As one who often finds himself on panels doing battle over the nature and the direction of American life, I frequently contend with moldy clichis that have the same intellectual stink as spoilage. One that I encounter over and over is that black people are maligned in an ongoing and intentional way by the media. One is ceaselessly told that the media chooses to traffic in negative images of black people, and those media images help support whatever racist attitudes others have about Negro Americans.
Recently I found myself on a panel with an educated and pleasant black female scholar, who impressed me as thoughtful until she began whining about the media. A preponderance of images of young black men in handcuffs, walking out of courtrooms or being lowered into squad cars, she said, was responsible for creating a widespread picture of black males as monsters and criminals. She even had sociological studies to cite to back up her claims.
Having closely observed the media for more than 40 years, I consider that absolute hogwash. Since 1960 and the Kennedy years of white upon white upon white, we have made amazing progress in integrating American images on television programs and in commercials. There are now all types of black people depicted on TV shows and in film and in magazines. If we begin with the world of commercials, which outnumber all shows because there are more products for sale than there are television programs, one does not get the impression that the marketing world is interested in projecting negative images of black people, or any other people.
Black people are shown at every level of society short of abject poverty, from the blue-collar world all the way up to corporate meetings where, male and female, they stand on par with whomever surrounds them. In commercials advertising children's products, one sees a cross section of American kids now -- white, Asian, black, Hispanic. These children are shown with their parents, usually in what would be called middle-class surroundings. There are images of senior citizens, or multi-generational families, white, black, brown and yellow.
Afro-Americans even advertise deodorant these days, as well as sanitary napkins, bras and just about anything else you can imagine. This kind of product pitch is more revolutionary than you might think. Thirty-five years ago, an inside civil-rights movement joke was that America would have almost totally recovered from racism when black people were used in hygiene ads, since racist stereotypes clustered around the notion that Negroes were dirty and smelled bad.
That black women in particular now advertise the gamut of female products, from lingerie to tablets for menstrual relief, means that they are no longer seen as the giggling subhuman accompanist needed to underline the sensitive femininity of the white woman. Now the Negro female is seen as just another woman, not just a comical servant or she-creature whose womb is so hot she can barely walk down the street with it covered by her clothes for fear of collapsing from the erotic combustion.
The same is true of the black man, who is now depicted as just another guy who might be trying to get his mail somewhere fast, who might be in a board meeting, who could be a supervisor in an auto plant, who might be driving a FedEx truck, who is just as interested in a cold beer as anybody else, who has to deal with his wife, his children and his parents and in-laws, who has the bucks to buy an expensive car, who might be found camping, or behind the computer choosing mutual funds. In other words, in the world of commercial images, the Negro man is seen as another member of a society that constantly boasts through advertising of just how easily you can live the good life if you have the appropriate bucks.
This is equally true of dramatic television and of comedy shows. If one can figure out how the black cast members of the very popular "ER" fit into concertedly negative images of black men or women, I would like to know. This has been true of dramatic television for more than a decade now, if not longer, good examples being "Law and Order," "Homicide" and "L.A. Law."
When it comes to comedy, well, comedy is usually about buffoonery in an American context, since wit and humor wrapped in sophistication are not thought to play from coast to coast as well as do dumb jokes and heavy-handed slapstick. Ergo, UPN, or, as Spike Lee calls it, "You People's Network."
Let us now go to the world of television news, which is supposed to be one of the greatest offenders when it comes to concerted efforts to depict black people in a negative light. But in most cities you will see black people working on the news staff, either as anchors or reporting on a wide array of stories, from local to national politics, the stock market to the weather, the world of entertainment to the world of health. You will also see many black people in high positions of authority in local and national government either giving interviews or holding press conferences.
Yes, you will see some young Negro guys with their pants falling off, their caps turned backward, their hands cuffed behind them and their heads getting pushed down as they are put into the back seats of police cars. From what I can tell, given the amount of crime black people have to suffer -- 50 percent of the murders, for instance -- the coverage doesn't seem disproportionate.
And none of the people who are so disturbed by these negative images of young black people complain about them in the venue where they are most common: not in television news, but in black pop music videos. Andy Razaf, the great lyricist and partner of Fats Waller, could be talking about MTV, VH1, BET and the lowest of rap when he wrote in 1939, "The Negro race offers a gold mine of humorous, dramatic, and romantic material, having its share of heroes, adventurers, pioneers, martyrs, scientists, inventors, scholars, athletes, and artists in American and world history. Yet writers and producers continue to portray us as a race of clowns, flunkies, cowards, and degenerates."
What better way to describe the rap world's monkey-moving, gold-chain wearing, illiteracy-spouting, penis-pulling, sullen, combative buffoons and their promoters of freelance prostitution, like Lil' Kim?
But the anti-negative-image lobby invariably punks out when it comes to addressing its gangster brothers and sisters, who are supposed to be "keepin' it real." To me, however, the images in the mainstream media are more real than the misogynistic nihilism and hardcore whorishness of rap video.
The reason TV news producers get blamed for projecting negative black images when rap producers are never blamed for their part in this mess is that old double standard formed by cowardice. It's easy to blame the white folks all the time, since their sins are well-documented, past and present. But to stand up to the enemy within the group takes a little bit of courage, something we rarely see out here.