Race Matters, Part 3: Propaganda and the Media

jack-johnson.jpgOn July 4, 1910, in the city of Reno, former boxing heavy weight champion of the world Jim Jeffries came out of retirement  in an attempt to win back the title. Jeffries was called “the great white hope,” because he was taking on a challenger that the media of the time described as an inhuman brute. The man Jeffries was squaring off against was Jack Johnson, a black man born in Texas, who had won the title when he defeated Tommy Burns in Australia two years earlier. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 14th round of the historic fight, retaining his title as the first black heavy weight champion of the world. Johnson’s stunning defeat of Jeffries touched off race riots across America, leaving hundreds injured (mostly black), and at least 23 dead (mostly black). Though described at the time as riots, what was really going on was more like a race war declared by whites who worried that in the wake of Johnson’s victory, black people would forget their place. The day after the fight, the Los Angeles Times—one of the biggest newspapers in the country—ran a piece entitled “A Word to the Black Man.” This is what it said: “Do not point your nose to high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Let not your ambition be inordinate, or take a wrong turn. Remember, you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society you were last week. You are on no new higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none. No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”

The first fight ever to be filmed was in 1894. In the days before television and the Internet, films of fights would circulate throughout the country. But after Johnson’s victory over Jeffries, Congress passed a law that made it a federal crime to transport a motion picture of a prize fight across state lines, effectively banning the exhibition of fight films. Part of the reason for this was fear that seeing a black man defeat a white man would not only ignite more race riots, but that it would be too demoralizing for white people to see themselves beaten by inferior blacks.

Johnson would go on to become arguably the most feared and hated black man of the first part of the 20th century. He was beset with all manner of obstacles placed in front of him by local and federal government, the media, and much of white America. His crime, in addition to defeating Jeffries, was that he knew no humility—which was bad enough—but that both of his wives were white women. When Johnson married his second wife, after the suicide of his first wife, there were those that publicly called for him to be lynched.

The government reacted to Johnson by charging him under the Mann Act, which was a law designed to stop prostitution. But because Johnson had a sexual relationship with a white woman, and taken her across state lines, he was brought up on charges of “white slavery,” and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.

The reason I have shared this abbreviated lesson about Jack Johnson is to give a very cursory example of how race and racism have been interwoven into the fabric of our government, as well as the media that informs and often determines public opinion.

This last week or so we as a nation have been grappling with race and racism, and for many, especially white people, it has been a brutally uncomfortable issue to wrestle with.

The topic on everyone’s mind has been presidential candidate Barack Obama, his speech on race, and comments made by his former minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. FOX News has lead the charge in showing a clip from a sermon by Wright that alleges to show the minister making negative and disparaging comments about America. The clip was taken out of context, and used to lie to the American public.

There I said it.

FOX News lied to America. And the sad thing is that for the millions who have chosen to believe the lie, without digging beyond the out-of-context statement of Wright, the deep-rooted racism that exists within most of America (both black, white and all other shades in between), is rearing its ugly head. Below is a video clip of the sermon by Wright that has caused the biggest controversy. Watch it before you read any further.

What we are seeing at this moment in time is an example of what the media is, and how it is used to manipulate the public. Journalism is supposed to be a source of information used to enlighten the public in a way that is nonbiased. Some of us know that to be bullshit. Even the best news outlets in the country have biases; some are just more transparent than others. And few “legitimate” news sources are more transparent in its bias or its political leanings than FOX News—so much so that even conservatives like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee have felt the need to speak out about the way Obama and Wright have been portrayed in the news.

I want to be careful to not be point an accusatory finger at any news outlets, without also pointing a shame-on-you-finger at much of America. The average American is so woefully under-informed about everything that culturally we are a nation that borders on complete illiteracy. Now, I know this does not apply to all of you reading this, but is does apply to someone you know. Maybe it was a co-worker or a relative who desperately clung to the belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even after it was proven that there were none. These are the same people who, when they do attempt to inform themselves, do it as quickly and painlessly as possible. These are the people who are damaging this nation to a point that it may never recover. And for the record, there are times when I am one of those people, occasionally basking in the blissful glow of my own ignorance.

But as stupid and uninformed as I may be, I know with the same assuredness that I know water is wet and fire is hot that I am as smart if not smarter than most people. And I know that trying to stay informed, and making sure other people are informed can be difficult. And trying to argue with people about how and where they get the news is even more difficult. You can’t tell someone who watches FOX News that they are a dumb fucking idiot who is not getting the full story—at least not in those words.

So, this is how you present it to them…Let’s say you know a person in desperate need of seeing the big picture, but you’re tired of arguing the point. Ask this person how they would react if someone told them their dearest loved one was just killed in an accident.

I guarantee you, that after the shock and grief, they would want to know more about how their loved one was killed than “in an accident.” Then tell them that that’s all there is to say—their loved one died in an accident. And oh yeah, the accident may have been their fault, but that’s all the information there is to share. Of course, they will claim to have the right to know the full story of how this person died. They will demand it. Then explain to them that that’s all most of the news is—a bit of information with little or no context.

Few people would ever settle for the news of a loved one’s death if the only information was, “they were killed in accident, and it may have been their fault.” At the same time, many Americans are willing to accept news that essentially says, “Obama’s former minister said terrible things about America, and here is a clip showing part of what he said.”

Part of what he said?

How about showing us all of what he said, so we can make a more informed decision about what to think and feel?

Instead, there are millions of Americans shaking their fists in anger over what Wright said, without knowing all of what he said. To these people let me be clear…your lazy indifference and ignorance is a disease that will destroy not just this country, but this entire planet. You are the problem, not Wright—who may or may not be wrong in what he said—because you have not taken the time to understand Wright in his entirety before condemning him.

The reaction to Wright’s statements, and the way many people have responded to Obama’s now landmark speech on race, has helped to reveal the true depth of racism in this country and in the hearts of every American. And I want to be very clear in this next statement, so that I am not misunderstood…Every adult in this nation, no matter what their creed, color or religion, is racist (or, if you prefer, bigoted or prejudice). It is in all of us to one degree or another, and it is only the ability to acknowledge it and confront it (or embrace it) that keeps a person from being a hypocrite.

Race and racism has been the pervasive issue in this country since the first Europeans “discovered” America, and the first “settlers” came to tame this savage land. Ever since the first Europeans killed the first Native Americans for their land, and then had slaves from Africa work that land, race and racism has become interwoven in the very fabric of everything that makes up America. Race and racism is a suit that some of America is able to keep hanging in the closet most of the time, while for others, they wear it all the time.

eddie-murphy-delirious.jpgBlack people wear the suit of race and racism very well—like Delirious-era Eddie Murphy. That’s because these are issues that we are forced to deal with every day of our existence, and we have learned to live and maneuver with this suit clinging close to our bodies, because we have never had the luxury of taking the suit off. But it is different for white people, many of whom wear thedavid-byrne1.jpg suit of race and racism like Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne (which does not mean that I’m accusing Byrne of being a racist). The suit does not fit well, it is difficult for them to move in, and therefore they are uncomfortable with it, and they would just as soon change into something that fits better, which of course is much easier for them to do.


If this analogy sounds at all ridiculous, allow me to break it down in more literal terms. The most militantly pro-black organization of the 20th century was the Black Panther Party. The BPP was a militant organization that fought for black people, provided health and education programs, and attempted to protect the community from racist law enforcement.


Pictured above are founder members of the BPP, Bobby Seale (left) and Huey P. Newton (right). Do you see how they are dressed? Do you see how they presented themselves in public as they defend their community and their people?

Now, by comparison, let’s look at the most militantly pro-white organization of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries—the Ku Klux Klan.


Do I need to go into any sort of detail about the difference in these two images? Both are of organizations that have professed to protect their people. The BPP, while involved with acts of violence, are not hiding behind masks. The BPP, in protecting the community, never burned a cross, or dragged an innocent white man from his home and hung him from a tree.


It is important to understand how we are informed in this country, and the extent to which the media (both news and pop culture) uses propaganda to influence public perception. In 1915, filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, which depicted the KKK as heroes, became a huge success. This was at a time when the lynching of black men was still a common occurrence. Understand that between 1882 and 1968, there were over 4700 recorded lynchings in America (although the actual number is likely higher), and efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation was blocked by politicians at every turn. Most of the same politicians that opposed laws banning lynching—keeping in mind that lynching is a form of murder commonly associated with black men being hung from a tree—also opposed everything from the abolition of slavery to desegregation. And in many cases, these politicians and these practices were reported upon in a positive and supportive manner by the media.

What does any of this have to do with Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Barack Obama?

There are forces at work that wish to lynch Wright and/or Obama in one form or another, and media outlets like FOX News have been complicit in aiding and abetting that cause. For some, doing this is far easier and more comfortable than dealing with the truth, which is the fact that they harbor racist tendencies, either consciously or subconsciously. It is far easier to take an out-of-context statement by a black minister, and turn it into a national issue, than it is to look at what the real problems are. And the real problem is staring each and every one of us in the face whenever we look in the mirror.


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