Media Blinders Impede a Colorblind Society
"Can't we all just get along?" That was the famous plea of Rodney King, a reluctant symbol of police brutality whose videotaped beating set off the worst riot in U.S. history.
Sixteen years later, the answer still seems to be "no," judging by the state of race relations coverage as reported by the mainstream media. The Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama contest has degenerated into white vs. black rhetoric. A small-town controversy, "the Jena Six," featured retro incidents involving nooses and lynchings.
Even a natural disaster -- a hurricane -- and the mismanagement that followed were rife with racial implications.
But I believe that yes, Mr. King, we can get along, and we will when our nation rids itself of an Old Media that refuses to let us.
It's not that our nation's press wants to divide America, mind you -- they just can't help it because they hold certain monolithic views.
To understand this, it is necessary to understand the premises behind left vs. right-wing thinking involving confidence in humanity's ability to solve social ills. The Right tends to believe the world is imperfect and mankind cannot make it perfect. The Left, on the other hand, tends to believe that the world can be perfected and human beings possess almost unlimited potential to make it so.
But there is a flip side to the Left's rosy view of mankind. Because they believe that man can solve all problems, they also believe that man causes all problems. Thus, whenever anything goes wrong, a hunt to identify who is to blame immediately ensues.
When this is practiced by the center-left news media, they invariably pigeon-hole each of us into one of the following three groups, then overtly encourage conflict among members of the following groups to resolve the problem:
The Victims: If people have problems, they are clearly victims of something they cannot control, and action must be taken to help them. For the center-left media, that's the instinctive reaction, given their belief that all social problems are readily fixable.
However, the news media cannot treat all of us as victims, even though each of us suffers from one social disadvantage or another in our different physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and economic situations. So they have to choose some and exclude others. Their favored victims these days are blacks, women, and gays. Why? There is no easy answer, but it appears to be related more to historical themes than to the application of any particular methodology to determine relative victim-worthiness.
The Oppressors: Given that all social problems are allegedly fixable, the center-left assumes these problems only exist because someone is benefiting at the expense of the victims. For all three of the above victim groups, the press tends to invoke a single, composite oppressor -- the white, heterosexual, religious male. However, the reality of this uber-oppressor is questionable given the incredibly diverse mix of ethnicities, socioeconomic situations, lifestyles, ages, and faiths it includes. Also never satisfactorily answered is precisely how this villain directly benefits from oppressing blacks, women, and gays.
The Enlightened: Another common pattern of the media is the anointment of specific individuals to prod oppressors into making sacrifices, to atone for the benefits they allegedly receive at the expense of the victims. Inevitably, these are individuals who hold the oppressors accountable for the problem. Thus, the racial reconciliation microphone is repeatedly handed to Jesse Jackson to speak of racism, not the newly vocal Bill Cosby to speak of personal responsibility in the African-American community.
Using this formula, the center-left media has artificially narrowed our discussion of racial reconciliation to a narrative that angers and divides us. The only problem on the table is racism.
The only solution is as dispiriting to blacks as it is irritating to whites: telling blacks they cannot make it on their own, they have to wait until white America "sees the light" -- though they are never told when this will happen -- and telling whites they are all bad and racist and have to do penance. And it never changes; no improvement is acknowledged. After decades of this mantra, the media continues to report on race relations as if we were still living in the Jim Crow South.
Fortunately, the internet has launched a multitude of alternative voices engaged in debate that may yield more promising solutions. We are learning how low marriage rates contribute to poverty and how high rates of imprisonment suppress marriage rates.
We are learning that racism among non-blacks seems to be on the wane, perhaps telling us that the impact of white racism on the wellbeing of the black community may not be much at all -- or at least far less than the media insinuates.
I suspect that after the New Media has replaced the Old Media, we will look back and conclude that the economic inequality between blacks and whites really was largely caused by racism all along -- the kind that the mainstream media induces.
For decades, they have been sending the message to the black community that they could not succeed on their own. When they stop getting that message, perhaps society will move closer to the colorblindness dreamed of by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called "The Future of News."