Editorial: American Media – A History of Racism, Part I
It has been a while since I’ve completed a piece for #SFDotNet, but I saw something posted on Twitter regarding the recent tragedy in Colorado that I can’t stop thinking about. Actually, it was more so about the media’s coverage of the tragedy – if the gunman had been Middle Eastern, it would have been terrorism; if he had been black, it would have been gang related and blamed on rap music; but since he was white, it can be blamed on a mental illness. I know this is not completely true, but let’s be honest – the fact the evil person behind the attack was white has definitely influenced the way the story has been presented by the media. This inspired me to take a look at the history of American media, focusing primarily on the media’s coverage of African Americans and rap music. I have broken this editorial up into multiple parts, to be posted over the course of the next week. If you’ve read the piece I wrote on Kanye West, some of this will be familiar, as I used parts of that essay for this editorial. Hit the jump for Part I of the series.
On September 13, 2009, multi-platinum rapper Kanye West interrupted singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, who was about to give her acceptance speech for winning the “Best Female Video” award at the annual MTV Video Music Award (VMA) show. After taking the microphone away from Swift, West went on his now infamous rant: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time, one of the best videos of all time.”[i] In the days, weeks, and months that would follow, West was criticized relentlessly by the media for his actions. Jay Leno even caused West to become emotional on-air after asking what Kanye’s recently deceased mother would have thought of his stage invasion. While it is hard to defend Kanye, the backlash he received from the media was unprecedented, especially since West was not the first celebrity to interrupt someone else’s moment on an award show stage. Other notable “stage invasions” include Ol’ Dirty Bastard at the 1998 Grammy’s, interrupting Shawn Colvin’s “Song of the Year” acceptance speech to protest the Clan’s loss earlier in the night in the “Best Rap Album” category. In fact, the same night Kanye interrupted Swift, a female emcee known as Lil’ Mama found her way on stage while Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performed “Empire State of Mind”. The media decided not to focus on Lil’ Mama.
As a country that prides itself on justice and equality for all, America has needed a number of methods throughout history to make sure those terms only apply to the right type of American. From slavery, Jim Crow and blatant racism to the less blatant but still prevalent Prison Industrial Complex, there have always been institutionalized and noninstitutionalized ways to keep African Americans down. The media’s decision to attack and condemn Kanye West provides an example of the politics of race and racism in the media’s portrayal of hip-hop – specifically rap – as well as black Americans. In Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies, Ishmael Reed states, “The media controls what society knows about the world and it is the media’s selections of what to show that leaves the world ignorant to everything else out there.”[ii] The power and influence of the media cannot be ignored, especially when portrayals of African Americans – which includes celebrities like Kanye and regular people – are historically racist and therefore detrimental to society in general, but the African American community specifically. Rap music, since its creation, has become a constant target of criticism, frequently being blamed for the violence and misogyny in American society. By focusing on the negative, the media’s portrayal of rap music is an extension of the stereotypical depictions that have been created for the black American throughout history. This paper will show how, as Reed would go on to say, “the media are fifty years behind the South and resemble a Mississippi bus station of the 1940s with its ‘Whites Only’ sign.”[iii]
Just as Kanye West was not the first person to invade a stage, rap music does not provide the first evidence of racism in the media. Despite rarely getting the attention it deserves, “the Media is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our times. People of color, women, youth and other disenfranchised communities have long been shut out of our country’s media. They own few of our media outlets, and aren’t represented on the public airwaves.”[iv] Currently, the six largest U.S. media firms are all owned by white males. It should come as no surprise that African Americans are generally not represented in a positive way, but this is not a new phenomenon. Slave ads, newspapers that raised lynch mobs, and even Walt Disney – one of the six largest U.S. media firms – who released The 1932 Mickey Mouse Annual, which contained the word ‘nigger’ and even opened what is now a collector’s item with the “poem entitled ‘A Black Outlook’ [that] features Mickey and Minnie pitted against ‘fierce niggers’”.[v] Various forms of media have been utilized to promote racist beliefs and uphold a white supremacist society throughout American history. But in today’s age of rapidly advancing technology, the media has become more influential than ever before. Television, internet, cell phones, and even print media, present the important issues to Americans. It is, of course, up to the various channels of the media that distribute the “news” and stories to determine what is displayed, how something is displayed, and what is said about that something. For African Americans, “a lack of diversity in media ownership and control contributes to creating a consistent pattern of misrepresentation.”[vi] The misrepresentation – a sign of the media’s racist politics – is particularly evident in the portrayal of African Americans on the news.
By focusing on the scandals associated with black celebrities, such as Kanye West, the media attempts to humiliate “the general population of blacks.”[vii] Adding to the humiliation, the media continues to put a black face on crime, poverty and violence (which is often blamed on rap music) despite an overall improvement in life for African Americans. Imani Perry states that, “media depictions of the black poor focus on laziness, hyperseuxality, and a manipulative nature, while the white poor are primarily depicted as stupid.”[viii] The images depicting African Americans that are broadcast through the media to the American population continue a long history of minstrel show influenced perceptions of black America. White America is provided a form of entertainment – something to laugh at, cry about, or condemn – that is centered on the downfall of African Americans. Watching a black person end up in their “proper” place – be it prison, poverty, or resting in peace – entertains white America, so the media feeds it to them daily. Reed claims that the media has “spent much time since [O.J.’s trial], searching for an O.J…or another black male who would attract a viewer lynch mob to their product.”[ix] Before O.J. Simpson did or didn’t do it, hip-hop had provided the media with a scapegoat, and rap was the perfect way to condemn black America.
Rap music was not the first black musical or cultural creation to be attacked, criticized and labeled negative. According to Jeffery Ogbar, “white supremacists have always held black cultural production with deep contempt. From blues to jazz and rock, black musical forms have been called alternatively base, primitive, crude, and socially dangerous.”[x] Continuing in this tradition, rap music has been discarded by many critics for lyrics and videos that romanticize violence, misogyny, crime and drugs. The media by and large supports the critics of rap music, demonstrated by the frequent claims that rap music is somehow connected to a crime or tragedy that has taken place. Although violent and misogynistic lyrics do exist, when compared to the rest of American culture, rap does not appear more or less violent and sexist than any other form of popular culture. In a nation founded on violence, rap music has been dubbed America’s most violent cultural creation. Commenting on this irony, William Jelani Cobb remarks, “We speak here of a place where ministers are murdered on motel balconies in Memphis and the Constitution enshrines one’s right to stay strapped.”[xi] Various events, however, have shown that “the media chooses to focus primarily on the negative, seldom revealing the many positive affects of the hip-hop culture to the world.”[xii] The media uses hip-hop as a way to condemn African Americans, demonizing one of their greatest cultural and musical creations.
Please check back in the next few days for Part II will examine such events, demonstrating the role of racism in the media’s coverage and analysis of the events.
[i] MTV Video Music Awards, television episode (New York, New York: NBC Universal, 2009).
[ii] Ishmael Reed, Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008), 175.
[iii] Ishmael Reed, Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008), 175.
[iv] Free Press, Media Ownership, http://www.freepress.net/policy/ownership (April 19, 2011).
[v] Ishmael Reed, Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008), 41.
[vi] Natalie Hopkinson, Natalie Y. Moore, Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation (San Francisco, California: Cleis Press, 2006), xii.
[vii] Ishmael Reed, Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008), 13.
[viii] Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004), 138.
[ix] Ishmael Reed, Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008), 142.
[x] Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 136.
[xi] William Jelani Cobb, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (New York, New York: New York University Press, 2007), 117.
[xii] Jared A. Ball, Dave D’s Hip-Hop Corner, Hip-Hop As Mass Media, http://hiphopandpolitics.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/hip-hop-as-mass-media-dr-jared-ball-kicks-of-the-cipher/ (March 15, 2011)., 1.