I know this blog can often be a downer. Especially during the Trump years, there has just been so much damage, so much polarization, so much hate–it’s sometimes hard to focus on areas of actual improvement.
Today, however, I want to do just that.
Social and cultural changes are almost always slow, but I am not the only observer who looked at the people protesting after George Floyd’s murder and saw multi-racial, multi-ethnic crowds who weren’t there during previous era protests. And much as I worry about disinformation in today’s fragmented media landscape, I firmly believe that certain of the changes in that media have prompted social change for the better.
Until he retired, I team-taught a course–Media and Public Affairs–with Jim Brown, then Dean of the Journalism School. We created the course, which was offered to both journalism and public affairs students. Thanks to Jim, I learned a lot–probably a good deal more than the students.
Jim was a photojournalist, and thanks to his insights, I learned to appreciate the impact of pictures on social attitudes, and to see how photojournalism practices of the country’s newspapers had fed and supported racism. For years, the old media truism–if it bleeds, it leads–led to the publication of (often dark and grainy) photographs of people accused of crimes. Those photographs tended to be disproportionately of Black offenders. Worse, in the early days of television and in rural areas of the country, those were often the only portrayals of African-Americans that white Americans saw.
There weren’t interviews with Black scientists or doctors, no “human interest” pieces about Black educators or successful businesspeople. Aside from sports, television didn’t feature talented Black performers. A recent “Sunday Morning” interview with Leslie Uggams included the story of her hiring by Mitch Miller; she was the first regular Black performer on a nationally-syndicated show, and a number of southern stations threatened to stop airing it if she remained. (Miller, to his credit, ignored the threat.)
Today, our televisions and newspapers, as well as our workplaces and other parts of our environments, are far more representative of American reality. There are African-American newscasters, entertainers, scientists…And that increased representation isn’t limited to Blacks. Women are now news anchors, weather-people and even sports commentators. Figures with Asian and Latino names are prominent.
For the past decade or so, the media has been delivering a far more accurate picture of America and American diversity.
If you look at the names on the list of credits accompanying a television drama or movie, you will see a wide range of ethnicities represented. Actors no longer feel the need to “Americanize” their names in order to be acceptable to folks who might be put off by anything stranger than Smith or Jones.
And then, of course, we had a Black President.
Granted, the response from the hard-core racists to all of this has been hysterical. When Obama was elected, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out in force. But for eight years, the rest of us saw a class act–a cultivated, brilliant lawyer with a great sense of humor, an impressive way with words, an equally accomplished wife and an impeccable family life–a vivid contrast with his crude, inarticulate and ignorant White successor.
This forced encounter with the reality of America’s diversity has been anything but smooth or easy. Those old White guys of a certain age (and plenty of younger ones) have looked at the pictures that are everywhere–uppity women executives, newscasters of all races and genders (many with Latino or Asian names), Black people famous for something other than sports (and uppity women who are famous for sports!)–and seen only their own loss of dominant status. They’ve resisted. Some violently.
But the pictures are there, not just in the traditional media, but in the viral testimonies captured by those ubiquitous cellphone cameras. The visual environment has changed, and with it, the broader culture. Americans are talking about privilege. We are talking about injustice. About representation. We’re seeing the world–and ourselves–far more accurately.
We aren’t nearly “there” yet. But we’re picturing it.