Racism in American Media.

I just turned in my Final for English Comp 2, and am OFFICIALLY on summer break. Yes!! If you have time and have a fondness for reading, feel free to check out my final essay for the class. Altogether, it took a week of research, and then a full day and a half committed to writing. This has been the longest essay I’ve ever had to write, so I hope you like it. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’d like to hear what people have to say. So without further ado…


Racism in American Media

            Racism has plagued the United States of America for centuries. Even today our country is still home to racial supremacy groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. Although Abraham Lincoln was the President that put an end to slavery, it wasn’t until the time of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when civil rights and equality were demanded. Many people would like to assume that now we’re into the 21st century, racism is no longer prevalent; however, that could not be further from the truth. As times have changed, Americans have learned to rely greatly on media for entertainment, information, and as a supplement to our leisurely activities. It is through focusing on American media, we are able to learn more about the racism that still envelops the American society today.

Since the beginning, the news media has done its best to focus on information that the public finds valuable, generates a considerable amount of interest and is a source of revenue, through ratings. As a prime example, one of the most documented events of the late 1990s involved a nationwide concern for children and teenagers, as school shootings became a focal point in the media. The events that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 were regarded as one of the most horrific school shootings of its time.  Some local news organizations covered a part of the event live, and the story played off in the media for months after the incident. This lead to the request for schools to heighten their security, and an overall concern regarding the safety of students was addressed nationwide. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last of the school shootings that plagued America, but little do we pay attention to the obvious color lines, and discriminating factors involved within these events.

Columbine was an incident where two Caucasian male students went on a shooting massacre of their fellow high school students in Colorado. As the event continued to unfold in the news media, the blame was quickly shifted towards violent video games. Jerald Block, a researcher and psychiatrist from Portland, Oregon, stated in an article for the Denver Post that “[t]he two young men relied on the virtual  world of computer games to express their rage and to spend time, and cutting them off in 1998 sent them into crisis” (Human). In another more recent school shooting, however, the shooter was blamed more than any other cause. In a statement released by Virginia Tech with regards to their shooting, they state:

“With release of these [mental health] records, Virginia Tech seeks to provide those deeply affected by the horrible events of April 2007 with as much information as is known about Cho’s interactions with the mental health system 15-16 months prior to the tragedy.” (Friedman)

            After the Secret Service cross referenced the events that occurred at Columbine with over three dozen other school shootings, they came to notice that the suspects were all male students, “and [were] either being treated for depression or showing signs of depression” (Human). Even though the Columbine shooting was taken into account when they found these commonalities, it still doesn’t explain why the Caucasian male students of Columbine received a scapegoat, while other students like the Virginia Tech shooter, did not.

Similar to the case where Seung-Hui Cho’s heinous crime has a direct correlation to his psychological, personal and mental health issues, the Red Lake High School shooter “planned his attack in advance” (Morales). The tragedy that occurred at Red Lake also consisted of a lone gunman, Jeff Weise, who randomly and strategically shot, killed, and wounded his fellow students on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. Although all of these events are similar in nature, it becomes evident that the media favors and shows a degree of sympathy towards the two Caucasian male gunmen by turning the blame onto violent video games, as opposed to the Asian-American and Native-American shooters, who had psychological, mental and personal issues.

As you may have already noticed by the examples above, racism has evolved. It is no longer a blatant form of discrimination, or prejudice, but has grown subtle and more tactful. David M. Newman, a Professor of Sociology at DePauw University defines racism as the “[b]elief that humans are subdivided into distinct groups that are different in their social behavior and innate capacities and that can be ranked as superior or inferior” (559). In a more recent study that was published in the journal Science, it was stated that “many people unconsciously harbor racist attitudes, even though they see themselves as tolerant and egalitarian” (Landau). The study consisted of 120 non-black participants who were either placed into, or asked to watch, a scenario where a black person bumped into a white person, who eventually responded one of three ways after the black person had left the room. In one scenario the white actor didn’t make a comment; in another scenario they said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that;” and in the most extreme case they remarked, “Clumsy nigger” (Landau). Moments later, the participant was asked to choose the white or black actor as a partner in an anagram test, and surprisingly “more than half of [the] experiencers chose the white partner – regardless of the severity of the comment that person made earlier” (Landau ). On the other hand, the group of participants that were watching the scenario unfold often chose the white person when they didn’t make a comment, but less than half chose the white actor when they did make a comment. The lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, explains that, “Some people might think that they’re very egalitarian and they don’t have to deal with their prejudices, and that’s not related to them at all, when in actual fact they may hold these hidden biases” (Landau). The biases Ms. Kawakami is talking about are the different ways people make decisions while experiencing something, versus observing it. If the roles had been reversed, it could be theorized that if the people observing had been experiencing the event, the results would have been the same. Elizabeth Landau goes on to explain in her article that it justifies the psychological notion that, “People are really bad at predicting their own actions in socially sensitive situations.” This study points to the possible idea of a new form of racism, which closely theorizes that we haven’t abolished it, but have moved it into a new category of silent or quiet racism. Elizabeth Landau further explains in her article that the media is the main cause of the idea that African Americans are negatively represented.

As children, we are often taught by our parents how to act appropriately within society, but as technology has advanced kids are beginning to learn a great amount of the socialization process through children’s programming. This form of media, which is targeted for kids, can vary from programs such as, Sesame Street, Barney, Dora the Explorer or even a Disney movie. According to an article published in the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, children spend approximately 2.5 to 3 hours a day watching television, which averages to approximately 20 hours a week (Towbin 20). In some cases, a child can spend more time watching television than actually speaking to or interacting with a parent. As a part of American pop culture, however, it’s almost typical to expect everyone we come into contact with, to have seen at least one Disney movie in their lifetime. Disney has been making movies for decades, but seldom do we focus on some of the small minute details that may be subliminally taught to children. Some examples of these can be found in Disney’s Aladdin, where our protagonist “Al,” is slightly lighter skinned and sporting a more European look (Angeloni 112), as opposed to the Arabs in the movie, who have distinct accents, facial hair that’s depicting of their culture, and yet “are portrayed as dirty, cheap, and thieving” (Towbin 32). Mia Towbin also goes on to explain the similarities between the complaints made by the hyenas in The Lion King and urban life. Throughout the movie we often see the “alpha dogs” of the hyenas, Shenzi and Banzai (voiced by two minority actors: Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin), continuously complaining about how “the lions” maintain the power within their society (36). The hyenas can easily be connected to minorities living in slums, like the elephant graveyard, while most white Caucasians live in closely guarded communities, similar to Pride Rock. It can also be noted that the hyenas have the darkest complexion within the movie, and are constantly portrayed as thieving, sinister and conniving. The Lion King also depicts Simba’s uncle Scar to have a darker complexion than the rest of the lions, a darker mane, and his affiliation to the hyenas makes him appear more villainous.

According to Professor David Newman, we are all just theatrical performers. He goes on to talk about a sociological term called dramaturgy.

Like Shakespeare, [sociologists argue] people in everyday life are similar to actors on a stage. The ‘audience’ consists of people who observe the behavior of others, the ‘roles’ are the images people are trying to project, and the ‘script’ consists of their communication with others. The goal is to enact a performance that is believable to a particular audience and that allows us to achieve the goals we desire. (Newman 169)

            Similar to a performance, there’s always a front stage and a back stage. The front stage is where the performances are held, whereas the backstage is where the actor can take off their mask and become themselves (Newman 170). This is a perfect explanation for the reason why the participants in the article by Elizabeth Landau, mentioned earlier, had two varying responses from their “experiencers” and spectators. During the experiment co-author, Elizabeth Dunn noted that “Even using that most extreme comment [‘Clumsy nigger’] didn’t lead people to be particularly upset” (Landau). The premise is that in the case that a black person bumped into a white person, it would be considered rude, inappropriate, or even racist to make a comment in their presence. This is primarily because the “audience” consists of a black person; however, once they leave, the scene reverts from front stage to back stage, where-in lies the idea behind silent or quiet racism. White Caucasian-Americans, however, are not the only ones that have to revert to the use of dramaturgy when in the presence of another race. For African-Americans, the roles can often be reversed given certain circumstances. Professor Newman mentions a comment made by Dave Chappelle regarding an African-American’s need to be bilingual. “[I]f they want to make it in this society […] they [need to] become adept at identifying situations, like job interviews, where they must eliminate ‘black’ patterns of speech and ‘speak white’” (172). Newman also quotes an excerpt from E. Anderson’s book Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community.

I find myself being extra nice to whites. A lot of times I be walking down the streets . . . and I see somebody white. . . . I know they are afraid of me. They don’t know me, but they intimidated. . . . So I might smile, just to reassure them. . . . At other times I find myself opening doors, you know. Holding the elevator. Putting myself in a certain light, you know, to change whatever doubts they may have. (Newman 173)     

            Unfortunately, minorities have often been portrayed negatively in media. Elizabeth Tisdell and Patricia Thompson’s article in the International Journal of Lifelong Education explains, “[w]hen considering entertainment media in general, […] most often the media reinforce the images and values of the dominant culture” (Tisdell 652). America is still predominantly white, according to a 2010 population census, with minorities making up 36.3% of the entire population (Humes 18). The national average and percentages vary, however, depending on which region of the country a person lives in, as well as the city and the neighborhood they choose to reside in.

As our nation continues to grow and become more multicultural, the national average for predominantly white cities diminishes as well; however, in an article by Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian, she mentions that “Among the nation’s 40 largest metro[politan] areas, only four – none of them in the West – are whiter than Portland [Oregon]”. The results of which, ranked the Portland metropolitan area at 78% white Caucasian, which only included the non-Hispanic whites “and whites who do not claim an additional racial identity” (Hammond). For most of its history, Portland, Oregon remained predominantly white until the 1940s when Portland’s harbors required laborers to build ships for the war. Once the war had ended, most of the African-American laborers had left due to a lack of jobs, an inability to purchase homes and “the police were extremely hostile,” says Darrell Millner, a Professor of Black Studies at Portland State University (Hammond). Those that did stay, however, settled in North and Northeast Portland at the time.

In a city that prides itself in its willingness to embrace change and considers itself to be multicultural, it isn’t as diverse as it leads others to believe. Jennifer Andersen of the Portland Tribune says that the “racism here is more the silent type: subtle under-the-radar comments, actions or policies that are often fueled by naiveté or misguided or cultural perceptions.” In cities across the nation, where multicultural acceptance is important, racial transparency (where one is not acknowledged or identified by their race) is almost impossible to overlook in American society. Newman explains that

“People in the United States are far more likely to hear ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ or ‘Latino’ used as an adjective (e.g., the black lawyer, the Latino teacher) than ‘white’ (the white lawyer, the white teacher) […] In short, Whites for the most part enjoy the privilege of not having to constantly think about race or identify their ethnicity.” (356)

            In this context, we can come to the understanding as-to why white Caucasians habitually ask, why we, the minorities, are always focused on race. Unlike the majority, minorities are more prone to labeling themselves by their ethnicity, whereas white Caucasians making up the dominant culture, can easily apply to themselves the title of American, without having to remotely consider their ethnicity. Citing from Blow, 2008, 2009, Newman reiterates the perception of white Caucasian Americans on the topic of racism and discrimination:

Twice as many Blacks as Whites think racism is a big problem; twice as many Whites as Blacks think that Blacks have achieved racial equality. Seventy-two percent of Whites believe that Blacks overestimate the amount of discrimination against them; conversely, 82% of Blacks believe that Whites underestimate the amount of discrimination Blacks suffer. Almost half of white respondents oppose programs that make special efforts to help minorities get ahead; 27% feel that too much has been made of the problems facing black people. (358)

            Although it would be easy to assume that the idea of racism in America is blown out of proportion, take into consideration an episode from ABC News’ 20/20 with John Quiñones, where he sets up two separate case studies, where three teenage actors stage an act of vandalism (“ABC – 20/20 What Would You Do / Racism In America”). The setting takes place near a park, in broad daylight, in a predominantly white suburb, and a set of three white Caucasian teenagers begin to vandalize a car. Dozens of people see the teenagers vandalizing and obstructing property, but only one man approaches the kids, and dials 911. The rest primarily comment, or just continue to let the teenagers pummel and vandalize the vehicle. For the second case study, they conduct the same scenario, but with three African-American actors instead. Almost immediately, people witnessing the vandalism were pulling out their cell phones to dial 911. Given the same amount of time as the white vandals, the African-American vandals generated more interventions and calls to the police than their counterparts.

This scenario sets the perfect stage for certain stereotypes (befitting) of African-Americans. After one of the pedestrians passing by witnessed the vandalism occurring, she intervened by telling the black teenagers to stop then proceeded to call 911 in front of them. Moments later her husband approached her to say, “What if those kids have a gun?” Almost instinctively, it is stereotyped that black teenagers would be more dangerous, because there’s a high possibility that they could be carrying loaded weapons. As John Quiñones narrates, he mentions the first three pedestrians to call the police on the African American teens “…were angered by the vandalism, but wary of confrontation.” This wariness often befits another stereotype that African-Americans are less approachable than others.  In this case, Professor Newman describes quiet racism as a “[link] to the traditional forms of personal racism by negative feelings toward certain groups. However, the feelings common to quiet racism are not hate or hostility but discomfort, uneasiness, and sometimes fear, which tend to motivate avoidance…” (358). Racism is no longer limited to verbal communication, but can also be translated as a form of discomfort or a sense of uneasiness around a certain minority. This could very-well be the reason why the white Caucasian vandals were approached and talked to, more than the African-Americans who elicited direct phone calls to the police to handle the situation.

Naturally, media has a great influence on these stereotypes. At the beginning of the 20th century, Blacks in films were often made out to be criminals, servants or slaves. Take for example in the 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, “Gus, a Black Buck figure, chases a young white woman through the woods until she throws herself over a cliff in order to preserve her ‘honor’” (Benshoff 78). Even the commercials in the early 1980s were geared towards the appeal and stereotype of the average white American. In the book Gender, Race, and Class in Media, co-author Gail Dines mentions that “[o]ver the years advertisers have employed Latin spitfires like Chiquita Banana, [and] Black mammies like Aunt Jemima […] to pitch their products to a predominantly White mass audience of consumers” (284). The media has a great deal of influence, yet the driving force behind their advertisements, movies, and products is about the amount of revenue they can produce. Although the media may understand that our country has an array of different ethnicities and cultures, most commercials and films are still geared towards accommodating to the dominant culture, rather than the minorities.

In more recent events, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures are planning on creating a live-action rendition of a popular Japanese movie and manga (which means ‘comic book’ in Japanese), Akira. Unfortunately, this has many Asian-Americans angry, as the main roles are not going to be played by Asian-Americans, but by an exclusive list of popular, white Caucasian-American actors. Although the setting will take place in “Neo-Manhattan,” the main characters will still maintain their Japanese names of Tetsuo and Kaneda. In a response to an interview with CBC radio, regarding the issue concerning Asian-American actors in media, actor George Takei asks, “How would you get someone who has a track record, if they don’t give anybody the opportunity to run the track? You’ll never have that” (“Is Hollywood Guilty of ‘whitewashing’?”). Warner Bros Pictures is a very large movie enterprise in America, which strives for record breaking revenues at the box office. It is for this reason that they are recruiting big named white actors to assist in drawing in the majority of consumers and movie enthusiasts, even though it is evidently offensive to the Asian American community. The members of Racebending.com, an online community who are striving to promote equality in the entertainment industry, are slightly eased by the idea that a new contender has arrived for the role of Tetsuo:

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the multiethnic actor (1/8th Native Hawaiian and 1/8 Chinese from his father’s side) has people talking to the studio about playing Kaneda […] At the same time, it’s unsatisfactory to see [Keanu] Reeves [as the] default to Hollywood’s only go-to actor when they need to find someone to portray an Asian lead character. (“Tetsu-whoa! Akira Rumor Round-Up”).

            Media plays a large role in our lives. We see media through art, advertisements, billboards, we turn to it for information, and even leisure. It is because of its large role in our lives, we are able to see our society for not only what it wants to become, but also for what our society currently is. It is evident that we have been very progressive in our goals concerning equality, but it’s detrimental to see events unfold where racism plays a factor. Vandalism is a crime all across America, but when one ethnicity elicits more commotion than another, it becomes almost indisputable that race plays a factor in certain circumstances. Even as children, we are acculturated into society through Disney films, which shows a favoritism towards white Caucasian looking protagonists, while darker toned characters are often portrayed as villainous. Furthermore, the incident concerning Columbine high school, Virginia Tech, and the Red Lake shooting showed a bias towards white Caucasian gunmen, as the possibility of mental illness or depression was displaced with the notion that violent video games were to blame. Although Americans may like to believe that racism is no longer prevalent within our society, it has only changed to a more subtle and silent form. Times have changed greatly, since African Americans played roles as thieves, robbers or rapists in movies, but as media showed perceptions of the way life used to be, it can still be used to portray hidden perceptions of life as we know it, today.

[[References available upon request]]