Tag Archives: media bias

The Invisible Minority: Why Creating Myths About Asian Americans Is So Easy

2 Nov

Early in October, the surprisingly high percentage (1 in 3) of undecided Asian voters popped up in the media. It took about a minute for that story to cycle through and then, poof! No further discussion.

Pundits and political analysts have talked about Jewish voters, Black voters, Latino Voters, White Voters, young voters, older voters, low-income voters, gay voters, and voting veterans, ex-felons, and independents. But Asian voters? Almost not at all. Or at least that was my theory.

To test that theory, my firm, ChangeLab, conducted a study. We pulled the transcripts of seven weekly political commentary programs televised between January 1-June 30 of this year. The shows included Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry. To be fair, Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t on the air for the whole period studied.

The shows are diverse in many ways, including by market share, but hold one thing in common – they wrap up and analyze what they consider the most significant trends in politics for the preceding week. For this reason, these shows construct part of the truth about the reality we live in for many Americans. Just how real that so-called truth feels to us is largely dependent upon privilege. The less privilege we have, the more aggressively facts of life (like routinely running out of money days before your next check, or having your beloved and lovable 18 year old sent to prison for a non-violent crime you regularly hear celebrities talk about doing on TV) intrude upon this media constructed truth.

But while poor people, women, and people of color tend to be better at seeing past media biases, even for us that ability diminishes with relative privilege. The more we live inside the privilege bubble, the more easily we are influenced by the filtered realities in the media, and the less able we are to be to see the world from the points of view of those whose experiences those filters leave out or distort.

Ironically, the more inside the bubble we live, the more we are able to influence public policy and the media, even as the media and public policy has the most direct affect on those with less privilege. It’s a vicious cycle that sets the dial on what’s “normal,” and “natural” in the world at middle class, consumerist, white, suburban, etc. That’s why ChangeLab put in the long hours and conducted our study.

Over the 6 month period we looked at, the seven programs we selected aired 169 episodes. Of those 169 episodes, only one included discussion of Asian Americans. That one show was the May 27, 2012 episode of Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP). I watched that show and critiqued the content in a past blog entry. You can follow that link or just take my word for it – it was a nice try, but a miss.

Among other problems with the MHP episode was that it focused mainly on voting power and representation, and not on the complex issues facing Asian Americans. Emphasis was placed on how Asian Americans are concerned with the same issues as non-Asians – jobs, healthcare, education, the economy – but much on those issues that are particular to Asian Americans, like that we don’t generally identify as “Asian” so much as by our ethnic groups, yet we are treated as an undifferentiated mass by others. And while Asian Americans often adopt the term “Asian,” the belief that there is an “Asian” race is a racist one.

For that reason, to the extent that Japanese Americans have anything in common with Vietnamese Americans those commonalities tend to be based in shared negative experiences. Some of those experiences include lumping us together as a race, an act that both negates our diverse cultures and makes it difficult to identify and serve the specific needs of particular Asian ethnic groups. Hate crimes and bullying are other specific issues, as are the many popular stereotypes that trivialize, emasculate, and dehumanize us.

Notice that none of these has to do with shared immigration experiences, shared economic challenges, cross-ethnic cultural similarities, shared values, or a shared sense of racial identification. These commonalities are problems resulting from racism.

The one MHP episode that took on “Asians” as an issue told a story about Asian Americans as though the main thing that matters about us is how we impact you, and the you in question is by no means presumed to be Asian American. And why does this matter? Because only telling the story about Asians that is useful to them will do nothing to deal with the problems faced by us.

Not Vanquished

22 Aug

I started Race Files after screening 24 hours of political commentary programs. I screened them to test a hunch. That hunch was that if these programs were your only window on the U.S., you’d conclude that people of color are a barely present and politically insignificant part of America.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that my hunch proved correct. To political pundits, people of color are usually (in fact, in the case of white commentators, almost exclusively) mentioned to make points relevant to white people.

But, no matter how minimizing or misleading the rap was on African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, we were mentioned. Of Native Americans, on the other hand, not a word was spoken.

That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched political programs with a pen and paper at my side in order to make note of any reference to Native Americans. Because analyzing how media represents people of color is part of my work, I watch a lot of these programs.

So far, I have yet to fill a third of a page. What’s scribbled in that space refers to only one subject: Republican objections to provisions addressing the special circumstances of Native Americans in the Violence Against Women Act. In this story, Native Americans were mainly used to bash Republicans.

On that same page I have two checks – one for each time that a non-Native person referenced Native Americans as people something really bad happened to a very long time ago.

Ever notice how there are stories, though few and far between, of the plights of indigenous people outside of the U.S.? I have. I noted them as well. They far out-number references to Native Americans. I suppose the issues are a lot more palatable when you and your audience aren’t implicated in the problem.

The absence of Native Americans may not be the result of some evil conspiracy but it is neither minor nor incidental. In fact, this silence is just an extension of a process that began before the American Indian Wars and never ended. We live it everyday and it’s an important part of a historical process of expunging Native Americans from the U.S. consciousness.

This disappearing of Native Americans as real, complex, contemporary people has so successfully naturalized within American culture that we (non-Indians) hardly notice it. It’s part of our national ethos, even a matter of pride, to think of Native Americans as a vanquished and vanishing people and to act accordingly.

Throughout American history we’ve been trying to make Native Americans disappear. Long after early colonists had already destroyed thousands of Native American lives, we waged a war against Native nations as a matter of federal policy. The formal acknowledgement of our intention to make Native Americans disappear continued into the early 1920s, ultimately resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of the Native American population of North America.

But warfare was just one tactic. Cultural assimilation was another. Cruel campaigns to “civilize” Native Americans were waged. The goal was to eventually separate Native people from their land.

And having failed at completely assimilating Native Americans, we have ever since used the tactic of simply making Native people disappear, and, along with them, all of the other complications associated with being a settler nation. To quiet our consciences, to avoid settling up our debts to Native nations, and to ignore the fact that we reside on land and have built a society using resources that were forcibly taken from others in a campaign of genocide, we make them vanish, even call certain tribes “extinct.”

This disappearing act is accomplished in a variety of ways. We terminate tribes, claiming that enrollment has fallen too far to constitute a nation. We appropriate spiritual practices, claiming to be honoring and preserving the traditions of a noble but vanishing people. And we do it by exclusion, especially in media and the world of politics, both of which contribute to the notion that Native people are of no relevance to the lives of the rest of us.

Native American activist and academic Andy Smith wrote about the logic of genocide in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, saying “this logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear…must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous people rightful claim over this land.”

Smith’s article cites Kate Shanley’s analysis of Native Americans as a permanent “present absence” that, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam functions as “an ambivalently repressive mechanism [which] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself…”

This is one more for the echo chamber. Native Americans are not vanquished and not vanishing.

Appalachian Voters

24 May

Thanks to a great article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, I came across this quote by Steve Kornacki concerning Obama’s lack of popularity in Appalachia:

A majority of Kentucky’s 120 counties voted against Obama in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, opting instead for “uncommitted.” Big margins in Louisville and Lexington saved the president from the supreme embarrassment of actually losing the state, not that his overall 57.9 to 42.1 percent victory is anything to write home about…

Chalking this up only to race may be an oversimplification, although there was exit poll data in 2008 that indicated it was an explicit factor for a sizable chunk of voters. Perhaps Obama’s race is one of several markers (along with his name, his background, and the never-ending Muslim rumors, his status as the “liberal” candidate in 2008) that low-income white rural voters use to associate him with a national Democratic Party that they believe has been overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists and gays – people and groups whose interests are being serviced at the expense of their own.

Coates addresses the race ignorance of failing to make the connection between perceptions of Obama as “Muslim,” and “liberal,” and all the b.s. about him being foreign and his race. Good point. I highly recommend reading the article.

To add a bit of wood to this fire, I’ll go a step further and say that low-income white rural voters are only half wrong (and half right) when they say the Democratic Party is overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists, and gays at their expense. Here’s where they’re wrong – liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists, and gays are not in control of the Party.

Even calling the Democratic Party liberal is wrong. Democrats have run so far away from the label “liberal” that the Republican ploy of vilifying Democrats as liberals has had the effect of changing very meaning of the word for most Americans. Feminists certainly haven’t been able to move their agenda through the Party. Neither have LGBT folks. And minorities (I assume Kornacki is referring to people of color here) sure as hell aren’t in control.

When the Democratic Party becomes the champion of humane immigration policy we might start to imagine ourselves in control. When they finally stand up against the racist drug war, push for marriage reform so that everyone can marry, and domestic partners enjoy the same rights as married couples, we’d be getting somewhere. When the Party makes redirecting the more than $16,000,000 spent so far this year on the drug war to building schools and providing drug treatment and job opportunities in poor communities, I might start to take pride in my Democratic voter registration.

When honoring treaty rights, protecting the mineral rights, and providing adequate support for health, education, and economic development of Native people is a priority of the Democratic Party, we’d really be getting someplace.  When supporting pay equity for women is more of a priority than locking up non-violent drug offenders or detaining undocumented immigrants, the Party might start to feel like a par-tay. When President Obama starts to respond to accusations that he’s not a Christian by simply saying it doesn’t matter because we are not, by law, a Christian nation, I might faint, but only after getting on my knees to thank God.

But here’s where those low-income, white rural voters are half right. Until Appalachia is able to rise out of poverty, they have a rightful claim to being victims of injustice. The interests of others are most certainly being serviced at their expense. But those interests aren’t our interests – they’re corporate interests.

And maybe if all of us ordinary folks mattered more to the Democrats than corporate interests, those Appalachian voters might stop being so damn mad at us.

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