How the “System” Works: Mass Media and The Entertainment Industry
In the last three posts I've created, I've gone into detail about the major social institutions that encourage and maintain systematic oppression and racism. But none have had a major influence on the population of the country like the mainstream media and the entertainment industry. With a television in almost every room in the average american household, the media is the primary source of information about races besides your own. Yet, since the invention of films, racist and degrading roles have been assigned to minority actors. These roles paint damaging and harmful stereotypes that the public perceives to be true; this has negatively affected the race relations in America. And this doesn't just take place in the film industry, but the stereotypes are perpetuated through news media sources and television shows that we all watch.
Stereotypes in the Film Industry:
Many of us have seen a film or two that we watch and see that something isn't quite right about how a character is being portrayed. Whether you were watching Sex in the City 2 and thought Jennifer Hudson’s character reminded you too much of the stereotypical “mammy” role seen throughout film since the early days of Hollywood. Or that Ken Jeong in the movie The Hangover played the humorous foreigner stereotype, in the character Mr. Chow. These are only few of many stereotypical roles that minority actors have played in Hollywood today, but they are far from the most damaging. Back in 1888 during the start of the film industry, blacks and other minorities weren’t cast for films that contained black characters and as a result white actors wearing black-face would portray the role. This white portrayal of black characters were usually one-dimensional and perpetuated negative stereotypes such as the submissive black, or the lazy black, or the stupid black. Strides were taken in the 1910s and 20s to counteract these negative portrayals of blacks by black owned film production companies. However, as those companies died off actors like Stepin Fetchit accepted movie roles that portrayed him as a one-dimensional character like Lazy Richard shown in the video below, (Horton et. al., Ch. 1).
These types of films have painted fairly negative and harmful stereotypes that still affect black men today as they are regurgitated year after year, and decade after decade and becomes the justification for racist actions such as refusing to hire a black man because, “they’re so lazy”. Even though that specific black man may not of been lazy, however wide sweeping generalizations are always made based off of the actions of a few. In this way, the film industry wasn't just degrading the black community, they were also setting up a situation that would lead to the hesitation of white owned businesses to hire black men.However, this isn't the only stereotype that has done damage to how a racial/ethnic group is perceived, nor is it the only media source through which negative stereotypes and biased perspectives are perpetuated.
Stereotypes on TV
Television shows have a tendency to present characters in stereotypical occupations that also perpetuate stereotypes. This is never more true than for Latinos in the television industry. Even though they are a rapidly growing part of the population, they are still grossly underrepresented in film and on television. When they are shown, its as one of three main roles: the cartel member, the cop, or the blue-collar worker (maid/construction worker). And as compared to the roles played by all actors in the top ten grossing films in America, a large disproportion of these roles go to Latinos.
These stereotypical roles stem from the illusion that every Latino worker is undocumented and therefore must find work in fields that include manual labor like service workers. Those who aren't illegal, however come from lower-middle class backgrounds and either join the military or work in law enforcement, or submit to a life of crime. Even though Latinos in reality are found in many different work-forces, television shows like CSI: Miami, NCIS: LA, and Law and Order would have you believe that the only time you’d ever encounter a Latino is through these three occupations. But why? Where do these stereotypes come from why do they continue to find their way into films and prime time television shows? The answer has to do with how they are portrayed in the news.
News Media Outlets:
News outlets, both local and mainstream, weld an immense amount of power when it comes to how a person is depicted, whether that person is a victim or a suspect. From the words they use in a headline, to picture they choose to show, to how often they show these pictures and run the stories. And more times than not, the news outlets tend to depict minorities in a negative light. Using the Latino portrayal in the news as an example, between 1995 and 2005 ““in nine of 10 years, Latino stories made up less than 1 percent of all network news stories.” Of these (news stories), 66% focused on crime or illegal immigration…” ( Negrón-Muntaner, et.al., pg.14). Which accounts for why these specific stereotypes exist, because the little screen time that Latinos receive is focused on illegal immigration and crime.
The black community, as mentioned in the last post, face similar problems. One article in the Huffington Post by Nick Wing made a powerful declaration that the way the media portrays black victims and white suspects are so completely different, that if you didn't read the story you’d be confused about which person actually committed a crime.
Here, is a side by side comparison of Michael Brown, a young black man shoot by an officer while he reportedly had his hands in the air, and a picture of a young white man who did a spree killing at a movie theater. These are the pictures and titles that were chosen to depict them by the news outlet that ran their stories. Michael Brown is shown holding up hand signs and giving the camera an unsmiling look, while the title above says that he struggled with an officer before the shooting. To anyone looking at the title and picture together would see Michael Brown as a formidable threat, making audience members lose all sympathy for him. On the other hand, the suspect who actually did commit a crime, doesn’t have his name mentioned in the title. A nice school picture was chosen for his story, and the title celebrates his brilliance while acknowledging his crime. This would evoke a small sense of sympathy from the audience who didn’t know the full story.
The writer of the article, isn't sure whether it is intentional or not, but says, “This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination.” (Wing, pg.2). These instances of how blacks are portrayed in the media when they don’t commit a crime, pales in comparison to how they are portrayed when a crime is actually committed. And in those cases, no time is wasted talking to the black suspects family members or friends to find out more about their character. They are shown as a criminals if they didn't commit a crime, and as evil if they did.
What this All means for the System of Oppression:
As stated before mainstream media is the most far-reaching institution in the overall system of oppression. This institution is able to take harmful stereotypes and make them appear to be fact so that the population as a whole has a preconceived notion about what to expect or how to react if they run into a particular member of a certain minority group. Putting that into perspective, the media portrays blacks as lazy and violent, therefore, the world shouldn't be surprised when they see the amount of black students who don’t graduate high school, nor wonder why so many end up in jail. You should call the cops if you see one walking around your neighborhood, because he’s obviously up to no good, and if he was just going home, oh well, he was bound to end up in jail anyway, did you see that picture of him on TV. There’s no doubt he was a gang member or on drugs…and on, and on. The media directly and indirectly justifies oppression and racism at an institutional level to the American public. By reporting on violent Latinos and the number of illegal immigrants living in America, the arguments of tighter border control and stricter immigration laws start to circulate Congress. By reporting on statewide test scores and demographics, questions of school reform are squish when it seems to the public that minority students are the problem, and they can’t seem to learn anyway. And when there is a parade of minorities on the news every night for committing one crime or another, inquiries of reform in the criminal justice system don’t come up because the media shows that minority communities need to be policed more.
This is how the “System” works. It takes the fears and racist sentiments of the dominant social group into the media and uses it to fuel the three major institutions which could ultimately decide the fate of an entire community. Those institutions being the Government, the School system, and the Criminal Justice System. So it’s safe to say that the “System” is cyclic and self-containing. Which means that since its now in place, it’s going to be near impossible to dismantle it.
Now that you understand how the system works, it’s up to you as the reader to decide what to do with this information. You can write it off as conspiracy or choose to do something about it. Today, there are people in the streets saying that they won’t sit by silently and accept this system that continues to push them down based on their skin color, their economic standing, or their nation of origin, on their gender, or the god they choose to worship. Being non-white, non-male, non-christian, non-rich, or non-straight doesn't make a person any less worthy of receiving equal treatment and equal opportunity. We live in a nation that condemns those outside the norm, when in reality very few people actually fit into the norm. Therefore, there is only one way to reform these institutions and get rid of the system of oppression once and for all. It starts with reforming the idea that a “norm” exists, because it doesn't. It starts with the acceptance that everyone is different and that just because two or more people share a certain trait it doesn't mean they are all alike. Once this is understood, the idea of stereotypes will falter and with it, the fuel the system needs to thrive, will disappear. However, It starts and ends with the masses. With enough people doing what they can to halt the perpetuation of stereotypes. It is only then that we could ever hope to beat the system.
Horton,Y., Price, R., Brown, E., Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries, “Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race”: June 1, 1999. Retrieved: 04/23/2015.
Negrón-Muntaner, F., “The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media”.Retrieved: 04/23/2015.
Wing, N., “When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims”.The Huffington Post. Retrieved: 04/24/2015.