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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Racism still widely prevalent in the American media

Published: April 13, 2007
Section: Opinions

For anyone who is interested in race relations in either historical or contemporary America, the entertainment industry has recently provided stark examples of just how unsettled the larger questions of implicit racism and media bias are in this country. From the now inescapable coverage of Dom Imuss gaffe to the lack of attention given to Disneys re-release of a movie that some have condemned as an animated Birth of a Nation, those who still contend that racism died with the civil rights movement must now face the same bleak reality that minorities have dealt with for years. In a sense, if any good can come out of the idiotic actions of the several entertainment icons who have been embroiled in these recent controversies, we can finally realize that racism as a public institution has shifted from the political soapbox and now hides on the airwaves and media within this country.

Race is an obviously controversial subject, and one that many believe should not addressed by someone who is a white male, but if someone who once called New York City hymie town can condemn another person for telling a racist joke (and no one sees the obvious hypocrisy), I think I might be able to avoid this meaningless challenge. The Don Imus controversy has brought several disturbing issues to light, but as offensive and stupid as Imuss comments (and the even more disturbing comments of his executive producer) were, the response has been almost as sad. This is not to say that Imus has been unfairly punished or that his comments do not warrant his resignation or termination, rather the fact that the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have taken the lead in demanding action against Imus is simply hypocritical and offensive. Al Sharpton, no matter what he claims, is not the all-mighty voice of Black America, rather he is little more than a demagogue who is using this unfortunate incident to bring his own image and message back into relevance. The recent dismissal of Imus by CBS was the right thing to do (as his show and style are more suited for drunks at the end of the neighborhood bar, not morning television), but the only people who Imus should be apologizing to directly are the women who he disparaged, not the personification of the overall lack of leadership and message within the contemporary civil rights movement.

But as inappropriate as Al Sharptons direct involvement into this specific controversy is, there is an underlying and important message that he has actually been trying (although unsuccessfully) to bring to light. Sharpton and the NAACP alike have a problem with the portrayal and description of minorities (particularly blacks and Hispanics) on television and other media outlets as their roles have been relegated to the most offensive and degrading positions possible in entertainment. This truth about the entertainment and news media may have been the focus of criticism from the NACCP and related organizations for years, but they have received little attention or respect as many Americans still contend that racism itself died with the end of de jure discrimination. But this issue continues to be complex as well as pervasive. The lack of black people on Friends or the seasonal racist comments from random celebrity are not the only examples of the ever-present problem of racism in the public sphere;

rather they are part of a systematic issue in popular culture.

Ambiguous comments, off-color jokes, ancient stereotypes, and old prejudices have been a constant reality on television, radio, and movies throughout their respective histories through present times. The danger of this reality however, is that the contemporary racism is implicit and understated, meaning that those who attempt to call attention to these various inequities and problems are frequently repulsed by the majority of society. Those who believe that race is a non-issue in contemporary society and will frequently accuse the offended minority groups of being overly sensitive and lacking a sense of humor. Simply put, American media uses offensive terminology on a rather regular basis, and can basically get away with it as long as the occasional sacrificial lamb (i.e. Imus or Michael Richards) is sent to be redressed by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton when it says something undeniably and obviously stupid.

But where are these same calls for action from established members of the media when a sportscaster on ESPN constantly refers to black athletes as thugs and showboats while mysteriously praising various white athletes as knowledgeable, honorable players who are grounded in the fundamentals. The outrage that has been witnessed over the Imus affair is never applied to what is said on a daily basis on talk radio (Imus himself would have probably gotten away with the nappy comment if his show was not simulcast on MSNBC). Every week the same mostly white male audience of Imuss show can turn onto Comedy Central to see Carlos Mencias comedy show, where he uses egregious and disgusting stereotype to further a career that should have never advanced past a frat house.

Mencia himself is an interesting example of what can come out of a generation of acceptable implicit racism in American popular culture, as he is an entertainer of questionable capabilities who has capitalized on generally accepted stereotypes and placated to White Americas nostalgia for their supremacy of the past. Mencia has found his role in society as a Hispanic minstrel act, and has the added benefit of claiming to be inoculated from racism as he is a minority;

a defense that he couples by challenging his critics with his apparent love for the First Amendment. Mencia however, is not the only form of minority complicity in this ongoing problem however, as anyone who watches BET can attest to the validity in Aaron Mcgruders statement that the channel is engaged in Black Exploitation Television, with its comedians and musicians reverting to slightly updated images similar to the blackface entertainers from the reconstruction era through the 1920s. Racism is prevalent within every imaginable form of media, and it stretches even in entertainment for our children.

Overshadowed by the Imus affair is the news that Disney might release the long hidden movie Song of the South on DVD after calls from the internet to bring this classic back into the public consciousness for its revolutionary film quality and memorable songs. For those who do not know what Song of the South is, it was the major annual animated movie from Disney in 1946. It was a colorized film that combined both live-action and animation that focused on the main character Uncle Remus, a kindly old plantation worker (assumed to be an ex, but happy slave) who tells the white children from the big house a few traditional black stories, including the infamous tar-baby sequence. Today the only remnants of this movie that Disney acknowledges publicly are the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and the song zippidy-do dah and has been content until recently to not release the film onto either video or DVD to avoid future generations from seeing a live action depiction of a black man using broken English and loving his subordinate role in society. This movie is the most dramatic example of Disneys role in supplying the public with bigoted entertainment, but it is not the only one by far, as Disneys movies from their inception have continually shaped the American consciousness into one that embraced outdated attitudes concerning the roles of minorities, women, and the working class. Disney is not alone in the realm of racist childrens entertainment, as anyone who knows about Warner Brothers Censored 11 can attest to existence of cartoons unrestrained images of blackface and monkey-like Black Americans and Africans right next to the more familiar faces of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.

The last few months (in which a Senator lost an election after saying Macaca, a recognized comedian destroyed his career after a n-word filled tirade, and now Don Imus) have demonstrated that the American people, or at least the media and news outlets that supposedly encapsulate their collective mindset, can become morally outraged and completely enraged when someone, especially an entrusted public figure, violates normative behavior and engages in explicit racist activities. However, this same outrage has yet to be extended into the even more devious forms of racist entertainment as those same leaders, who have squandered their political and public capital on pointless pursuits of self-promotion, still have not effectively brought attention to the understated subtle offensive entertainment which serves to create an atmosphere of tolerance for bigotry and degradation. Simply put, the public indignation that has beset Mr. Imus in the past week should visit the constant perpetrators of hate in the media. The leaders of the civil rights community also have a distinct responsibility, as they should strive to form their important, yet overlooked message in a way to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy and should be ready to condemn all of those who personally inject hate into the American consciousness, not out of a need to be politically correct but as a way of preventing more disruptive forms of racism from harming the community at large.