Tag Archives: MSNBC

Whitening the Media

20 Jun

Chris Hayes Speaks

I like MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes. It’s TV for thinkers, at least most of the time. But this past weekend, in a discussion about the collapse of truth in media, Hayes said something that almost had me throwing my coffee at the T.V.

His comment was a response to a plea from good ol’ Amy Goodman of Democracy Now for poor people, especially poor people of color, being able to speak for themselves in media. She said truth in media is “larger than a truth that is yes or no…” speaking to the fact that, even in the midst of an economic crisis that is having a disproportionate and devastating impact on Blacks and Latinos, almost no poor Black or Latino people are able to speak about the economy in the media.

Goodman’s point was well taken. There are many societal “truths” constructed by the media, not least of which is that only educated experts are qualified to speak to issues. Mainstream media, even much of the left media, rarely allows poor people to speak for themselves, neither about the realities with which they live, nor about the solutions they would propose to problems that most directly affect them.

Excluding those most impacted by issues of economic inequality from the discussion among public intellectuals in the media comes at a real cost. When we support a dialogue about the economy absent the perspectives of those who have lost the most, and have the most to gain through deep and lasting change, we reduce real problems facing real people into nothing more than issues to attract the votes of middle-class people.

Hayes responded by saying

“…but here’s the problem with that. Even if you show those folks…a certain portion of the electorate is going to say ‘I don’t trust them‘ or they will be told by the Daily Caller that this is some sort of ridi…”

That’s when I got angry. You don’t get to talk about poor people like they don’t matter.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a community organizer. That means I’ve worked with people on the down side of unjust power relations – folks who need to exercise power in numbers because when we act as individuals we are treated like we don’t matter.

As an organizer, a big part of my job involved gathering people suffering from injustice so we could share our stories with one another. My best memories are of those moments when people listening to the stories of their peers would well up in tears of relief and recognition and say, “that’s just like me.”

Realizing that we are not alone in our troubles helps people who are rarely listened to by “experts” like Chris Hayes lift themselves out of despair. The circle of recognition grows exponentially larger when those who have been vilified as leaches and denigrated as losers are able to tell their stories through the media. Nothing else has as broad and immediate an impact. In fact, not being able to tell our stories via the mainstream media is one of the ways we are swept under the rug and kept out of power.

Believe me, as long as the only audience that counts to media makers is white and middle class, media as a means of advancing racial equity will only yield change in small and mostly superficial increments. The white middle class perceives itself as having too much to lose and not enough to gain through achieving racial justice. And that resistance is magnified by the fact that our invisibility in media means that relatively few middle class whites know our stories.

But when poor people of color are included, we not only open doors to reconciliation and change. Change is created by the simple act of including us.

So the next time Mr. Hayes finds himself bemoaning the lack of movement on issues of justice, maybe he should ask himself what role media plays in writing those most likely to be that movement out of the story.

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean -

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

How We Rewrite History

20 May

Melissa Harris-Perry included a segment on personal character on her 5/20/12 show on MSNBC. During the segment, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), “We say he is wonderful in character…while millions of people were being destroyed in Europe”(presumably in WWII). Harris-Perry responded by citing FDR’s record of cheating on his wife Eleanor as another stain on his record.

Honestly MHP? Is that all you got?

FDR was a racist. That’s right. He was a segregationist who believed powerfully in the inferiority of non-white people. I’d call that a character flaw, but maybe I’m too extreme.

Maybe…if you don’t count Executive Order 9066. That order, signed on February 19, 1942, sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII. 62% of those sent to concentration camps were natural-born U.S. citizens. They were forcibly detained for the duration of the war without evidence of espionage. Many were children.

FDR never had a change of heart. The war ended and folks were released, though without compensation for their many losses, including farms, businesses, homes and jobs.

FDR met with white Olympians after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but famously refused to meet with African Americans on the U.S. team to avoid stirring the resentment of Southern whites. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in ’36, complained that Hitler didn’t snub him, FDR did.

That attitude was reflected in federal policy of the FDR era. Wikipedia says of him, “Roosevelt needed the support of Southern Democrats for his New Deal programs, and he therefore decided not to push for anti-lynching legislation…though he did denounce lynchings as “a vile form of collective murder”.

Who is the more admirable character, the person who supports lynching because of racist beliefs, or someone who has the presence of mind to call it “vile” and the power to stop the practice, but does nothing for the sake of politics?

Now, I don’t normally consider Wikipedia a source of reliable facts, but do a Google search. If you’re like me, the only indication of FDR’s racism that appears among the first page or two of hits is Wikipedia and a bunch of right wing attack sites. Our side apparently has little if anything to say on the subject.

We do ourselves a disservice when we leave these pages of history to the right wing. We do everyone a disservice when we overlook episodes of overt racism on the part of the U.S. government in the hopes of serving current day political agendas, however well intentioned they may be.

This is how we rewrite history. Excusing behaviors because they were “normal” at the time shifts blame for racial injustice onto the most extreme racists. We create the false impression that racism is just a problem of bad people and ideas. But we know outspoken racists are just the shock troops of a systemically racist system for which passivity and racial liberalism of the sort that gives FDR a pass are equally necessary ingredients.

Coopt-upy Wall Street

30 Mar

One of my favorite pundits, Elon James White, recently wrote about How Occupy Wall Street Co-opted the Million Hoodie March, describing the behavior of OWS activists at the recent New York protest over the Trayvon Martin case.

In the post, White describes white OWS’ers taunting the police, which, besides just being insensitive of the always tense relationship between cops and African Americans, appeared to be a ploy to get attention. Many carried Occupy signs, chanted, “We are the 99%,” etc. Hence, White’s complaint that they attempted to co-opt the march.

The following weekend, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes addressed the conflict, saying that this kind of thing goes both ways, citing instances in which African Americans with Free Mumia signs protesting the incarceration of the African American political prisoner, often appear at anti-war demonstrations. I usually like Chris Hayes, but this statement made me squirm.

There are big differences between mostly white OWS protestors who are obviously being targeted for police repression showing up with 99% placards and chanting about economic inequality at a peaceful protest of a white on Black killing, and Free Mumia activists showing up with placards supporting their cause at a mostly white anti-war rally.

One difference, at least as I see it, is that when people of color show up to raise visibility for their causes at mostly white anti-war demonstrations, it’s an opportunity to escape the invisibility that is imposed on us by segregation and the indifference of the white majority, including the white media.

It’s a chance to build support among whites who, because of their concern over an unjust war, might be open to hearing about another kind of injustice. And, let’s face it, in a majority rule society in which white people not only hold the numerical advantage but control the media, you kinda have to get white permission for your cause to become visible.

Case in point: the Martin family tragedy is by no means isolated. Black men and boys die at the hands of people with guns with some regularity, and in those cases where the perpetrators are white, evidence of racially motivated bias is by no means rare. And yet, where are the protests? Meanwhile, a white child goes missing at a mall and it’s not just news, it’s a national crisis.

Not only are the problems affecting people of color happening mostly beyond the view of the white majority; the information necessary to understand these problems as injustice rarely get aired. Unless we can get white folks paying attention, like the white blogger who worked so diligently to bring the Trayvon Martin case to the public, our issues rarely become visible to the mainstream. So show up at a mostly white-led protest of something as big as a war to get some air time? Sure, how else can you get heard? And, BTW, we’re not there to distract media attention from the primary cause.

On the other hand, when white OWS’ers, who have been widely criticized for being isolated in their whiteness, use a march organized by Black people to raise visibility for themselves using distracting tactics, there is cause to complain. Given how polarizing OWS is (and BTW, polarizing is, strategically speaking, just what I think they ought to be), it doesn’t help the Martin family cause to have OWS’ers chanting, “We are the 99%.” In fact, it’s a detriment.

The Trayvon Martin protest isn’t about polarizing, it’s about coming together across race, politics and class to demonstrate broad-based public concern. Demonstrating broad, mainstream opposition to the Sanford police department’s handling of the shooting of Trayvon Martin is essential to achieving a just resolution.

But in the end, that’s not what made me squirm. What made me uncomfortable was that Chris Hayes’ false equivalency dismisses the racial dynamics underlying the conflict described by Mr. White. Too often white activists show up at the protests led by people of color (but not at the doors of our organizations offering to help behind the scenes) to say something, not about our causes, but about themselves. And what they want to say is some version of this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”

Jeremy Lin, Double Standards, and the Racial Confusion Era

16 Mar

Every blog has a genesis story. This one is no exception. The catalyst for this blog was the media sensation created by Jeremy Lin. Specifically, it was the racism and racial confusion reflected in the many rants and critiques on racial double standards and insensitivity that got me typing. Case in point, this tip in an Asian American Journalists Association guide on avoiding racism in reporting on Jeremy Lin: DRIVING: This is part of the sport of basketball, but resist the temptation to refer to an “Asian who knows how to drive.” Honestly? Is this what we have to contribute to this discussion?

How the hell did we get to this place? It’s as though when it comes to race we’re trapped in a hall of fun house mirrors, only the images being reflected back at us aren’t so funny.

In the mainstream, critical commentary on this occasion reduced racism to insensitivity. Equally problematic, complaints of a double standard that presumably allows one to get away with racist stereotyping when the victims are Asian, but not if they’re African American, reflect a racial confusion, even racism, that is divisive and misleading.

When did we stop noticing the pretty much endless stream of limiting and denigrating stereotypes and racist profiling of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos in the media? Is this what is meant by living in a colorblind society? Are we so completely surrounded by racist ideas and imagery that racism has become invisible to us?

As a starting point in my examination of just how confused we are, I recorded and studied 24 hours of  programming on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN over the course of four days of “Linsanity.” The results of the MSNBC bloc of programming were pretty typical.

In 11 hours of MSNBC programming, the Lin story was everywhere. Lin-related news to one side, only two stories of specific relevance to Asians appeared: the Hoekstra anti-China ad fiasco, and news of an Asian American Super PAC forming. So okay, Asians are pretty absent in media.

However, the only Latinos or Latino-specific stories were about Fernando Valenzuela and Ricky Rubio, both pro athletes. Native Americans were never mentioned. African Americans were referenced either as individuals or in terms of issues several times, including mentions of Carmello Anthony, Martell Webster, and Ty Johnson (all athletes); Rhianna, Chris Brown, Jay Z, Beyonce, and Maya Angelou (all basically entertainers). There was mention of a black Super PAC forming and a story about a white Texas teacher’s suspension after using the “N” word (in order to try to teach the evils of racism). The Reverend Jeremiah Wright was mentioned and, in conjunction, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And there was one incidental reference to a black elected official named Darren Williams. That’s it. And keep in mind, this was all supposed to be hard “news.”

Obviously, we are confused if a sports writer is fired for using the word “chink,” and a teacher is suspended for using the “N” word, but no heads are rolling over the absence of features of the 15.8% national unemployment rate for blacks, or the 11% unemployment rate for Latinos; nor that the 2011 per capita income of the Hmong Asian ethnic group was $10,949; that in 2011 blacks were six times more likely to go to prison and three times more likely to have sub-prime mortgages than whites; nor that in 2010, the median wealth of black women in the U.S. was $5. Apparently, your job is safe if you choose to describe the African American community as if it is composed mainly of athletes and entertainers and fail in 24 hours of news programming to make even one mention of Native Americans.

The census projects that by 2030, people of color will make up the majority of those under the age of 18, and non-whites in general will out-number whites by 2042. People of color are the fastest growing sector of the population and will soon be the dominant media market.  So, what gives with the lack of coverage? And to the extent we are being covered, W.T.F.?

Double standard? I say there are multiple standards of civility in the U.S. where race is concerned, but we are not talking about civility, people! Only one relevant double standard has remained stable in the realm of U.S. race politics since the very invention of the idea of race – that whites constitute the template for “American” and the rest of us are either a resource for whites to exploit, or a threat to them, or we just don’t matter.

So this is my opening salvo. I say it is ridiculous to say that we live in a post-racial society, or even that we are getting there. Things are definitely not getting better.

Welcome to Race Files.

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