Racism is a problem that the American people have grappled with since colonial times. The 1960’s saw the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, who not only influenced the civil rights movement but attempted to solve the problem of racism in this country.
On February 16, 1965, Malcolm X gave a speech called Not Just An American Problem, but a World Problem. In his speech he provides a theory on the relationship between media and racism called image making which still has validity today. On first reading, Malcolm’s tone is angry and his theory on image making sounds absurd. He states: They (racists) use the press to get public opinion on their side.
. . this is a science called image making. they hold you in check through this science of imagery.
They even make you look down upon yourself, by giving you a bad image of yourself. Some of our own Black people who have eaten this image themselves and digested it — until they themselves don’t want to live in the Black community. Yet, current television programming seems to favor this idea. Local news programs continue to show colored communities as dangerous and gang-infested. They continually rely on the reports of these areas for the bulk of their news and overlook the positive images that residents of these areas try to create. For example, KNTV news continually reports on the thefts and shootings in East San Jose but does not make an effort to show how residents are dealing with these situations.
The day a local East San Jose church helped sway the city council to put a streetlight on a very busy intersection, the news pre-empted the report with an accident on another East San Jose intersection. As a result, most people in these communities do not realize that they have power to change their area and have a great desire to move out of these areas. They have become prisoners who have bought into the image of East San Jose. Yet, local news programs are not the only ones to blame for image making; documentaries have played a part in the negative images of blacks. Malcolm X makes the claim that the negative image of communities in America are just a small part of the image making process.
The documentary film has done the same for their African homeland. He states: They (the press) projected Africa in a negative image, a hateful image. They made us think that Africa was a land of jungles, a land of animals, a land of cannibals and savages. It was a hateful image.
Current documentaries of Africa are still about their jungles and their tribes. Although they do not have a racist tone, the idea that African people are still uncivilized continues. The result is: Black people here in America who hated everything about us that was African. .
. it was you who taught us to hate ourselves simply by shrewdly maneuvering us into hating the land of our forefathers and the people on that continent. These films do have an influence on today’s society. From watching today’s black TV, the actors on these shows make fun of these images. Recently, Martin Lawrence made fun of one of his friends; calling him a spear-thrower on his hit TV show. The larger problem that Malcolm X did not discuss in his speech is the result of the image making.
The effectiveness of today’s media on young minds is great. Only several years have passed since the introduction of a Black Barbie doll. The great action heroes are not colored but are white; only their sidekicks are colored, e.g., Lone Ranger and Tonto. Consequently, the serious Black actor is a precious commodity. It is the Black comedian who is more accepted in today’s society because they are able to laugh about the negative black images.
The white man, as Malcolm X might agree, would favor the comedian over the serious actor because white men do not want to be reminded about their crime. The comedian often supports the negative black images that the media has created: large lips, large buttocks, the criminal and the slave. Eddie Murphy is famous for his Mister Robinson character on Saturday Night Live. Robinson is a spoof on Mister Rogers; however, Robinson is a criminal. The image of the black man as a thief continues.
Television is not all to blame. The media has made many efforts to create a more positive image of Black America. There is a cable station, BET, targeted at black programming. The commercials shown on the station feature black actors rather than the white actors on the large network stations.
Black TV has been introduced to mainstream TV. Most programs are outrageous, such as Homeboys in Outer Space, which shows how the media favors the black comedian. However, the introduction into network TV provides an open door for more quality programming and more positive images in the future. Malcolm X concludes his speech by stating, … make the world see that our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem.
A problem for humanity. And a problem which should be attacked by all elements of humanity. America has come a long way from its days of slavery and segregation. Malcolm was right. Americans must attack this problem as a hate issue and not a race issue.
But we must stop blaming each other for this problem. We live in a media dominant world. The owners of today’s media conglomerates are white males, who influence what is being shown on their networks, magazines, films, etc. It is time that America takes control of what influences their society and take responsiblity for creating more positive images of humanity.
Endnotes Not Just An American Problem, But A World Problem, Humanities 2B Reader, Spring 1996, p English Essays