Others: A Tradition of America
College level teaching is supposed to be different from high school teaching. One of the reasons I teach at the college level is this: from time to time I am stimulated by a student's brilliance, and on occasions I am saddened by a lack of brilliance. But when the latter occurs, I am motivated more than ever to elevate that student from his/her dire state.
Some time ago, I was struck by a young Black student's troubling perception of who Black people in America really are. That student (approximately 22-years old, born and raised in the inner cities of the San Francisco Bay Area) stated in open class, "You, Dr. Jones, are a fish out of water." He explained that statement to mean that I was unique to African Americans because of my education and my profession.
His statement may have had some truth if it referred to my uniqueness at that particular institution and in that particular English department, but it was far off the mark if it was to have national application. And, indeed, that was his reach.
I marveled momentarily at his statement, representing skewed views of African Americans, but I realized his limited experience outside his particular realm of influence and existence and the prism he used to see the world through naturally minted his views as they were.
As I reflected further on his statement, I recognized that the young man was raised in a location where he saw non-achievers and low achievers, as they were reflected in drug sellers and drug users; he is a consumer of TV and mass media, which all too often project Black people, especially Black males, in a manner of life common to him and characterize their depiction as if it were common to the majority of African Americans; that young student looked around that median sized college campus and saw one African American English teacher and realized that most of the Black students were first generation college. Those facts bolstered his already misguided perception of Black Americans.
Years ago I experienced that same idea from a person just arriving on these shores. I was CEO of a large veterans rights organization in San Francisco. My fiscal officer was a person new to the US; while at lunch, he said to me, "Frank, you aren't like other Blacks; you talk business and about saving money." Having heard this perception voiced before as some type of off-hand compliment and psychological attempt at splitting, I asked him how many Blacks he knew after seven years in this nation. He said, "One. You." Yet his perception of me as an aberration and not the norm came from somewhere; for he was not attempting the splitting game often played by long tenured Americans.
Both a Black student with limited experience, other than in the inner city's turbulent areas, and one from afar with no experience of Blacks, except one Black CEO, come to the same conclusion about Blacks: the majority of Black people are poor and in the inner city, making it from hand to mouth, and one who is in a professional position is unique and not the norm.
This image is not new and it is not forged by the majority of African Americans, but it is the prevalent American image of Blacks consistently perpetrated against Black people of this nation. It is wrong, and it can be easily dispensed with by looking beyond the mass media's version of Black America.
It seems as if this nation's notion of Black life is either too much one way or another. A year ago, a survey was conducted to determine perceptions of how well Blacks are doing compared to whites (these black/white comparisons seem to be an obsession with this nation). The survey found that most whites felt that Blacks were fairing much better than they. That may be their perception, but it is a distortion of the facts. How we are fairing is nothing like that perception of whites nor is it like that voiced by a recent Black panelist at a conference I attended, who grossly misspoke her facts, saying, "Half of all Black males are either in prison, on probation, or under the custody of the court." My God, that would be more than awful, were it true. But she simply failed to place qualifiers on her statement.* From the latest DOC statistics, there are roughly two-million persons in the prisons of this nation. And from the latest US Census statistics, there are approximately 38- million Black Americans, and approximately 18 million are male.
The absurdity that her unrestricted statement made is too often the view held about African Americans, even by some African Americans. Distorted and wrong images of Black America are not just idly floating in the air. They are carefully and continuously crafted by mass media, rooted in our institutions and our national lexicon for any number of reasons. [Frank T. Williams notes that this negative image-making is also in our schools.]
One reason for the distorted images has been raised by the present lexicon of war issuing from the White House; that is the war lexicon that has been applied to Blacks in general and Black males in particular. That lexicon has thoroughly pervaded mass media and is so ubiquitous that it is invisible to most people.
For many years Black intellectuals have fought against and attempted to dilute the strength of the incessant plume of images depicting Black males as drug users and drug dealers, thugs and thieves, unintelligent and unsophisticated, and sex-crazed, unless they were more white-thinking and behaving than Black-thinking and behaving, and more white looking than Black looking. And since these images are so pervasive in American media and films, which are dispensed around the world, it is little wonder that a person coming to this nation, having no real knowledge of Black Americans would meet a Black person who defies the media stereotype he/she has already been exposed to and would assume that the images he has received from American media are the Black norms and his actual experience with the a Black person that is contrary to those norms is really an aberration. That would be reasonable, were the images correct.
But the images projected worldwide by American mass media of Blacks, especially Black males, fly in the face of reality. Those images have some modicum of validity, but they are crafted from the Black underclass, and then used to depict the entire 100% of Blacks by that 27% underclass.
The mass media does not depict the majority of whites by their underclass. Indeed, from a consideration of the mass media's images of whites, one would not think that there were any poor whites; one would not think that they ever visit the welfare departments, and certainly not more than any other ethnic group; one would not think they use drugs and become addicted to drugs and alcohol more than Blacks; one would never think that whites were unemployed, that they have illiteracy, school dropouts, etc. They are depicted as being happy, having the finer things of life, always in control, saving the world. James Baldwin commented on white self depiction and imaging, saying, "It must be terribly laborious to have to go out and constantly flex your muscles and save the world." That is how they depict themselves in movies, in news coverage, in literature, in heroic acts, in feeding the hungry, etc. But reality brings a stark chill to anyone who accepts those stereotypes and images with real America. No honest depiction of the whole is ever done using the few; the few can only be anecdotal or inductive of the whole.
Just as that conference panelist I encountered misspoke without qualifying her words, the mass media misspeaks by deliberately not placing needed qualifiers to correct negative images. They take images of the 27% Black underclass and project them as if they represent the 73% non-underclass that is the Black Community. This is a deliberate act not just for avarice, but maybe for something even more sinister than that.
Not only is this negative image-making true in mass media, which pioneered it, but many young Black image makers are following mass media's lead. For most, their goal is simply to make a buck, but for some, they actually believe the images of the underclass represent the plight of the majority of Blacks. And that is tragic; for they, like many Black Conservatives, do not know themselves--that is, they do not know Black people. And like white media, they, too, do Blacks a grave disservice by helping to destroy Black people's reputation worldwide by modeling images that many inner city youths, who already have enough negative models, think are true Black America, worthy of mimicking.
As these negative and often violent images are projected and romanticized by young Black males, the cry heard is, "This is real life, man!" And it is--for them and a limited number of other Black people. But it is real life for the vast majority of Black America. To assume it is "real life" for all is equivalent to my limiting others by my limitations. My reality, weaknesses, or strengths may not be found in others.
It is reasonable to ask why the image-making of Blacks is so negative; it certainly does not stem from the behavior of Black people in the majority. A study of language and the image-making of war gives us clues and possibly an answer.
War is more than the amassing of national military armament and the involvement of that armament and soldiers in conflict against other nations, even as the fighting of one man against another. War has an image-making component that is very vital to its accomplishment. It is important for the image-making component to be in play if a soldier will step across that invisible but universal sacred line to kill another human being.
Retired Army Colonel Harry Summers is reported to have said, "It always makes it easier to fight a war if you demonize people so that you're not killing human beings, you're killing the devil." That demonization is a military strategy crucial to victory. A soldier must see, for sanity sake, that he/she is not killing a fellow human being but an enemy. As far back as slavery, Kenneth Stampp, in his classic work, Peculiar Institution, he wrote this principle. Whites decreed that the slaves had no souls, they were not considered human beings, and since they were not human beings, anything could be done to them. Case in point: Stampp writes of a female slave owner who felt frustrated one day and to relieve her frustration, she took an axe and chopped up one of her slaves. That act did not register on her conscience as being wrong, let alone savage; it merely relieved her frustration.
You ask, what type of person could do such a thing. One who has dehumanized or demonized another person so that he or she is deluded into thinking that the other person is not a person at all, so he or she can step across that sacred line and kill human life. This is the language needed to develop a nature for war. It is language and imagery that assuages the conscience, or better still, suspends the conscience, so that the soldier can kill and do all acts needed for war during war, but turn the conscience back on when back home. Without this language of war, it would be impossible to fight militarily because a sufficient force of human beings could not be assembled that would violate the universal ethos that human beings do not kill human beings. Without this mechanism, wrought by language and image-making, the soldier would have extreme sanity problems.**
The enemy has to be re-characterized from the reality of his humanity or civility into something the soldier and the nation can hate and therefore kill. The enemy is demonized. Look at the various images and language used for Saddam. We have made him Hitler, a mad man, a dictator who kills his own people, etc. These images are on posters, cartoons, in the mouths of comics, etc., as well as word painted images.
And notice, also, that we send young boys, and now young girls, into battle. Older heads are thinking more; younger heads accept the demonization more easily. So for our wars we require war images and rationalizations that depict the enemy as less than human, as evil, etc. Those depictions are given so frequently that they have to be believed, unless one is strong enough to see that they are images, as writer James Baldwin said, of a very sick mind-- "...Of someone who is very, very ill." Then one rejects them.
Historically, the images of Blacks projected all over the world by American mass media have been distorted to show Blacks who are less than normal, unintelligent, not hardworking, morally flawed, etc. The negative images of the 27% underclass have been used to stereotype all Black America. This stereotyping has been so effective that even young Blacks think that the average Black of the 73% majority is really unique: "A fish out of water." And one just coming to our shores would think Black Americans are flawed.
Movie Director Spike Lee has grown to be quite an accurate analyst and critic of the negative images that young Black film makers, comics, and even BET are purveying to America and specifically to other Blacks. He criticized BET for their weak lineup of programs reflecting positive images of Blacks. BET, he argued, shows negative entertainment videos and little news or movie images of positive Blacks. He is correct, even though they consider themselves black oriented, and , of course, white owned.
To most of America, the silly, lower class Black comedic sitcoms that receive the most play on Fox and other networks actually stereotype all Blacks. Those productions, created from lower class and even ghetto stereotypes, are focused to a general audience, and they are represented as middle and upper class Black behavior and life. They are usually negative images of comedic situations that are far removed from the daily lives of the majority of Black Americans. Blacks are mostly cast as buffoons in these works.
Spike Lee decried the buffoonery of Black comics who descend into such low Black imaging at the behest of avarice. Many of those comics were offended, but Lee's comments were on target. His movie Bamboozled is about the foolishness to which many Black image-makers will travel in destroying the image of Blacks for money. Not everything, however, is about money or worth doing for money.
For example, Waiting to Exhale, a novel by Terry McMillan, was supposedly about Black middle class life actually did little more than make money for her as it demonstrated that she too, for money, would cast a negative shadow over the black middle class. Her imaging was negative stereotypes which called middle class. After reading her book, unfortunately made into a movie, one is confronted with the question of her definition of the Black middle class. For money and because of ignorance many Blacks have miscast other Blacks in any negative way they would.
On the other hand, whites have historically engaged in negative image-making of Blacks since slavery until now--in their novels, their poetry, plays, their art, their radio and TV programming, their historical accounting of events, etc. And they have historically recruited a few Blacks to join them in their image-making; they have paid for some recruits and convinced others by word and acceptance into a certain circle of fellowship.
The war imaging of Blacks during slavery can be understood. Slavery had to be justified and the slave-owner had to be able to live with himself and carry on without his consciences becoming a pest and disturbing him about an institution needed to make cotton king. Furthermore, to keep slaves in line and well administered, they had to administer the most lethal and brutal punishment possible, invoking fear in the hearts of slaves. This had to be at the discretion of a slave-owner. Therefore, a lexicon and a system of image-making had to be used to assuage the consciences of slave-owners, the religious sector, and all involved in this trade.
Slavery as an institution inculcated a war image-making lexicon and rationalization. The slave was not a human being with a soul. But Stanley Elkins noted in his classic book, Slavery: A Crisis for the American Intellectual, that slavery as practiced in America, with its war imaging and the consequences of that imaging, begot a true crisis for Americans alive in their minds. Such people could not swallow the not a human being rationale. The white intellectual, however, was not a dominant class during slavery, yet they identified with white America.
That war image-making of Blacks continued after slavery and is extant still. And as there were surrogates and proxies during slavery, they are extant today.
The final consideration that seems obvious is, why is there still war image-making of Blacks? The Huxtables of the Cosby Show were considered an aberrant Black family; the family was too perfect, even though it was more like the families of most Blacks than the Black comic sitcom families that often border on the foolish. But these comedic sitcom families of Blacks are considered the norm for Black life.
The news casting of Blacks in crime, on welfare, and all negative positions is not by chance distorted to demonize Blacks. The number of times we see Black females/mothers whenever welfare is discussed cannot be measured, and we forget that white females/mothers are the largest users of welfare, by percentages and actual numbers.
When drug use or corner drug selling is discussed, Black males are dragged out as culprits nine times out of ten, and we forget that whites use more drugs than Blacks and are almost in a class by themselves in alcohol use.
When crime is raised and discussed, young Black males are raised as major offenders and the most dangerous. But preconceived notions, fueled by the frequency of negative images advanced in mass media, actually distort this fact too.
A study was conducted by the Rand Corporation after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles to determine what people saw on TV and what they thought actually happened when looting and violence took place. Preconceived notions took center stage: most of the people surveyed said that most of the looters were Black--most were really Hispanic and white. And there were other misconceptions that took place in the clear light of reality.
The casting by mass media of Blacks has been so negative that it is often a caricature. It is part of the system of aggression, Martin Luther King, Jr., noted that is set up against Black Americans. [See A Letter from A Birmingham Jail] There is a wartime image-making machine at all levels against Black people.
Negative caricatures are for a purpose. The purpose may be radically different from that of slavery, but the results are the same: demonizing/war image-making assuages the conscience of the demonizer and allows him/her to do acts that are morally prohibited. As one continues on in a state of assuaged-conscience, his/her conscience actually adapts to a neutrality to morality state. He/she sees his behavior as okay regardless of what he does as long as it benefits, or at least, does not harm or offend him.
Martin Luther King's notion of systems of aggression against Black Americans is still true. Fairness for all in this nation has never been extant. As an example, the issue of nonwhite affirmative action in admissions to universities is all but abolished. The wartime imaging implies that ethnic affirmative action is unfair to whites, while Black proxies like Ward Connerly, et al., argue that it also lowers the self-esteem of Blacks and other nonwhites who achieve admissions through affirmative action.
However, white affirmative action goes un-assailed by mass media, by Black proxies, and by the majority culture that benefits from its preferential treatment. And the wartime imaging applied to Blacks facilitates the white luxury of assuming that white discrimination, present in all sectors of society is not, in fact, white affirmative action but is actually merit. In so transforming the images, white affirmative action is seen as their merit, while nonwhite affirmative action is seen as preferential treatment for a needy people and is unfair to whites--reverse discrimination, if you will.
Today, on many uneven fields of endeavor, but on a landscape claiming equilibrium, the above scenario is played out repeatedly. This is the purpose and benefit of wartime imaging of Blacks; it allows white privilege and white discrimination to go unmolested, even elevating the egos of white affirmative action recipients, and it ensures the continuity of white privilege and white affirmative action into perpetuity without disturbing the moral equilibrium of white America. And for far too few, as Stanley Elkins saw, will it be at a crisis of morality concerning this negative war-imaging of Black America.
**In my clinical experience working with American Vietnam veterans, I have seen many who could not make the readjustment. Some had developed pronounced affinities to war and the behaviors of war; they had crossed the line and could not return. Having come back physically, they could not return to their former self and mindset. These had serious problems adjusting to civilian life and human civility.