Makani Themba

The Zimmerman Verdict Is a Wakeup Call to Address the Deep and Structural Injustices in America

“They call it due process and some people are overdue… Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’  The man who tried to steal America is not in jail… And America was ‘shocked.’  America leads the world in shocks.  Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock…” - We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis) by Gil Scott-Heron

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Another Case of Government for Some

"We authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq lickety-quick. After 9-11, we gave the President unprecedented powers lickety-quick to take care of New York and other places. You mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique when you mention New Orleans anywhere in the world everybody's eyes light up. You mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying everyday that we can't figure out how to authorize the resources that we need?"
-- The Honorable Ray Nagin, Mayor of the City of New Orleans
The stories stack up before our eyes: Poignant portraits of human beings in ultimate pain from the yawning, unfathomable loss of loved ones, of all that means home; a feisty, passionate mayor who refuses to be political in the face of the mounting death toll; the racist imagery of desperation framed as criminality; and a governor who acts quickly to offer the death penalty for petty appropriation of property. As for punishment for the public neglect that caused the loss of life? There will be no shoot-to-kill orders on that one.

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama -- the states hardest hit by Katrina -- are for many African Americans our real home. No matter how comfortable we become in our digs in the cities to the north, this region is where many of us have our roots. It's where Big Mama showed us tomatoes on the vine. It holds the smell of clean linen, pressed hair and church pews on hot Sunday afternoons. Each crushed home, each missing relative is part of a chain that binds each of us one to another.

This is why millions of us watch the events unfold in horror and knowing. Horror at the incredible loss of life and knowing that once again we are forced to face the fact that to politicians, black life is cheap.

There has been a lot of discussion on the internet about the uneven, racist news coverage. The now famous Yahoo News story in which black people were described as looters and whites as "finding" food has found its way to mainstream media. Reporters want to know, "How could this happen?"

We know how. It happens everyday. Yet, this may be but a distraction from the more fundamental bias in the coverage and even more importantly, the bias in public policy.

Public infrastructure has been racialized for many decades now. The reason why those levees were not repaired, why there were no buses to evacuate the people that FEMA director Michael Brown callously described as "choosing not to evacuate" are all consequences of public policy that characterizes public investment -- particularly urban investment -- as wasted resources upon the undeserving.

After decades of constant attack, the local hospital, the neighborhood school, the park, the library have all become the institutional equivalent of welfare queens and "shiftless Negroes." According to the right, they are simply not worth your hard-earned money. Government is a gated community where those who can afford it can access its "amenities." All the rest of us will have to catch as catch can. People of color, low-income folk, those of us on the other side of the gate, know how deadly this can be.

Urban areas and other communities with high concentrations of people of color have suffered decades of disinvestment and disfranchisement. Urban areas are less likely to have fair representation at the state and federal level due to apportionment schemes designed to dilute their voting power. Therefore, they are more likely to lose their public hospitals and other critical services. In many states, the suburbs and rural areas are considered the "real" residents and the urban areas are political stepchildren.

Even in the face of thousands dead, Louisiana's governor has New Orleans mostly fending for itself. Local black residents report that many mainstream relief efforts are bypassing their neighborhoods and reporters are looking for "more sympathetic" victims (read white). Even celebrity coverage was skewed. Green Bay Packer and Kiln, Miss. native Brett Favre had cameras following him, while black future Hall of Famers, who also sustained serious losses, like Marshall Faulk, were mostly ignored.

Media coverage matters. Its relationship to public policy, and ultimately how the two shape our reality, is complex. The inhumane stereotypes and negative imagery help steer the public toward inhumane policies and savage behavior. A black man in a vestibule raises a wallet that morphs into a gun in the eyes of a cop. A mother looking for food becomes a drug-crazed criminal down the nose of a rifle. Seconds later, a loved one is gone.

It has to end.

African Americans and all people of goodwill can make a difference in this fight. Don't just watch the tragedy unfold and get angry. Pick up your phone, send off an email, talk about it with your neighbors, in your church, your mosque, your temple, your beauty salon. Write the President, Congress, the governor of Louisiana, FEMA Director Michael Brown, CNN and anyone else who treats our lives cheaply and let them know that we are not having it. Do it so your kids won't have to do it as often. Do it for Big Mama and Uncle John. Do it for all of us because we know, with the certainty of sunrise, that this dis won't be the last.

Between Black and Right

After you climb the rickety steps of my grandparents' Roxbury duplex, past the red, rusty porch swing, you are greeted with an old doormat emblazoned with the U.S. flag, a grimacing eagle, and the words, THESE COLORS DON'T RUN.

Inside is much like any other home of their generation. Dark wood paneling, artificial flowers arranged on mantels and around picture frames, and over an old, three-knobbed stereo, there is a velvet painting of Dr. Martin Luther King and the two assassinated Kennedy brothers. Save for the color television and the digital cable, little has changed in that house for more than 40 years.

For me, it is this place more than any other that represents the long tradition of black conservatism in this country. It is this house, where my father was raised the adopted son of a South Carolina-born preacher, that spawned the pain and politics that made him the cog of the religious right he is today. And if we, on the left, are to truly understand the increasing number of African Americans joining their ranks, we will have to go back a lot further than this election.

I Am a Man

This plaintive cry of the civil rights movement made famous during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike sums up the crossover politics of the black Christian right. And metaphorically speaking, it's a pretty accurate summary of the base politics of the Christian right overall. My father, like many of his generation, negotiated between the clear-cut (and often violent) discipline of the church and a world of rapid change. In the Boston of the late 1950s and early '60s, my father had opportunities his parents never had – college, access to a previously segregated profession and a sense of upward mobility made possible by the civil rights movement in the South and the North. He also faced a subtle racism his parents never understood. My grandparents lived with a racism under which there was the constant awareness of physical threat and circumscription. For them, this new racism felt like freedom, and there was no excuse for failure in the "space" it provided.

Yet, my father found success elusive. As a black engineer, he was often the last hired and first fired due to budget cuts or what white colleagues termed his "arrogance." Between sporadic employment and the advances of the women's movement, it was increasingly difficult to have the "traditional" marriage my father idealized. As a result, his backlash against feminism and women's rights was thoroughly fierce.

He had plenty of company. For him and his friends, white women had gotten out of line ahead of black men in the quest for human dignity. Even black (male-led) "liberation" organizations articulated victory in terms dangerously close to Leave It to Beaver in blackface. In this context, it was easy to appear "progressive" under the rubric of the black nationalism of the early 1970s. For my father and others like him, it was a struggle for coronation, not liberation.

As the '70s came to a close and the Reagan era took hold, there was growing public bitterness about the hard-won legal infrastructure to protect minorities, women and children. Jail time for spousal abuse (though more often imposed on poor batterers of color than rich, white ones), affirmative action, choice, rights for sexual minorities and restrictions against racial slurs were all among the targets of the emerging right. When AIDS hit the country full-blown in the mid-1980s, it was the "sign" conservative Christian forces needed to assert that without Jesus (as they remade Him), the nation was going to hell in a handbasket. The generation that "turned on and tuned out" 20 years before was looking for order and stability for their families. They wanted rules and an "operating system" that steered clear of the troubling ambiguity of the times.

After a journey that included stints at atheism and even Judaism, my father returned "home" to the church of his youth. By the early '90s, he felt "the calling" and became a Baptist minister like his father. Church, as he would often say, provided an "operating manual" for his life. It gave him a comforting sense of order where good was rewarded, evil was punished, and he had clear dominion over his world.

He found himself in a world that welcomed him and worked hard to meet his needs as a new preacher. There were workshops, guidebooks, conferences, prayer partners, prepared sermons and even software all designed to make him a more effective minister, a more "Christian" father and husband and a smarter businessman. Thanks to his college education and a charismatic, though challenging, personality, my father rose through the ranks to perform workshops of his own. He was part of the new face of the "non-racialized" evangelism, as groups like the 700 Club, Moral Majority and the Promise Keepers (PK) worked to subtly shift perceptions in black communities that they were a "whites only" club. The goal: to get more African Americans in their base membership (but not too high up in leadership) without alienating their white (mostly Southern and Midwest) core.

Promise Keepers was my father's first real leadership role in one of these mega religi-machines. In fact, his stint as a regional officer in the Pacific Northwest gave me hope that he might get the support he needed to address his rage. After all, they made members sign a vow against physical abuse of their spouses. And it helped. My father was a serial batterer until his entry into PK.

He lasted a little more than a year before he left the organization, frustrated at his inability to rise above the local level. After PK, his views calcified even more under the constant tending of Christian radio. By the end of the '90s, he joined the millions of Christians who made Christian media their sole source of news and information.

Marriage as "Line in the Sand"

Both my grandparents had passed by the time the measure to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples came before the Massachusetts legislature. My father quickly became a regular fixture on radio and television as an enthusiastic opponent of the measure. Personally, I found it a bit surprising and even hypocritical that this had suddenly become his number-one issue. As a man working on his fifth wife, it seemed that his relationship with the institution of marriage was pretty shaky to say the least. Conversations with him on the issue found him well-rehearsed and unable to deal with any hard questions. Fortunately for him, the press never asked him any.

It became clear that his embrace of the "gay marriage" issue was no accident. He was simply a cog in a larger strategy to mobilize the Christian right against something, anything that would unite their base across race and class. To do that, they had to pick a restriction that would have no real impact on their membership (as far as they knew). So, down came the fact sheets, the talking points, the spokespersons and organizing trainings that set the groundwork for mobilizing the base around the first rule in electoral politics – it's far easier to mobilize people against something than for it. "Gay marriage" was an easy place to draw a line in the sand without addressing the real threats to the "sanctity" of marriage. After all, none of these guys were going to take on adultery, family abandonment or spousal abuse.

By the 2004 election, the Bush machine was able to supplant traditional economic issues and even an unpopular war with "sexual politics" in order to consolidate support among regular voters in the church. It was a watershed moment for black churches nationwide. Which way would they choose? The politics of their survival – like education, jobs, housing? Or the politics of "sexual morality"?

Most black churches went with the former and turned out a significant portion of the anti-Bush vote. In fact, although Bush got a slight rise in black support from 2000, fewer African Americans voted for Bush in 2004 than for Nixon or Ford decades earlier. While white churches had the added common ground with Bush of protecting white privilege, black churches found the racist impact of Bush policies too much. Yet, we cannot take the effort to defeat Bush as political unity down the line. Many of our folk still voted to support anti-gay initiatives and other traditional causes of the right. A good friend from Mississippi sums it up when telling the story of how their state Democratic Party platform convention went down last spring: "It was exactly like the Republican convention," she says. "Anti-gay, pro guns ... just a different set of candidates."

The truth of the matter is that an increasing number of people of color, confused by homosexuality, overwhelmed by corporate media and consumerism and prodded along by a tightly organized body of church intermediaries, are embracing a decidedly right-wing social agenda. Rev. Bernice King's anti-gay protest at the gravesite of her famous father (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) is only the most recent example.

In many ways, rightward activism like this is the logical progression for the millions still in search of their manhood, of order, of the sepia-toned family of their dreams. Certainly, history has taught us the lengths that people will go for order and the boundless will of the powerful to create scapegoats to exploit this fact.

So, is every person of color involved in the right-wing Christian movement a dupe or a pimp? Certainly not.

Somewhere in the political space between my grandparents' jingoistic doormat and their velvet portrait of '60s "civil rights" martyrs, I find a strange logic to it all. Black conservatism has been with us for centuries. It actually constitutes the mainstream of black religiosity and is nothing new. The question is to what degree will the black church subordinate its work on "socio-economic moral issues" – like jobs, equal education, access to care – to work on "socio-sexual moral" issues like marriage rights and teen sexuality?

More and more, we progressive organizers find ourselves at odds with church leadership on key issues. In Mississippi, groups battle with ministers in the fight to end corporal punishment in the schools, and activists fighting for reality-based sex education or even school-based clinics find black churches their most aggressive opposition. Of course, there's still common ground. However, it's clear we cannot take shared politics for granted.

Forging a shared agenda will require a sensitive, compassionate approach to the underlying reasons that people seek sanctuary with the religious right in the first place. Stepping out of this place of perceived safety, order and discipline requires tremendous trust and faith in humanity and faith in the possibility of our dreams. There's a lot of work to be done (and investments to make) for the left to create the kind of political infrastructure and social fabric that will sustain such an alternative movement. Efforts like Project SOUTH's Midnite School, Grassroots Policy Project's worldview initiative and Movement Strategy Center's Spirit in Movement are among those striving to bring this broader visioning to "the movement."

In the meantime, I'll join many of you in going for the "openings" everywhere they avail themselves – in the supermarket, at City Hall, on the dance floor and even in tense interactions with family members. I'm not ready to concede any black folk to the right just yet. Not even my father.

Pleading Our Own Cause

Drawing its inspiration from the environmental justice movement and their efforts to advance a different analysis from the “mainstream” environmental movement, media justice proponents are developing race, class, and gender conscious frameworks that advance new visions for media content and structure. There are even plans for a Media Justice Summit in late spring 2004, the first gathering of its kind.

Says co-convener and technology expert Art McGee, “We’re modeling the Media Justice Summit on the historic Environmental Justice Summit that occurred over a decade ago, in which people of color and the poor came together and made explicit their environmental issues and concerns, which had not been a part of the mainstream agendas of mostly white groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. We’re about to do something very similar.”

Of course, media justice is not new. It is the logical outgrowth of the larger movement for justice. It is the microphone that helps us touch others when we are advocates, the mirror that reflects our dreams and fears when we are consumers, and the vehicle through which we actualize our stories when we are producers.

For media scholar and long-time advocate Mark Lloyd, the movement that calls itself media justice today is just getting back to these civil rights roots. “I think what is considered the media justice movement is less rooted in the consumer or public interest movement than it is properly rooted in a movement that began with the traditional issues and concerns of civil rights; a movement that is concerned with equality, with political representation, the impact of culture on institutions like media and schools.”

Lloyd observes that this historical context is key to understanding the need for groups to create a media justice “space” outside of the traditional media “consumer” or democracy movement. “We have institutions like the New York Times, or The Nation, or foundations that are dominated by people who tend not to be people of color, and they do not see people of color as integral to this movement, but they see this ‘public interest stuff’ as separate or important and maybe see this ‘civil rights stuff’ as passe.”

The failure to make these connections has dogged the “media democracy movement” for years. With Thomas Jefferson among their pantheon of heroes and the flag as the backdrop, it has been hard for many people of color to comfortably join their ranks. Add to that the movement’s commitment to “content neutral” reforms and its focus on important but distant technological issues like set top (the little digital box on your cable TV), and you get an agenda that lacks what gets most of us riled about media in the first place: we care deeply about content. In fact, we care about ownership and funding and access so that we can get the mic, the Mac, the airwaves, and in the final analysis, own, create, consume, and even collectivize media that reflect our needs, our values, our image.

By ignoring content and retreating to the safer ground of consumer rights, media democracy advocates have been able to strike alliances among mostly white, mainstream groups that span the pink haired and pierced to right wing broadcasters. And like most big tent affairs, race and content issues are seen as divisive, unwieldy, and just not strategic.

It’s ironic, as the modern day battle for fair media began in Jackson, Mississippi, where the African American community decided they’d had it with racist coverage and no access. They filed complaints and took outlets to court in a campaign that forged the policy framework on which most beltway lawyers rely today. Then, racist content and unfair treatment were more than mere distractions in the “real battle” for media democracy and regulation. It was the heart and soul of the movement.

This history is certainly front and center for media justice proponents of today. It shapes where we’ve been, who has been advantaged and disadvantaged, and where we go from here. Without a vision firmly rooted in this context, they say, we’ll have better, high-speed resolution for the same old oppression.

For McGee, understanding the history also helps us understand and draw inspiration from the historic leadership role that people of color have consistently played in media work. “Black journalists, publishers, and activists have been fighting for media justice since before the birth of this country. For those who think that a people-of-color-led fight for media justice is new, just check out the history of both black people’s overall struggle to have some degree of control over their portrayal as human beings, and the tireless work that countless black journalists have done to try to democratize the media landscape in this country. As Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm said in the premier issue of Freedom’s Journal back in 1827: ‘We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.’”

For more information on Media Justice and the upcoming summit, visit Makani Themba-Nixon is the director of the Praxis Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to capacity building, technical assistance, research, and training for community-based policy change.

How Race Is Lived in the Media

When The New York Times launched its yearlong project, How Race Is Lived in America, there was great fanfare. There was so much hope and for some, dread. After all, how often does the country's "paper of record" take on the thorny, complex subject of race? Six weeks and more than a dozen front-page articles later, the series ended this month as a major disappointment. Abandoning investigative journalism for storytelling, the Times' race coverage was only skin deep. And as a result, it often trivialized racism as nothing more than personal relations.

Once The Times defined the terrain as personal and not political (as if we haven't learned anything from the women's movement), they missed an opportunity to become reporters on race and instead became ethnographers. By ignoring institutions, laws and systems that provide the context for race relations, they let these structures off the hook and relegated any evidence of racism to the subjective space between quotation marks.

To some, that was the most powerful aspect of the series: the way it afforded people of color to speak for themselves. An entire Sunday Magazine of personal memoirs. Editorial pages open to some of the "best and brightest" people of color in the nation. Black media mogul Robert L. Johnson got to wax poetic about being mistaken for a working class black man, one time as a stable hand on his own ranch and another time as a chauffeur at a Four Seasons Hotel. Beverly Daniel Tatum and Loretta Sanchez did, in a rare opportunity, bring out important points on institutional racism and its impact and, of course, corporate media's favorite race man, Ward Connerly, got to assert the right to claim his Irishness. (Of course, there are large numbers of African Americans who would gladly relinquish all claims to Mr. Connerly in favor of any that the Irish might stake, but I digress.)

Yet, the most powerful aspects of the series were those it didn't cover. The Times did not turn up much on white privilege, very little on hate crimes, and even less on historical factors that contribute to present day race relations. In fact, in 11 of 14 articles (not counting the memoir pieces in The New York Times Magazine), whites were portrayed as victims of racism. And by "portrayed" I mean the story took place outside the quotation marks. It was relayed as fact.

And whites weren't just portrayed as victims of personal bias but of rules, policies or practices implemented by people of color in bureaucratic roles. A story on advancement in the armed services (June 7, 2000), a Houston mayoral race (July 13, 2000), a white quarterback at a historically black university (July 2, 2000), and conflict over the legacy of a Louisiana plantation (June 22, 2000) were among the articles that portrayed whites having to overcome challenges due to unfair or insensitive practices on the part of African Americans in power.

Racism directed at people of color was, by contrast, cast as problems of personal attitudes and bias. In more than a dozen vignettes on race relations and their impact, little attention was paid to the larger factors that shaped the lives of people of color as they "lived race." The July 16th edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine that ended the series was chock full of personal memoirs, touching stories and moving testimonies from friends who maintain their love "across the divide." In nearly every piece, racism was a mere obstacle, an inconvenience to be transcended by the colored strong and good. Those who paid attention to race were "racists," stuck in a dysfunctional past. Those who claimed to ignore race were cast as high minded, colorblind. It all fit neatly within The Times "race is personal" framework.

In this odd Times' parallel world, only African Americans hurt others because of their race; and a white man, Werner Sollors, is considered racially "outnumbered" as a professor at Harvard (he teaches in the Afro-American Studies Department). A gawking, wide-eyed q&a with former Urban League President Vernon Jordan found fourteen ways to ask 'how does it feel to be black and hang out with a bunch of rich white guys?' Perhaps this, the most telling piece of the series, speaks volumes about how race and class are conceptualized -- at least at The Times.

The focus on individual stories also meant that not a single advocacy organization, independent piece of data, or researcher was quoted in the series. As it has been the trend with the Times and other mainstream media outlets, those that have studied and tracked these issues for decades were simply ignored. As a result, How Race Is Lived In America managed, in some cases, to reinforce some old racial stereotypes and avoid presenting anything new. A particularly disturbing piece, Why Harlem Drug Cops Don't Discuss Race (July 9, 2000), featured plenty of Dominican bashing. One lone Dominican-born officer was quoted fending for his country of birth. Another article on the racial dynamics of a southern slaughterhouse played up fears of immigration in a vignette of a white man losing out on a roofing job when a contractor chose to hire "cheaper" Mexican immigrants instead. In each case, The Times missed the opportunity to provide a deeper analysis of the real trends unfolding, analysis a paper with its considerable research and data resources could've certainly mustered.

"In the very tangle of experiences, rendered in these individual voices -- lies the most naked picture of ourselves," writes the series editors in its closing segment. How Race Is Lived In America was indeed both a tangled and poignant portrait of race; one that left us little hope and even less understanding. That may be because race can not be captured as series of portraits. It must be painted as a landscape so we can begin to understand how we fit within it.

Now the series is over and folk are already betting on it for a Pulitzer Prize. Given the Pulitzer's bias toward big papers and sappy, emotional reporting, the bet is (unfortunately) likely to pay off. For all those reporters at ethnic papers, alternative papers and a few mainstream ones that really cover race -- the papers that the Pulitzer committees almost never see -- it must seem like a real slap in the face.

And it will likely get worse. If the prestigious New York Times perched in the multicultural Big Apple missed the story, what can we expect from the dozens of copycat pieces sure to follow? We can only hope they find their own way. That they drop the typical approach to race as opinion and personal testimony and be reporters. Really reporting on race requires that we ask questions, step out of the white box of privilege and dig beyond the obvious.

Perhaps our best hope for now is that The Times series will inspire others -- to show them how it's done.

Makani Themba writes on issues of race, media and policy at the Applied Research Center. Her latest book is Making Policy Making Change.


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