assured Chief Justice Roberts that this case was not about racism towards Latinos. CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears tellingly states:
Even before the solicitor general began speaking midway through the argument, Chief Justice John Roberts framed the debate away from what has become a major complaint about the law: that it would target mostly Hispanic people for scrutiny and detention. “I’d like to clear up at the outset what it’s not about,” Roberts said. “No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling, does it?” Verrilli readily agreed.
In this context the Court unanimously sustained the law’s section referred to as the “show me your papers” policy.
In doing so, it continued the larger policy that says it is okay to subject an entire ethnic and racial group of people to fundamental questions of belonging and acceptance by allowing law enforcement officials to question whether they belong here in this country legally or not.
This perpetuates and contributes to what Professor Leo Chavez refers to as the “Latino Threat Narrative” which situates all Latinos—whether legal immigrants, undocumented, or U.S. born—as outside of the American national community and sees them in a suspicious light. According to Leo Chavez, even U.S. born Latinos are seen as: “ ‘alien-citizens,’ perpetual foreigners despite their birthright”. Today’s Supreme Court decision reinforces that Latinos are seen and can be treated as “alien-citizens.”
My heart has been heavy since I heard about Trayvon Martin. I’ve read all the coverage and signed all the petitions. I’ve talked about it with family and friends and sat my own teenaged son down for yet another “talk.” I have read the commentary of a lot of very smart people on this case that make the historical and social intellectual connections better than I could have. Like Mark Anthony Neal, here. R. L’Heureux Lewis here. And the Crunk Feminist Collective here.
What is compelling me to write is much more personal than academic. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s 5’11” and football linebacker size (left guard, actually). He is sweet and kind and mild mannered. He is polite to adults and more courteous than your average teenager. What breaks my heart is that it’s not enough. There isn’t enough kind or polite or courteous in the world to outweigh the skin he’s in. This marker that he carries with him every day, that in his adolescent daze he is only partially aware of, sometimes… is everything. It was all there was when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon was suspicious. It was everything when Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York City, there was nothing more when Andre Burgess was shot in the city carrying a candy bar, it was THE thing when Jordan Miles was beat down in Pittsburgh. It is what led WEB Dubois to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
The fact that my son walks through the world looking suspicious just because of who he is, because of his body, just destroys me sometimes. It makes me want to hold him close, to limit his movements, to tell him, no…you can’t go out.
“Mom, why? Don’t you trust me?” “It’s not you baby… It’s not you.” How many mothers and fathers have had this talk with their sons? Did Trayvon’s mother have that talk with him? “Son, when you’re out in the world, people don’t just see you as you are.” “Boy, when you’re in a store, make sure you don’t look like you could be stealing anything.” “My son, if the police stop you, make sure you cooperate.” “Baby, when you’re in public…not too loud, not too fast, not too slow, don’t look at them in the eye, step off the curb, shuffle your feet, cooperate, lay down, smile—but not too hard or too long, put your hands behind your back, pull your pants up, take your hood down BECAUSE THEY ARE KILLING BLACK BABIES OUT HERE.”
Most of the parents of black children I know have had that conversation with their children. “You’re black honey…and that means certain things to certain people.” We do it to protect them, to give them a lens so that when they’re treated out of line they don’t think they’re crazy, or that something is wrong with them. We do it so they can survive this world that encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies. And yet, there’s Trayvon, there’s Jordan, and hundreds of others beaten and killed because they wear the ‘suspect’ suit as their birthright. It’s not new—of course. It’s old. It’s Emmett Till old. It’s slavery old. Both the racism and this talk, this lesson, is as old as black dirt.
And despite the fact that I’m a sociologist and generally avoid individual level tomes on race, what I’m really thinking about right now is “How does it feel to be a problem?” How does this knowledge affect our sons? The ones we have left. What we know is that our children go to schools that look more and more like prisons. That have punitive cultures where sagging pants, facial hair and braids earn behavior demerits. Where they are asked to walk along lines painted on the floor. Where they are more likely to be disciplined, suspended and labeled special needs than their white classmates. (This study has the data and more references.)
I’m thinking about all of the potential mindspace that is stifled or lost because of the need to not draw suspicion or negative attention from school or legal authorities. I wonder what it must feel like to walk through the world without so many damned unearned restrictions. I’m also thinking about how tragic it must be to not be able to see Trayvon Martin’s humanity. How limiting it is for someone like George Zimmerman to walk through the world in fear of black children. How truly sub-human it is to not be able to see humanity. And how the entrenched anti-black sentiment we live with every day is to blame.
I guess today I’m thinking of these two sides of the coin, what would the world look like if black boys had all of their available ideas and dreams and hopes and could walk through the world in a way that reflected them? And what if the rest of us could open up to our full humanity by being able to see these sons in their full humanity?
But mostly, my heart is heavy and I’m having trouble sleeping, and I have a headache because my son is Trayvon Martin. Because I have participated in limiting my child because I know that George Zimmerman exists, and that some of them have badges and the authority of the state behind them when they kill black boys. Because, “It’s not you baby…It’s not you.”
So please sign the petitions, go to the protests, call the Sanford County chief of police—I’m sending him Skittles at Chief, Bill Lee. Sanford Police 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, Fl 32771. I also invite you to join me in thinking creatively about parenting as activism and activism as parenting in a way that combines the lessons we teach our children with the larger struggle against media misrepresentation, racism in the criminal justice system, unequal policing, racial inequality in education and the rest.