Change in society is something that is inevitable. In America, change is something that has affected different groups of people, through changes in rights and they have gained. In the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan writes, “Yes, and how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?”.
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This lyric can relate to racism because of the idea of existing for many years without freedom, and African-Americans had to exist for many decades, before being granted real freedom, which whites had privy to them. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and the second related definition is “racial prejudice and discrimination”. Racism is something that has plagued America since its birth, and racism from for example the 1960s, is different from racism now. Changes in television portrayals of African-Americans and changes in social media and racial discussions on it, has positively and negatively impacted attitudes towards racism in America.
When one thinks of racism against African-Americans within America, it is common to think back to the past and to the Civil Rights era. It is well-known that Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Civil Rights activist who had a profound impact on America, and still does today. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he addresses the current struggles of African-Americans, “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negros have experienced grossly unjust treatment in courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation” (King Letter from Birmingham Jail). Segregation, unjust treatment, police brutality, and many other struggles showed that African-Americans were not receiving equal treatment compared to whites.
After the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is defined as a law that “outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin” forms of racism such as segregation and harsh forms of discrimination may have been “outlawed” but racism against African-Americans still persisted, and something that helped contribute to this was the past (but some new) negative or limited portrayals of African-Americans on television (HISTORY). From a Duke University exhibit on Blacks in films, beginning in the 1910s, many black characters were just white actors in blackface with “burnt cork, shoe polish, or various other products (applied to their faces), along with emphasizing and exaggerating the hair and lips in order to imitate social assumptions regarding African physical features” (From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representation of African Americans in Film Thompson-Cannino, Carew).In this time period for people who are segregated away from African-Americans, being exposed to portrayals of them that are merely negative stereotypes and imitations of ethnic traits, can foster racism against them. Other types of negative portrayals of blacks creates negative stereotypes of their moral characters.
A study done by Professor Robert Entman in political communications discusses portrayals of African-Americans on American television news. It was discovered on three local news stations in Chicago (a primarily black area) studied over one week, “41% of news about blacks focused on violent crime, while only 15% was about a black judge’s candidacy”, and this study also compiled “many whites (agree) blacks have it better than they ever had it before” (Modern Racism and the Images of Blacks in Local Television News). This study was completed in 1990, which can contradict the idea blacks have had it “better than before” at this time, because they are subject to being portrayed in a negative light overshadowing positive stories about African-Americans. While their treatment may have changed, it is still worrisome in a predominantly black area almost half the news concerning them is portrayals of them as violent criminals. Former news journalist Sam Fulwood notes what you see in the media “isn’t always an objective reality” (The Media’s Stereotypical Portrayals of Race). There have been studies performed on how portrayals of African-Americans in television media affect how white individuals perceive them in the real world.
A study done in 1997 by Psychology Professor Thomas E. Ford from Western Michigan University focused on various aspects of African-Americans portrayals on television. The manner in which this study was performed was that the subjects had to view five comedy sketches from the 1980s and 1970s, and then complete a judicial review to rate the guilt of an alleged offender of assault. Three of the skits portrayed the African-Americans characters displaying stereotypes for comedic purposes, and the other two skits did not contain any stereotypical comedy. The subjects were then given names of the alleged offenders, Tyrone (assumed to be African-American by subjects because of his name) and Todd, (assumed to be white for the same reason). After viewing the skits, “evaluations of only the African-American individual were significantly more negative after exposure to stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans”, with guilt evaluations going from 1 to 10 ( the higher the more likely they are guilty) and Tyrone (African-American) earned a 6.05 and Todd (white) a 4.70 from subjects after viewing the stereotypical content (Ford Effects of Stereotypical Television Portrayals of African-Americans on Person Perception).
It is evident from the conclusions of this research study that perceptions of African-American individuals by whites changed negatively due to portrayals of them featuring stereotypical content of their race. However, there is a limitation of the perspectives featured here that racism against African-Americans in American society and on television have only grown worse because it has been shown that as African-Americans gained more general respect as people, portrayals of them in media became more positive, and racism against them has become less prevalent in America. Studying a compelling Brookings article from former vice-chair of the U.S Commision on Civil Rights, Abigail Threnstrom, and Research Professor Stephan Threnstrom, found some interesting statistics on the treatment of African-Americans. They note that “in 1958, 44 percent of whites said they would move if a black family became their next door neighbor; today the figure is 1 percent”, which demonstrates racism against African-Americans has only diminished since time has gone on (A. Threnstrom and S. Threnstrom Black Progress: How Far We’ve Come and How Far We Have to Go). When turning back to television portrayals of African-Americans, not only has racism of them has diminished in television portrayals, but there are many television shows showing African-Americans in a positive light with lead African-American casts, such as Black-ish, which is about the family life of an American black family, starring “Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne” among many other African-American stars (ABC). African-American television portrayals have come a long way from being limited to “the loving Mammy and comic servant” in the 1940s (Horton, Price, and Brown “Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industry”). It has been demonstrated through the exploration of television portrayals featuring African-Americans that racism has had a great shift and change in America.
Social media was introduced a few decades ago, and social media helps to display changes in racism against African-Americans. Social media “refers to the use of web based and mobile technologies to turn communication into an interactive dialogue” and has grown in prevalence and usage tremendously over time, Edward Kessler feels that the “access to a huge array of media makes it easy for local issues to attract global attention, and for example, a controversy in one region of Pakistan or India can have a significant impact on the streets of Bradford or London just a few hours later”, which one can argue is how social media is used when discussing racism (Kessler Social Media and the Movement of Ideas). Social media as a platform is often used to hold public discussions about varying topics of interest, and it common to see discussions on social media relating to racism, and Luiz Valerio Trindade reported that “racist discourses posted on social media keep attracting new users for the same derogatory conversation for up to three years” (On The Frontline: The Rise of Hate Speech and Racism on Social Media). Doctoral student Nikita Carney discussed in her scholarly piece the group Black Lives Matter.
In 2012, social media was buzzing about Trayvon Martin’s death and this was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter Movement. From her perspective, Carney mentions how social media has changed racism against African-Americans in how “the debates on Twitter following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner indicate a struggle for power in controlling discourse about the state-sanctioned killings of Black men in the United States, particularly following tragedies and lack of accountability for the police officers responsible, as was the case in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice” (Carney All Lives Matter, But So Does Race: Black Lives Matter and the Evolving Role of Social Media). Some individuals feel that it is hard to truly define and classify racism against African-Americans on social media. Irene Kwok and Yuzhou Wang from the Computer Science Department at Wellesley College designed and performed a survey to gauge the amount of hate speech against African-American individuals present on Twitter.
To conduct this survey, they compiled a hundred tweets that contained keywords that could be pertained to hate speech against African-Americans, and asked three students all of different races but of the same age and gender, to rate the offensiveness of a tweet by the language it contained, and to classify the offensiveness on a scale of one to five (five being the most offensive). In the results from the tweets, “86% were labeled as racist because they contained offensive words”, however they noted this can be an ineffective way to categorize racism because it can often be more subtle, such as a tweet they found with the joke, “Why did Obama’s great granddaddy cross the road? Because my great granddaddy tugged his neck chain in that direction” (Locate the Hate: Detecting Tweets against Blacks). These kinds of jokes and nuances in language may not be classified as “racism” against African-Americans because it is not blatantly hateful, but many would argue this is racist language even if it does not contain slurs, it is hurtful when put in historical context.
Contrasting to now, protests in Dr. King’s time were often “sit ins, marches, and so forth”, and discussions about racism were conducted in a different manner and has changed because a large amount of protesting is now performed through social media (King Letter From Birmingham Jail). Usage of social media for forms of racial activism has been somewhat critiqued in comparison to other forms of activism previously mentioned. Assistant Professors Richard S.L Blissett and Dominique J. Baker note that when it comes to online social media activism “there is an inherent danger in the reliance on social media, as there can sometimes be opportunities for authoritarian institutions to co-opt these resources and quell activism and communication” (Richard and Baker “Seeing is More Than Believing: Visual Media, Social Media, and Anti-Racism On College Campuses”). They then proceed to give an example of China, and how Chinese citizens have had limits placed on their access to the internet, and therefore, information itself, which draws a link between how social media activism can potentially create new government limits or laws that limit speech. While social media can foster a breeding ground for hate against African-Americans, it also opens up new paths for discussion and positive social change.
Change in society has affected how racism is conducted against African-Americans. As time has gone on and shown through changes in television media and social media, racism against African-Americans has decreased in some aspects and increased in others but has fostered a new haven for discussion, as shown through the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Edward Kessler. Change is influenced by people, and the actions of people have changed discrimination against African-Americans.
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