ADAM ENGEL: First off, the oldest “medium, language. When I was in college a feminist friend told me that, despite my own rather cavalier visions of myself, it was impossible for me or anyone else, male or female, not to be sexist, or at least believe – way deep down – the myths about men and women held by society, because sexism is embedded in the English language. Female equals weak, male equals strong; female equals flighty and chaotic, male equals rigorous, determined, orderly etc. Do you think this is true and that it applies to racism as well?
TIM WISE: I’m not sure that I would necessarily subscribe to the linguistic primacy of racist conditioning, though I agree that language can be one of many tools to maintain and legitimize oppressive systems. I think the bigger influences are media–and not just the words used by media but the images more centrally–as well as the version of history we tell (and don’t tell) ourselves; and the structural reality of inequality itself.
Let me take these one at a time briefly to explain what I mean.
As for media, this is pretty straightforward. Mass media over-represents persons of color in negative ways, especially as criminals, relative to the share of crime actually done by such persons. Numerous studies have confirmed this, as well as indicating that in local news, for example, although all violent crime is over-hyped, even when crime rates are falling, that crimes by blacks against whites get the most coverage. The Central Park Jogger is one example, but on a local level there are hundreds of others that never make national news. This reinforces the notion of blacks, and also Latinos, as deviant and dangerous.
In fact, the crime issue has been so effectively racialized by media, with the help of politicians, that in studies, a large number of whites who are shown clips of news stories about criminals “remember” the perps as black an hour after watching the clip, even when they were white or where their race was unspecified.
Likewise, 95% of whites when asked what they think of when they hear the term drug user, say they think of a black person: stunning, when you consider that 72% of drug users are white, only 13% are black, and blacks are slightly less likely in most years to use drugs than whites.
As for the history we teach, this is even more obvious I suspect. Despite the influence of multiculturalism in education–which is rarely as radical as its critics would have us believe–we still stick to an historical narrative that is pretty uncritical. Not only are the heroes white, male and owning class, typically, but the way we try and throw in a few people of color, women or working people is so obviously contrived–sort of like parsley on the plate, ya’ know, not the real meal, just added for show–that young people see right through it.
In fact this kind of multiculturalism, as opposed to a radical form that was truly antiracist, anti-patriarchal and anti-classist reinforces the dominant narrative precisely because it is so weak, so meaningless, and seen as purely additive. After all, learning about a handful of black inventors (as opposed to learning that this nation would literally not exist but for black labor, or the shared wisdom of indigenous people, which we thanked them for by killing 95% of them) doesn’t have much impact if the kid reading that stuff can think: “yeah, that’s great, but what about those blacks over in the ghetto,” and thereby maintain a negative view of blacks as a whole. We don’t teach him about how the ghetto came to be the ghetto–which of course was due to deliberate racist policies–and thereby we allow him to retain his uncritical view of the U.S. as this largely just place, where we once had problems, but now they’re all solved. So naturally, when he hears people of color complain about this paradise he calls home, he thinks that the only racism is coming from ungrateful black and brown folks, and this feeds his resentment.
As for structural inequality–this is the biggest “teacher” of all when it comes to instilling racism in people’s minds. After all, if you grow up in a nation that insists, as the central component of its ideology, that “anyone can make it if they just work hard enough,” and yet in this nation there exists massive disparities in terms of education, income, wealth and assets, imprisonment rates, unemployment, and poverty, then it becomes quite logical for one who has been propagandized to accept the notion of meritocracy to believe the folks on the bottom must indeed be inferior. It comes together like 2+2, I mean, it just makes sense once you accept the dominant narrative, as most do, because they are fed it day in and day out from the time they’re kids.
ENGEL: It’s a relatively well-known argument, pointed out by Alice Walker and Malcolm X, among others, that “black” refers to evil, mysterious, chaotic, and white is good, clean, pure etc. (note: I’m speaking only of English; I don’t know other languages well enough to talk about them, though the romance languages are meticulous about the male and female categories of nouns.). My own answer to this, in terms of racism, is that black people aren’t really “black” any more than white people are “white.” Placing the myriad varieties of human skin color into binary (and Manichean) categories of Black and White is a projection of the racist consciousness. That said, Darth Vader rarely wears plaid, and the man who provides his off-screen voice is indeed black.
WISE: Right. Black had these connotations long before the term was used to denote “race” in the U.S., for example, just as white never was used to describe Europeans until the late 1600s. Now one might argue that the words were chosen because it fit with that older imagery, and perhaps that’s true, but either way, I think the words themselves would have little weight absent the imagery, the history and the inequality that reinforces the negative connotation behind the words.
ENGEL: Though I haven’t watched much television since 1983, when I left for college at eighteen, I was practically reared by the Tube from 1970 to 1980. Lot of “black” shows (the Jeffersons, Good Times, That’s My Mama, Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert Cartoon, Sanford and Son, etc.) and almost every “white” show had one or more characters who not only “fit in” but was conscious of his/her race and the relation race played in his/her environment. Many of these shows even challenged racism and racist policies. Looking back, the message seemed to be “Look, black people can be as ridiculous and vapid as white people; hence, THEY’RE HARMLESS. ‘We’ don’t have to fear their anger. We can be friends. They even have families and jobs and problems just like ‘us.'” Of course it was a self-serving ‘white’ vision of black people (and a chance for advertisers to tap the black consumer), but it was something, to a child at any rate. I never watched “The Cosby Show” but it was one of the most successful sit-coms of the 80s.
Things are a bit different now, and have been, I assume, for a while. There were about as many black people in “Seinfeld’s” Manhattan as in Woody Allen’s. Similarly, there are no black characters in popular shows such as “Friends” – again, an all-white Manhattan. But something more sinister seems to be going on. Black people just “appear” out of context, and hang out with the regular cast, then leave. Or if they are ‘regulars,’ the issue of race is seldom, if ever mentioned. It’s as if they’ve been ‘cured’ of their blackness. They’re regular folks now, goofy and lovable as ‘us.’ I chanced upon one of these shows, “Friends,” I think it was, in which one of the main characters has a brief affair with a black woman. Watching it, I felt strange. Like, “what’s SHE doing there?” It was more than just the “novelty” of seeing a black character on a white show. It was the utter lack of context and consciousness that suddenly, out of nowhere, someone is associating with a black person without touching at all on the issues of our, in my view, extremely segregated society.
Then I realized why I feet uncomfortable whenever I see a black person make a cameo appearance on “white” television, (whether it’s MTV or the latest hit sit-com). Television has solved the black-white issue by either pretending black people do not exist by not showing them, or pretending that black people aren’t “black,” that is, skin color is no more relevant than hair color. Black people live the same privileged, consumerist, “middle class” existence as whites, and to say otherwise is (ah hah!) racist. We’re all equal before the camera. All that bad blood under the bridge is ‘the past.’ We’ve evolved to the point at which race is no longer an issue. Segregation, black profiling, ghettoes, mass incarceration – whoosh! – down the memory hole. I wonder what difference the effect on a child of the 70s watching shows in which black people are struggling openly for respect and recognition, (whatever the Network’s ulterior motives for “blacksploitation”), and one today watching an all white perfect society in which black people make cameo appearances but not really: it shouldn’t matter WHAT color they are. By pointing out the fact that they are “black” I must be a racist etc..
WISE: This is really very important, as silly and sometimes unimportant as various elements of popular culture may be. Fact is, the de-racing (or rather erasing) of people of color within dominant media sitcoms, for example, never fully serves the purpose intended by the nice liberals who typically conceive of it as the ultimate anti-racist act.
Consider one of the shows you mentioned, The Cosby Show. Now, although that show did not seek to un-blacken the Huxtable family–indeed they were quite in touch with their blackness on many levels I think, and certainly more so than the drop-in characters you reference today–the fact remains that that show was conceived as a social statement that might bridge racial barriers, and not only as a vehicle for entertainment. Actually, as an aside, Cosby himself first conceived of the family as working class, not a doctor and lawyer, but the networks weren’t interested and figured whites wouldn’t accept it as readily, which is probably true. So when the show got made, it ended up this professional, successful couple and their kids, and it was seen as a way to move past the stereotypical and sometimes demeaning images of blacks in the recent past on TV (George Jefferson, Jimmy Walker, etc., although you’re right, even those shows tended to deal better with real issues).
Well on one level it worked. Whites indeed did identify with the show. But as researchers learned, and as was discussed in the excellent book Enlightened Racism, those same whites often took their positive view of the Huxtables and used that as a reason to continue disliking and thinking badly of other blacks who weren’t as “successful” as this fictional TV family. In other words, they would say, “Gosh, I love Cliff and Claire; I wish all blacks were like that,” or, “Gee, if Cliff and Claire can make it, anyone can make it.” In other words, the show, while effectively de-racializing the Huxtables in the eyes of whites to some extent, it helped re-racialize white perceptions of American society, the meritocracy, and all the baggage that comes with that.
ENGEL: On the other hand, there’s the NEWS and “documentary” style programs like Cops. The black people we see on the News (unless they’re entertainers, sports figures, celebrities etc.) are somewhat different. They’re all drug dealers, rapists, murderers, or some kind of dangerous, irredeemable criminals and must be locked away forever, or better yet, executed for the good of the State. But again, they just “happen” to be black. “Nothing personal.”
WISE: Well yes, these shows are just horrible. The producer and creator of COPS actually admits to the possible racist effect of his show, during an interview with Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, but then basically says, “oh well, it’s good TV,” and leaves it at that. So that let’s you know where things stand
ENGEL: Around 1987 I attended a lecture by Angela Davis, who said something to the effect that the powers that be will “always manage to find a black, Latino, gay woman to out-Reagan Reagan.” So it has come to pass. How can we be racists if two of the most powerful people in the Nation, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, are black? Those “bad black people” who are always being arrested for something on the News made the choice to be poor and “uneducated” and jobless. How dare anyone use the excuse of racism, police brutality, profiling.? How dare anyone ask questions of class, unequal distribution of wealth, absence of hope or opportunity, history, economics? Look at Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, Oprah, Michael Jackson – rather, don’t look at Michael Jackson. Any black child born in the USA who sets his mind to success, and works and studies hard, and gets an “education” can “make it.” In fact, because of affirmative action and other instances of “reverse racism” and preferential treatment, black people have it a whole lot easier, etc. Or so the corporate media would lead us to believe.
WISE: Right. I always point out in my lectures that when you can NAME all the black folks who are able to buy and sell whites because of their power or money, as you did above, then you know the rule of black disempowerment and white supremacy is still in full effect. Fact is, blacks with college degrees are still more likely to be unemployed than non-Hispanic whites who dropped out of high school. So much for reverse discrimination.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE VERSUS SYNTHETIC MEDIA “REALITY”
ENGEL All this corporate media flap-doodle is easy for me to cut away. All I have to do is take a walk around Manhattan and clear my head of their bizarre fantasies. But what if I didn’t live in a city where “white people” were a minority majority (and I wonder if they’re even that) and my only perception of blacks, Asians, Arabs, Southeast Asians, Latinos and every other racial/ethnic group living – precariously – in NYC and around the world came from CNN/Fox/Time Magazine/The New York Times? What if I couldn’t walk outside my door and have the lies of corporate media contradicted by reality?
WISE: It would definitely be a problem. Look, I always try to make it clear that I don’t think most white folks are intentional racists, or actively engage in racism at all on a conscious level. But when about 85% of whites live in neighborhoods with almost NO people of color, and when we remain so isolated in the workplace, with only smatterings of diversity for most whites to “deal with,” and when the schools are re-segregating to such a degree, it’s no wonder that whites can come to hold such absurd and pernicious views about the folks they never see. It’s also no shock that given that isolation, whites would also tend to minimize or outright deny the reality of racism in the live of people of color. After all, out of sight out of mind.
ENGEL: And one of the realities before my eyes is that NYC must be one of the most racist cities in the Nation. Not racist on the peoples’ level – Pakistanis live beside Indians, and Chinese, Koreans, and Orthodox Jews in Queens and Brooklyn with minimal friction – but racist on the official level. State-sanctioned racism is the policy of the City government, which boasts the largest, most heavily armed police force on the planet. Forty-one shots fired at Amadou Diallo? Lots more where that came from. Yet while beatings and killings of people of color were the greatest legacy of National Hero Rudy Guiliani, if one were to read/watch only mainstream media, the killing of Amadou Diallo was a freak accident – could have happened to anyone. One of those unfortunate occurrences that are to be expected if 40,000 armed cops are to make NYC safe for the suburbanites who come in daily to work, and shop on the week-ends.
WISE: Yes, but of course it couldn’t have happened to just anyone, because oddly enough “it” never does seem to happen to whites, now does it? Or at least very very rarely do these kinds of brutalities and “accidental shootings” involve white victims. Read the Stolen Lives Project’s report on folks killed by cops, and although you will see some whites in there, the disproportionality of black and Latino and Asian victims is stunning
ENGEL: Not to mention tourists. “Quality of life” (for visitors) has never been better. Ask USA Today or Newsweek. Although it must be admitted that since 9/11, “quality of life” has improved markedly for black people in NYC. It’s the Muslims they’re after now – or Hindus or Sikhs. Hard to tell the difference with all these brown-skinned “rag heads” roaming about. And we can’t blame the NYPD alone for the inevitable “mistakes” of identity. This Summer, soldiers, armed with M16s, patrolled Port Authority, Times Square, Penn Station, and other populated areas (see my article “U.S. Outta Times Square”). But this blatant disregard for the Posse Commitatus Act is yet to be reported, as far as I know, by the corporate media, which settled 500 years of racial strife in less than two years with the simple slogan, “United We Stand.”
WISE: Yes, united in denial of our disunity
DOES “AMERICA ” REALLY EXIST?
ENGEL: The truth is, I’m extremely out of touch with “Mainstream America,” which is why I chose to do this series of interview/debates of Media Critics on Media. I honestly don’t understand what or how people outside NYC, Boston and LA think outside the dozens of “alternative” and “indy” newsletters I subscribe to and websites I visit daily.
WISE: Well then yes, you are pretty out of touch, because although there are pockets of radical ferment out there in the hinterland, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that most folks think in alternative ways: again, not because they are incapable of it (they’re very capable) but because they are busy, busy people without the knowledge of where to get the info they need, or the time to process it.
The good news is that once exposed to alternative ways of thinking, many, many people are able to wake up. I mean, right after 9/11, like a week later, I was speaking in Greensboro NC, which despite 1979, is not really a hotbed of leftist activity ok? And to a crowd of about 600 people I ditched my planned talk, which was a standard talk about domestic racism, and went into an hour long rant about the racism and imperialism of the war that was sure to be launched on Afghanistan. I didn’t expect to get through the speech, but no one left. No one. No one booed. No one. And this was at a college where students were attending the speech because their professor told them to, not because they were all radicals who wanted to come hear Tim Wise. After, I got a standing ovation from 90 percent of the audience. It was amazing. What I was hearing all through those first few months was people saying that they were desperate for a new way of thinking about 9/11 and its aftermath, and had been despairing of where to get that information. That may seem bizarre to those of us in the left media loop who, if anything, have too much stuff to sort through, but I’m telling ya, for most folks that is where they are still.
ENGEL: Interestingly enough, my greatest source of information about “the American people” is Mainstream media. I don’t like what I see. I frequently lampoon what I see in my columns. But what makes my vision of “the American people,” courtesy Westinghouse, Time-Warner AOL etc. any more accurate than the opinions of those with access only to Mainstream media on blacks, Jews, Muslims, Asians etc.? Yet another reason to question my own allegedly “progressive” mindset with these interviews.
WISE: Right, it can be discouraging, but of course it is very functional to elites for average everyday folks to be perceived as, and thought of as apathetic, uninformed boobs who would rather watch The Bachelor, or Jerry Springer than engage in the real world. After all, if people think they can’t do anything about the problems in the world (other than to consume their way to happiness), or if we are led to believe that our neighbors are members of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, or drug users, or child molesters, or just silly and pathetic TV junkies, then we will be more likely to cede power to those already in power, and grant them the implicit authority to do what they want. After all, what good is movement building or challenging authority when no one cares (supposedly)?
It’s not a conspiracy mind you; it’s just the system working as it must…by dumbing down the masses, those in positions of authority can maintain and extend their authority. And to the extent it works, there is no chance that networks, advertisers, or anyone else in power would ever think to challenge this arrangement: again, not conspiracy, but merely a functional system. Producing pap makes money, maintains a buying mood, and doesn’t upset the apple cart, so what’s not to like, right?
MEDIA VERSUS PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
For the sake of argument, I’m going to throw out opinions from what I believe to be the perspective of Fox/CNN/NYT/Time etc. and contrast them with (what I believe to be) my own opinions.
“MEDIA: Sure there may be flare-ups between ethnic groups who haven’t learned to embrace the American Way of Life (such as the Crown Heights riots between West Indian black immigrants and Hassidic Jews). But America itself has cured itself of racism. Look at icons of the American Dream such as Oprah, Colin Powell, Eddie Murphy. Pretty silly to condemn a country that affords black people such remarkable opportunities of Institutionalized Racism.
“EXPERIENCE: Black people don’t exist anymore except to serve white people. It’s as if Ellison’s “Invisible Man” had never been written. I grew up in all white upper-middle class suburban Long Island. Only black people there were maids and cleaning ladies. Only at college, and afterward, as an instructor of Freshman comp. and Creative Writing at NYU and Touro college did I interact with black people as teachers, colleagues and students. Outside of the University, where blacks are present but underrepresented, I literally have no interaction with black people except for those in menial jobs meant to serve white people: cab drivers, Fast food counter workers, nurses aides -though seldom registered nurses, security guards and – no joke – elevator operators in Museums. As a copywriter/editor for corporate advertising firms and <dot.com> era consulting firms, I had less than a dozen black colleagues out of hundreds. The only black person with any true authority that I have ever met is Dean Barbara Campbell of NYU’s Tisch school of the Arts, and Spike Lee, who teaches there occasionally. Must be a lonely job because, except for the half dozen black students in every class, the only other black people in the building are security guards and cleaning staff.”
WISE: Yes. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. To deny that there have been significant changes in terms of racism in the past three decades would be absurd, and it would also disrespect the sacrifice of those who fought and died to make those changes happen. Yet it would also disrespect their memories to act as if all they fought for was the right to become Secretary of State for a war criminal, or to become a high-ranking war criminal oneself, or to get a multimillion dollar endorsement deal, or promote lifestyle advice on one’s TV show. I’m pretty certain that’s not what the movement was about or is about.
It’s like Malcolm X said, “don’t stick a knife in me ten inches, pull it out six, and tell me you’ve made progress.” Progress if always relative: to the oppressed, it can only be viewed as an all or nothing deal–if oppression continues, even in a modified form, then the system must still be attacked until that injustice is eradicated. Only the dominant group and those they let into their inner circle have the luxury of remaining sanguine about progress when folks are still literally dying because of their race, as pointed out by numerous studies on health care, for example, which show that people of color receive inferior care, even after controlling for income, insurance, education, occupation, place of residence, symptoms presented, and everything else. Those statistics represent DEAD PEOPLE for God’s sake, often children, and yet we still talk about progress like we were painting a living room or something, instead of dealing with life or death issues.
“MEDIA: We support Israel as the only democracy in the middle east. Palestinians and other Arabs must recognize Israel’s security needs if there is to be peace.
“EXPERIENCE: I’ve been hearing that crap since Hebrew School (that I declared myself an atheist at age ten was far less important than that I developed a healthy hatred of all things Muslim, particularly Arab). True, I bought it until the first Intifada in 1987, when I noticed that the majority of Palestinians lived in ramshackle refugee camps and were using sticks, rocks and rifles to “battle” tanks, fighter planes, helicopters and missiles. Only in the past three years, as suicide bombers, have they become a deadly threat. But if a good number of people volunteer to blow themselves up in order to make your life uncomfortable, there must be something a bit more complex going on than the “bloodthirsty, cowardly (!!!?) terrorist” theory propounded by mainstream pundits.”
WISE: Yes, people do not kill themselves, by and large, just for shits and giggles; nor because they are evil or irrational. There are lots of evil, irrational people in history and few of them blew themselves up. This indicates a deep and abiding sickness, not only in the bomber who can think of no other way to make his or her point or be heard, but in the society to which the bomber is responding. It bespeaks a terrible desperation that cannot be understood by one who has not lived it.
Of course, Israel itself is a suicide culture, though they left this part out of my Hebrew School classes. What else could one call a nation erected amidst folks who don’t want you there, whose land you had to steal, if not a land rooted in a death wish? We may not blow ourselves up, but we sure as hell have come up with a creative way to put our individual and collective lives in danger–become usurpers of other people’s stuff: always a sure way to make people hate you.
The ultimate irony being that the only place on the planet where Jews are truly threatened with daily violence is the one place where we were told we would be safe. Told that by people with some kind of sick death wish, I guess, who wanted to show how tough we could be in the wake of the Shoah or something. I’m not a psychologist, but the absurdity of the Zionist dream, and the obvious dangers it always entailed for Jews, makes me wonder if there wasn’t a certain amount of survivor’s guilt involved on the part of the Jewish leaders who actually pushed the creation of the state at the UN, and those who treat Israel like a kidney patient treats a dialysis machine today. Almost a sick kind of risk-taking by those who had themselves escaped the Nazi terror. I dunno. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for that one.
“MEDIA: We’re fighting a bitter war against evil terrorists who hate our way of life.
“EXPERIENCE: No we’re not, we’re slaughtering thousands for oil and strategic whatever.”
WISE: And because of a mindset of entitlement that has long been part of the Western, “white” worldview too. Don’t forget that. Oil is one piece, but there is still that question of “what makes us think we’re entitled to the oil,” and that, I think, has a little something to do with white western supremacy, not just capitalism. I’ll leave it at that, and just recommend that folks read Marimba Ani’s book, “Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior.” It can fill in the gaps for those who wish to pursue it.
“MEDIA: Asian-Americans, whether Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Thai have integrated into the great tapestry of America as model citizens.
“EXPERIENCE: Maybe so, but the only representatives of this group of model citizens who are allowed on TV are good-looking female newscasters. Jackie Chan has a monopoly on Hollywood’s representation of Asian Males. By the way, can I get a few grand extra credit my MasterCard? I want to order a couple of hot “brides” from the Philippines… ”
WISE: Well, the model minority thing was created by the New York Times and LIFE magazine back in the 50s and 60s, as a way, specifically, to bash black folks for their continued “failure” to attain the American dream. Of course, the same media outlets that pushed the model Asian imagery had supported Japanese internment, and never editorialized in favor of lifting immigration restrictions that remained in place till 1965. They also didn’t, by and large, mind bombing model minorities in Southeast Asia, to my recollection.
I’ve written a piece on the fallacies of the Model Minority imagery, and instead of repeating everything here would just recommend that people who are interested should read it at:http://www.zmag.org/
Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, writer and father. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at: email@example.com