Watching the most recent snippets of Jeremiah Wright espousing race-based conspiracy theories while defiantly saluting journalists at his controversial press conference, I couldn’t help but lament television’s currently pathological role in discussions of race relations, especially given its newfangled subservience to an Internet that allows people to replay TV clips ad nauseum.
The civil rights movement’s successes in the 1950s and 60s were spurred on by the television set and its powerful nightly newscasts. Martin Luther King, Jr., tested America’s religious conscience, but none of that would have worked without the creation of broadcast television as a ready-made national stage for vividly showcasing nonviolent resistance and racial discontent. Television came of age in the 1950s, just in time to contribute to those civil rights victories.
It was one thing to read about water hoses or vicious dogs unleashed on women and children and another to see those graphic images in your own living room. On screen, the aggressors (police officers and violent white citizens) came off as the bad guys in these nightly narratives, with the stoic black protestors cast in the undeniable role of innocent victims.
Television became a window into America’s soul, and the view wasn’t pretty. For blacks, these images were frightening but politically galvanizing. For whites, they offered renditions of a whiteness that most Americans would just as soon distance themselves from.
That was then. Today is much different, and it has become much harder for television to play a productive role in discussions of race nowadays. In fact, it may be hurting more than helping in the fight against all forms of racism.
As a society, we bristle when Michael Richards spews racial epithets on stage at a comedy club. We seethe when Mel Gibson shouts anti-Semitic insults at police officers. And we shake our collective fingers with a “tisk-tisk” when a black presidential candidate’s pastor voices conspiracy theories at a national press conference. But these are mere simulations of old-fashioned racism, and not representative of how race most powerfully circulates today, which is nothing like the way race ever functioned in American society in the past.
Politicians once ran campaigns on explicitly racists platforms, committed to discriminatory practices like racial segregation.
Displays of such hard-lined investments were easy for television to capture. Nowadays, the mere hint of support for such positions, even if not stated explicitly, is a major political blunder. Nobody wants to be called a racist, so people have to be caught unawares.
Today, America has moved on from a past era of de jure racism (unapologetic discrimination codified in law) to one of de facto racism (conspicuous public displays of racial differentiation, even if not backed by the judiciary) to our current moment of what I’d call de cardio racism (hatreds potentially hidden in people’s darkest hearts even if they never see the light of day). This is the new reality of racism in contemporary American society, a racism that has lost much of its traditional swagger.
The media have a harder time figuring out how to depict this humbled and dissimulating racism. It might not even have the capacity to do it at all. Television is not particularly good at representing subtlety. To carry meaning quickly and clearly in a sound-bite culture like our own, visual images have to be blatant, like those waterhoses and dogs wielded against peaceful marchers. With 24-hour news cycles to fill and few prominent heels-dug-in racists to beam into people’s living rooms, the medium today often succumbs to depicting mere racial spectacles, all sound and little substance—Michaels Richards breaking down on stage, mock nooses hung on college campuses, a black presidential candidate’s pastor voicing conspiracy theories at a national press conference. These are simulations of old-fashioned racism that distract us from the subtleties that define how racism actually operates today.
This is part of the reason why most mass-media caricatures of racial issues do more harm than good. With enough cinematic and televisual priming, we start to expect or demand unmasked racial explicitness in our real world encounters. When we don’t get it, we either dismiss cries of racism as unjustified hypersensitivity or pretend that the offending actions are self-evidently racist even when they aren’t, when they are restrained and almost impossible to prove.
Thankfully, bold and obvious versions of unmasked racism are more media cliché than anything else these days, not all the time, but usually—at least in mixed racial company. These clichés still suffice for melodramatic tales of heroes and villains, but they are hardly up the challenge of representing how convoluted and messy racism is in our politically correct, post–civil rights present.
Pre-civil rights sensibilities won’t help us. They are too black and white. Ironically though, television was more useful when its images still were.