Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Rebirth of Hype

The sad death of a young man in Florida continues to receive ever more hallucinatory responses. Here, at my university, in a city where young black men slaughter each other on a daily basis, the extraordinarily atypical case of a black teenager killed by a white Hispanic ,in a city far to our east ,became the topic of a “discussion” extravagantly entitled “Trayvon Martin and the Rebirth of a Nation: Gender & Race in Today’s Media.”  
This event was apparently not a discussion at all, but a series of sermons presenting a single, highly questionable assertion as revealed truth. The killing in Florida, according to this assertion, was not atypical at all, but a consequence of the baseless demonization of black males in the popular media. Rapper Jasiri X set the stage for the outrage against the media and the justice system at the beginning when he “…took center stage, his words articulate and scathing, his passion palpable as he recreated his viral hit indicting the paradigmatic laxity of the justice system in addressing the case of Trayvon Martin,” according to the university publication’s account of the event. This was clearly not going to be an open-minded intellectual inquiry or a debate.
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and author Joan Morgan (pictured here) offered their variations on the sermon. Professor Neal complained that “there are very few depictions of black men and boys in mainstream culture… And when there are, they are almost always in a negative context, a criminal context. There is a very clear connection between this depiction of black men and boys, and how it affects policy.”  I don’t know which “mainstream culture” Professor Neal has been observing, but when I look at television and film, I see a constant and self-conscious effort to portray black Americans, men and women, as either respectable professionals or heroes struggling against oppression. The one place where I do see black men portrayed in a :”criminal context” is on the news. There is a reason for that. First, the events that make the news are usually negative by definition and the people who appear on the news are usually not members of the virtuous majority, who make up most of both sexes and all racial groups. Second, black men appear disproportionately in those media portrayals because of disproportionate crime rates. Black men, for example, are less than 6% of the total American population, but they commit more than half of all the homicides in which the offender can be identified.

Black Men as a Percent of the Total US Population and as a Percent of Known Homicide Offenders
Source, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2010

I cite murders specifically because these are crimes in which the “negative context” cannot be attributed to discriminatory arrest rates of a putatively biased justice system. But if we look at arrests for other violent crimes, we see this 5.87% of the population arrested for nearly one-third of rapes, close to half of all robberies, and over a quarter of aggravated assaults and burglaries. Do we really need to wonder where the evening news gets that “criminal context?”
Black Men as a Percentage of the Total US Population and as Percentages of Those Arrested for Selected Violent Offenses
Source, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2010

Author Joan Morgan followed this by observing that “we’re living in an increasingly more complicated reality, but we are not having complicated conversations about race.” Well, yes, and that’s exactly why this kind of simplistic, single-minded, delusional panel session is part of the problem. Although murders of blacks by whites are extremely uncommon, and murders of blacks by blacks occur constantly, a tragic instance of the former is offered up here as representative and "paradigmatic." In a city in a state of warfare among young men, all the panel participants agree that the biggest concern is a lax justice system. Speakers reduce the image of young black men to unfair depictions in the media, ignoring the obvious source of that image in sky-high crime rates. There are no dissenting voices in this fantasy of national rebirth. If we want "a complicated conversation about race," we'll have to look somewhere else.


  1. Literature Review: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys:

    Public Opinion Research Related to Black Male Achievement:

    1. Thank you for the references. I looked at these briefly. Like much of the literature in this area, the Opportunity Agenda materials are driven largely by advocacy, suffer from serious confirmation bias, and never deal adequately with the problem of real-world bases of popular generalizations.