If race is something about which we dare not speak in polite social company, the same cannot be said of the viewing of race.
Patricia J. Williams 1
Race is a paradox. Its signs appear everywhere in our media culture, while the profound ways in which race factors into the “distribution of sadness” remain hidden from view.2 Thirty years ago, the Kerner Commission reported that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”3 Today, notwithstanding the resulting affirmative action programs, African — American and Latino families are three times more likely to live below the poverty line than whites, and their median income is about 55 percent that of their white counterparts.4 Nor does education narrow the earnings gap, suggesting something else as the determining factor.5
Clearly, things have improved since the days of de jure segregation. Yet, in a 1990 Gallup poll, the “average” American thought that the U.S. population was 32 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic, and 18 percent Jewish.6 In other words, according to this view, Anglo-Americans — not to mention Native and Asian-Americans — accounted for no more than 29 percent of the “imagined community” of the nation.7 In fact, the actual figure was precisely the opposite! Ironically, the demographic and electoral majority imagined itself to be a minority.
Two things explain this misperception. First, most Americans continue to live in racially segregated environments. Second, the mass media, which represent our major source of information about the world outside our immediate and segregated lives, play the “race card” in consequential ways. Nonwhite racial groups remain underrepresented in the mass media — both in terms of employment and portrayals — but they have also been equated with violent crime across the programming spectrum, from entertainment to the nightly news.8 So the little visibility that nonwhites receive nevertheless plays into very basic fears about personal security. Even though a black or Latino actor may now play a homicide detective as often as a violent criminal, the association of race with crime remains unchallenged.
The mass media do not cause racism, of course, but neither do they offer a value-free medium for the exchange of ideas and information. They are marketplaces and we are both their consumers and a product sold to advertisers. But in addition, as noted by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s: “The medium is the message.”9 In any modern society, four basic infrastructures allow a nation to function as a social, political and economic entity: telecommunications, transportation, energy utilities and the system of currency exchange. Each is a medium not only for moving some value across space, but also for defining that space in societal terms. Because these infrastructures are essential modes for trade and discourse, “infrastructure industries are always the focus of direct state intervention, whether by way of promotion, subsidy, or regulation.”10 Furthermore, as Robert Britt Horwitz explains, “Telecommunications is a peculiar infrastructure because it is a primary medium for the circulation of ideas and information, a realm where, in principle, political life can be discussed openly and in accordance with standards of critical reason.”11 What is the message, then, if certain racial groups are excluded from that medium or from the peculiar infrastructure of our democracy?
The message is that race defines the boundaries for our sense of nation. Since race is almost never used in the media to refer to “whites” and “Americans,” it becomes understood as a deviation from both whiteness and citizenship. Since race is used to refer to crime and criminals (with the notable exceptions of white-collar crime and serial murder, which are more racially exclusive, albeit for white men), it becomes a defining feature of that which is against the law. Since race has been one of the few ways in which we talk about class in the United States, affirmative action became coded as an isolated form of privilege rather than as a compromised response to centuries of continuing white privilege.12 As George Lipsitz demonstrates, there is a possessive investment in whiteness.13
All in all, the message from such a racially exclusive medium is one in which race is seen as an active and detrimental force in our society. Race becomes synonymous with crisis. Little wonder, then, that “Americans” felt that nonwhite racial groups made up 71 percent of the population amid a major downturn in the national economy.
But what is race? The most accurate answer is also the least satisfying: “an unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.”14 In other words, race is not an innate truth about the human body and mind. Instead, it is a concept that participates in ongoing social, political and economic forces; as such, its meaning changes over time. Race has been used to codify various social relations on the basis of perceived biological differences: nationality (the German race), immigration policies (the Chinese Exclusion Act), citizenship (before universal suffrage), property relations (from slave versus master to redlining), intellectual capacity (mostly directed at education policy) and sex, marriage and reproduction (miscegenation and racial classification laws). Over the past four decades, however, science has replaced the concept of race with population genetics. Biological attributes are not “fixed and discrete” in the way implied by the concept of race; significantly more genetic variation occurs within than between populations, racial or otherwise.15 In short, while the biological fact of human variation remains, there is no such thing as racial purity, nor can science explain variations in human behavior across populations by means of genetic, let alone racial, differences. Such variations are cultural, reflecting a complex world very much of our own making, one in which race is less a scientific object than a contentious category within the economy, the law, the political representation system, social movements and popular culture.16
To be sure, “culture” is as fuzzy and mercurial a concept as “race.” Therefore, we must forgo answers, and begin the process of asking questions about the world beyond our immediate experience and media culture. Independent film and video offer an important alternative to the mass media, both in terms of point of view and social function. Many independent producers started on local public-affairs series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That period saw a vibrant and broad-based media reform movement aimed at making commercial television follow its legal mandate to serve the public interest of local communities. As a result, minority public affairs series served as the birthplace and training ground for black, Latino, Asian-American and Native American “cinemas.” By the end of the decade, however, with the rise of deregulation, the producers of these films found themselves working as “independents,” offering their films to the programming margins of public television. Against great odds, these producers continue to produce new work, although distribution remains difficult. Deregulation, instead of democratizing commercial television, gave rise to a handful of global media conglomerates, which integrate broadcasting with cable, satellite service, film studios, video rental chains, publishing, music recording, sports teams, retail stores and theme parks. These conglomerates have developed joint ventures and equity interests with each other as well as with finance, computer and telecommunications corporations.17 For all the hype about the democratizing effect of the deregulation and digital revolutions, one is hard pressed to find much diversity coursing through the medium, let alone new models for social equity and intercultural dialogue.
Independent film and video can serve as an important first step in reducing our dependence on global media for what we know about the world. But it is only a first step when it comes to race, racism and racial conflict. We must do more than just view race; we must put ourselves into the picture, in large part by stepping outside our everyday life. Developers of the Viewing Race Project believe in the efficacy of dialogues across difference. The following essays provide practical information about using independent video to stimulate discussions on race. They stress that we cannot look for a quick fix, but must focus instead on uncovering the experiences, assumptions and points of view that contribute to understanding race.
Before we can resolve racial conflicts, we must understand them. The endings of two documentaries exemplify this difficult and painful fact: Renee Tajima-Peña and Christine Choy’s Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988) and Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997). The films both close with a scene of a mother who has lost her child to racial violence. These powerful images create an almost unbearable empathy without sentimentality. In the former, Vincent Chin’s mother responds to the acquittal of her son’s killer with disbelief that such a thing could happen in her country. The camera zooms in on her hand, clenched tighter and tighter, like a heart about to disappear. In the latter, Spike Lee interviews the mother of one of four girls killed in a church bombing in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1963. Now, 35 years later, the mother talks about the process of letting go of her anger and opening up to compassion. In her gentle, yet slightly playful dialogue, we see both the difficulty and the possibility of living in a better world.
The videos and ideas featured in this Web site provide one avenue by which to pursue better understanding of racial conflict, cultural difference and intercultural dialogue. Through screenings and discussions, participants can begin to learn and appreciate the complex ways in which we are both different and the same. This Web site explores several practical ways in which the videos can be used to facilitate such a process in the classroom, workplace, community center and elsewhere. But the most important part will be you who use these tools to contribute to a discussion that can bridge our differences by understanding them.
1 Patricia J. Williams, Seeing a Color — Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (New York: The Noonday Press, 1997), p. 17.
2 I borrow the phrase “distribution of sadness” from Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez, Border Visions: Mexican Cultures of the Southwest United States (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), see especially chapter five. The phrase refers to the way in which some racial groups are disproportionately represented among those people facing poverty, violence, crime and other social ills.
3 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Otto Kerner, Chairman (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
4 Alissa J. Rubin, “Racial Divide Widens, Study Says,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1998, sec. A, p. 18.
5 Shawn Hubler and Stuart Silverstein, “Education Doesn’t Narrow Earnings Gap for Minorities,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1993, sec. A, pp. 1, 14-15.
6 George Gallup, Jr. and Dr. Frank Newport, “Americans Show Generally Low ‘Census I.Q.’,” The Sunday Oklahoman, March 25, 1990, sec. A, p. 15.
7 For a very readable and useful account of the modern nation-state as an “imagined community,” see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991 ).
8 The Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild release annual reports on minority employment. The one area where there has been significant improvement over the past three decades is in acting roles for television commercials. See also Sally Steenland, Unequal Picture: Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Characters on Television (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Working Women of Wider Opportunities for Women, August 1989).
9 See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994 ).
10 Robert Britt Horwitz, The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 12.
11 Ibid., p. 14.
12 See John David Skretney’s comprehensive account of the development of affirmative action, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
13 George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
14 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986), p. 68. Emphasis in the original.
15 Quoted phrase from Sandra Harding, ed., The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 8. See, in the same anthology, Frank B. Livingstone, “On the Nonexistence of Human Races,” pp. 133-141. For a useful popular discussion of the science of race, see the special issue of Discover in November 1994. The classic text on race, racism and biological determinism is Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, rev. ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996 )
16 See Kimberle Crenshaw et al., ed., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).
17 For an overview, see Edward S. Herman and Robert W. McChesney, The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism (London: Cassell, 1997).