Oct
01
2013

Dreaming Away the Reality of Racism

Media misuse of Martin Luther King

Time magazine (8/26/13) dedicated a special issue to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. There were remembrances from assorted people, lots of photos, and a website, “time.com/onedream.” It was all very glossy and lovely—and a bit rich from a magazine that employs no black correspondents (Journal-isms, 8/19/13).

But corporate media’s engagement of King has long had an air of unreality about it, as the antiwar and anti-capitalist ideas that for him and others in the civil rights movement were integrally connected with racial equity are ignored or worse. After his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the Washington Post (4/6/67) sniffed that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

Corporate media don't like to recall the Martin Luther King who called for a "radical restructuring of society."

Corporate media don't like to recall the Martin Luther King who called for a "radical restructuring of society."

Forty-one years later, David Gergen (CNN, 4/4/08) was dismayed that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even mentioned poverty at a King holiday event. He’d hoped she would “rise to the occasion and talk about how wonderful it is, 40 years later, that both an African-American and a woman are now competing in the way they are.” The desire to talk only about how wonderful things are helps explain elite media’s tendency to foreground the parts of “I Have a Dream” that celebrate the end of de jure segregation, but set aside King’s insistence that segregation’s end did not mean the end of grievous inequality.

That willful myopia is transparent when right-wingers pretend King opposed affirmative action (Extra!, 5/95), but equally evident when liberal pundits muse whether the election of a black president might signal the realization of King’s dream. Racism as part of an inglorious past, media can handle; racism in the present day, tangled up in issues from healthcare to housing to the effects of the recession—that they’d just as soon not confront.

Timidity marked anniversary coverage of the 1963 march—much of it on the order of “Great Strides, Further to Go” (Tampa Bay Times, 8/25/13). The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (8/25/13), for example, asked readers to consider that the civil rights movement’s efforts “to open the schoolhouse doors” are today “so widely embraced that schools are closed in the middle of each January to celebrate [the movement’s] aspirations.” Besides the layer of gloss that puts on the protracted fight it took to establish the King holiday, it seems a perverse choice for celebration, given that US schools are actually more segregated today than in the last 40 years (UCLA Civil Rights Project, 9/19/12). To assess the resolutely antiwar leader’s vision, CBS’s Face the Nation (8/25/13) invited the one person who did the most to deceive the nation into invading Iraq. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell opined:

Increasingly, if you have education, if you have the background, if you have the right grooming in your family and you apply yourself and you have ambition, you can rise to any height you want to in this country.

On Meet the Press (8/25/13), New York Times columnist David Brooks offered his own reckoning of the March and the movement’s message:

You go after your opponents, you go relentlessly after them, but you always do it with superior emotional discipline and self-control, and you force them, the racists in that case, to display their own evil. And you transfer the whole debate that way by a superior dignity, and that was part of what the march did. It took a strategy that was deeply thought through and it expressed it to the nation, and it showed how you make social change.

You’d look long for a clearer indictment of the current state of media debate than the country’s “serious” news programs’ reduction of the struggle for economic and social justice to questions of dignity and “grooming.”

Media can report the reality of white privilege without patronizing pablum. A video circulating on social media earlier this year turned out to be a 2010 episode of ABC’s What Would You Do? (5/7/10) in which producers staged an experiment: A young white man pretended he was trying to break the lock on a chained bicycle. Scores of passersby noticed, but only a single couple intervened over the course of an hour. When a similarly dressed black man did the same, he was quickly confronted by an accusing crowd, with bystanders immediately jumping on the phone to summon police. Comments suggested the episode retained the power to capture the combined matter-of-factness and gut punch of discrimination, and to properly associate it with recognizable people rather than caricatures.

In an experiment staged by ABC News, passerby had very different reactions to black and white men "stealing" a bike.

In an experiment staged by ABC News, passerby had very different reactions to black and white men "stealing" a bike.

ABC’s Primetime Live did other work like this, having equally credentialed black and white people apply for jobs and look for apartments (9/26/91), for example, letting viewers see for themselves how friendly tones hardened and openings unaccountably closed when the person asking was black. It’s not the only way to get at the issue, of course, but consistent exploration of racism’s lived reality would certainly add dimension to news about, say, African-Americans being specifically targeted by unscrupulous lenders, and encourage viewers to make the leap from acknowledging a few bad apples to seeing a more systemic problem, with life-altering repercussions.

Instead, media coverage of racism detects only incident after anecdotal incident, with no pattern to be made from the pieces. We read a story like that of corporate retailer Wet Seal, where Nicole Cogdell, a successful black store manager, was fired days after a site visit by a vice president who complained to Cogdell’s boss, “I wanted someone with blonde hair and blue eyes”—and wrote an email reading, “African-Americans dominate—huge issue” (FAIR Blog, 12/4/12). CNN’s report (9/3/12) gave the retailer the last word: “Again, Wet Seal says they do not discriminate on the basis of race and African-Americans are well-represented within their company.” When the company settled a $7.5 million class-action lawsuit in May 2013, based on what the E.E.O.C. called “unusually blatant evidence of racial discrimination,” (New York Times, 12/3/12), CNN had nothing to say.

Or we may read about Meridian, Mississippi (Colorlines, 5/31/13), where the Justice Department had to intervene with the public school district to reform discipline practices leading to “excessive suspensions and expulsions of mostly young black students for trivial infractions like wearing the wrong colored socks.” A DoJ representative told Colorlines that Meridian was “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of school systems that unlawfully channel black kids out of school and into the criminal justice system. But most people didn’t see even the tip; one-day stories in the New York Times and Washington Post (1/17/13) elicited no follow-up.

Rutgers professor Nancy DiTomaso offered media a chance to address racial discrimination’s less overt forms, with research on how “seemingly innocuous networking” drives inequality in the United States (New York Times, 5/5/13). In job seeking, DiTomaso noted, “white Americans tend to help other whites, because social resources are concentrated among whites.” Thus, inequality is reproduced not through illegal exclusion, but through perfectly legal inclusion, “more insidious and largely immune to legal challenges.”
Favoritism, DiTomaso reported,

is almost universal in today’s job market. In interviews with hundreds of people on this topic, I found that all but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes.

That provides an excellent opening to explore modern iterations of white privilege: how “good” people can act in a legal way that nevertheless shuts doors on people of color, whatever the “content of their character.” It’s a complex problem that doesn’t call for simplistic finger-pointing. But does that mean it doesn’t call for intervention? The subdued response that DiTomaso’s work received despite being written up in the Times—one piece on NPR (5/6/13), a mention in a Washington Post movie review (7/26/13)—would suggest as much.

It isn’t, then, that media don’t tell these stories, to one extent or another. What they don’t do is connect the acknowledgement of racially discriminatory systems and practices with a conversation about what it would take to unmake them. Despite the summary firing of the non–“blonde and blue-eyed,” the targeting of black people for toxic loans, the disparate drug sentencing based on non-science, the unconstitutional harassment of black men by police, the differing approaches of doctors to black and white patients, the yawning pay gaps between black and white workers, etc.—when the debate turns to responsive or remunerative action, media reopen the question of whether there’s really anything to fix. Stories about affirmative action scarcely mention the discrimination to which it responds (Extra!, 1/99), leaving it a matter of claims and counterclaims, and our understanding of racism is not advanced beyond images of Bull Connor and firehoses.

The King who media don’t like to recall argued for expanding the racial justice fight to a “radical restructuring of society” that would also engage militarism, materialism and imperialism. Elite media show as little receptivity to that message today as 50 years ago, and equally little interest in hearing from representatives of today’s racial and economic justice movement, who would surely upset their vision of the fight for equality as simple, and largely won.

Sidebar:

MLK and ‘True Heroes’

“Some of the people I admire most took on the government—men and women who led the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. They are true heroes. I’m not ready to put Edward Snowden in that category.... The people who led the civil rights movement were willing to break the law and suffer the consequences.... I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us.”
CBS’s Bob Schieffer (Face the Nation, 6/16/13) on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

“Nothing can be more destructive of our fundamental democratic traditions than the vicious effort to silence dissenters.”
—Martin Luther King (2/25/67)