One of my younger fraternity brothers, in the wake of the Imus scandal, made the following Whitlockian move:
In realtity, what ever parts of our culture become mainstream will affect their preceptions of us and their interactions.
How we treat each other sets precedent for how others will treat us.
In response to my request for data, my younger fraternity brother cited The Black Image and the White Mind by Entman and Rojecki…and also the recent poll conducted by Cathy Cohen out of Chicago for her Black Youth Project. What I’m going to do here is respond to him…minus the smackdown. The bottom line? There is a difference between blame and responsibility. We have the responsibility to carry ourselves with dignity and honor, regardless…but we are not to blame at all for what Imus said.
My younger fraternity brother (I’ll call him “Pup” for short) cites Entman and Rojecki in order to show that black people have some responsibility for how whites think of them. Here are Entman and Rojecki’s central findings:
Our findings show that in a variety of ways across the diversity of genres and outlets, the mass media convey impressions that Blacks and Whites occupy different moral universes, that Blacks are somehow fundamentally different from Whites…
We also find a major difference between the surface and deeper levels of media content. At the surface, any examination of the media reveals evidence of enormous progress…..Yet at deeper levels, negative images abound. (pp. 6, 7)
Now my counter-argument was twofold. First that the desire of blacks to get other blacks to “act right” in order to pursue citizenship has a LONG history, going back over 100 years. In his work Before the Ghetto, David Katzman points out that middle and upper class blacks even in the 19th century consistently blamed poor blacks for racism, arguing that their behavior brought this on.
Though there is a lot of history behind this claim (Dubois and Washington make similar claims, as does Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the more contemporary era), there isn’t much data. In fact, we know through history that the opposite is true–that however civilized black people acted, whites subjugated and in many cases terrorized them.
In the contemporary moment, we’ve got all types of examples of righteous behavior, of black people being humane towards each other, towards non-blacks, and towards nature. But what dictates what is sold on the market–what becomes mainstream–are the preferences of the mass market. What Entman and Rojecki do is show the content of these preferences. Blacks participate in this in as much as black actors and performers need jobs…but blacks do not “create” these images. Rather, a small percentage of blacks choose to participate–but these images existed before some of us began the modern day minstrel show, and they’ll likely continue after they’re gone. And lest Pup think that history plays no role in this, check out the quote below:
…Whites’ attitudes on race and perceptions of Black behavior reveal a necessarily simplified but understandable mode of thinking that arises from the absence of regular, close interaction and from largely hidden but lingering cultural influences. (p.7)
Where do those “lingering cultural influences” come from?
My second argument was that even many whites who have close contact with other blacks evince negative attitudes towards them. There is a burgeoning literature on the role of racial context on racial attitudes. How does living near middle class blacks influence white attitudes? How does living near blacks period influence white attitudes? James Jackson, Vincent Hutchings, Cara Wong, and others have recently conducted a large scale survey on black, Latino/a, Asian American, and white attitudes. Their findings suggest that when whites live closer to blacks, their negative attitudes about blacks increase.
Now if the “positive black images” argument was correct, we’d imagine that whites who live around “upper class” blacks (or “blacks who act right”) would have better attitudes than whites who live around working class or poorer blacks right?
Finally, Pup brings up a whole host of citations from Cathy Cohen’s project, noting that most black youth find rap distasteful–at least the stuff played over the airwaves.
Now if blacks are actually responsible for our depiction in the media here, this piece of data would go the opposite way. That is, most black youth would be ok with the current form of rap music, and those of us representing the old school would have to go toe to toe with the kids in order to get them to act right.
But that’s not what we’re seeing here.
There is a casual tendency to take kneejerk reactions against black people in cases like this. Although it’s usually presented as “tough love” or even as “old school” there is really only one word for it: accommodationist. We’ve got to fight against this tendency with all of our might, whenever it rears its ugly head.