Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From the Vault: Racism as theater--how the media encourages superficial conversation about race

[Here is a post from November 2007. As I read it this morning, it occurred to me that the problem I described two years ago has only gotten worse, though I do think there is a greater diversity of voices talking about race in the mainstream, which is good news.]

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 like the Duke University case, 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 learned?

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. [Ed. note: In hindsight, a larger influence on the national race debate is the way media presents racial issues (any issue, really): superficial; weighted to emphasize/encourage controversy; focus on balance/impartiality and not truth/facts; bent toward conservatism/corporatism/status quo.]

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 do you say?

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