Monday, November 12, 2007

Racism as theater: How the media encourages superficial debate of racial issues

Why was Don Imus vilified and fired for calling a group of young, black athletes "nappy headed hoes," but able to return to the airwaves months later provoking barely a stir? Why is Michael Richards' racist tirade in a Los Angeles nightclub all but forgotten? Why have these incidents and others failed to generate any long-lasting, helpful dialogue on race in America? The Washington Post attempts to answer these questions in a thoughtful, though conservative-leaning, article entitled "Reduced to the Small Screen: Incident, Reaction, Forget, Repeat--Formulaic Entertainment Replaces Serious Discussion on Race."

And with each episode in the long-running Saga of Race in America, a string
of characters lines up to react to the latest eruption. The media records them
as they take up positions in the Great Race Debate. The media stokes the
discussion as self-proclaimed black leaders scream outrage while opponents --
often white, sometimes black -- scream counter-outrage. The "colorblind" wonder
why we all just can't get along. And the rest of us watch from ringside, rooting
for one camp or another, sometimes in silence.

Then inevitably, the media turns away. The outrage fades. The talking
heads go silent. The curtain falls, and the debate recedes to wherever it goes
until the next eruption.

Which raises the question: Has the debate over race become a melodrama?
A bad television soap opera? A theatrical stage play with complex issues boiled
down to a script? Entertaining words thrown around simply to satisfy the 24-hour
news cycle, the blogosphere?

Are we doomed to debate racism over and over -- stuck in purgatory, a
cycle of skirmishes, of shock and awe, with nothing gained, nothing

Or is there a way to change the ritual, to go deeper into our national
consciousness and get off this merry-go-round?

I have asked myself that question often and I believe the answer is complex. The Washington Post article does a good job of tackling many of the reasons the race debate has become so superficial. Two factors that I believe play a key role in defining talk of race are 1) the way most Americans consume media and 2) the limited number of voices invited to participate in the mainstream racial discussion.

I'm a media junkie. I consume a variety of media, both mainstream (local and national TV news; local and national newspapers; political, news and cultural magazines) and alternative (blogs; progressive radio, and even though it makes my blood pressure rise, right wing radio). It helps that, as a public relations professional, I am paid to pay attention to the media.

Most people I encounter on a daily basis don't have the time or inclination to do what I do. Most people I encounter get their information from limited sources, including a mainstream media owned by a narrow group of people--a mainstream media that is no longer The Fourth Estate, but a series of corporations operating with profit as their main mission. It is a media that courts controversy and, more than ever, believes "if it bleeds, it leads." It is a media that traffics in stereotypes and narrows race to black and white. It is a media that doesn't have time for nuanced and in-depth discussion about anything--not war, not healthcare, not poverty and not race. So, it is no wonder that the authors of the Washington Post article write:

There it was on television one afternoon, another episode in the Great Race
Debate. A perky commentator moderated the banter between two intellectuals
discussing the Jena 6 case and the debate over racial injustice.

Even with the sound off, it looked like entertainment, says Alan Bean,
executive director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based criminal justice reform organization that began probing the Jena 6 case long before it became big news. Bean was watching the
show while sitting in an airport. That's when it occurred to him: The race
debate had become theater.

"When I looked at the woman who was the correspondent refereeing the
fight between two talking heads, I didn't get the impression she was concerned
about enlightening the audience or coming to a meeting of the minds or shedding
light on inequities in the criminal justice system," says Bean, who is white.
"Her primary concern seemed to be putting on a show."

Mainstream media as a whole (there are certainly exceptions) no longer serves as public advocate. It is entertainment--candy everybody wants. On its own, it is not the ideal organ to discuss or solve our country's racial problems, yet it is the place most people get their information on the topic.

I often wonder if the mainstream media has some sign they flash a la the bat signal when faced with racial controversy. You say a comedian unleashed an epithet-laden tirade in a nightclub? Someone caught it on video phone? Send up the race signal! Pow! Bang! Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Boy Wonder Michael Eric Dyson are on the way to the studio. Whether you believe the activists I just named are well-meaning and effective advocates for the black community or "grievance merchants," you must agree that there are many, many more voices available to dissect America's views on race. There are myriad authors, scholars and bloggers (Some of the most insightful commentary I've read about race is in the blogosphere.) who should join the race discussion. However, the mainstream media regularly puts forth the same voices--the more polarizing, the better.

How do we fix this? The Washington Post article ends on a pessimistic note:

So the show goes on. The debate over racism becomes as predictable as
reruns on basic cable. The audience watches the Great Race Debate for a while,
then changes the channel -- until the next episode.

I'm honestly at a loss, unless we can transform more Americans from passive consumers of information to more proactive seekers of information on race and other important topics; unless black people can convince the mainstream that just as there are no appointed "white leaders," there are no appointed "black leaders;" unless we can encourage all sides of racial debate to listen more, talk less, and come to the table with empathy.

What say you?


Mes Deux Cents said...


We have never had a conversation about race in this country unless there has been some sort of crisis. And a time of crisis is not the best time to sit and talk about long term solutions, just how to get through the crisis.

Also, Whites are much less likely to even want to talk about race, since mainly Whites don't suffer ramifications for being White.

With regard to the so-called Black leaders, I think that the media has chosen Sharpton, Jackson, etc, because they raise the ire of White viewers and increase ratings. I don't think, atleast I hope that no one in the media actually thinks that Sharpton and Jackson are leaders.

They are more like ambulance chasers.


Tami said...

I agree, MDC. The problem is that race is "the topic that shall not be mentioned unless some controversy happens that provokes debate." I had not thought about the fact that discussing things during a crisis is not really effective. Good point.

David Wynn said...


I agree with your observations, but my hope lies in that today's younger generation is starting to consume media differently than as simple consumers.

While the big media companies still do very well taking the consumer approach, take a look at the Daily Show, which cuts up and analyzes the debate that the major media outlets have, encouraging a deeper level of thought and skepticism around mass media. In my opinion, that's a sign of a bigger trend of analyzing the media rather than blindly accepting it.

Granted, that doesn't solve the time issue, but I hope it's a start.


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