A Scary New Other

>> Monday, January 19, 2009

Hilzoy has a post up at the Washington Monthly that reflects on the changes in race relations since the 80's and early 90's. There is a great deal of interesting things to discuss but what id like to talk about is the significance of pop culture and media on the racial dynamic. As a young person i feel justified in expounding on some of the assertions that Hilzoy, and the writers she cites, make.

The first idea put forth for why race relations have cooled is by Josh Marshall who writes,

"American mass culture found a more useful scary other: Arabs and Muslims. That's a key thing that isn't pretty but I think is also true."

Its one of those observations that if you ever want to know who the American enemy is you must simply look to Hollywood. During the days of the cold war the enemy was often a communist or soviet. Then as the geopolitical game changed we saw the increasing use of the arab terrorist as a villain. The use of brown skinned people is a familiar film device,

Parenti (1992) points out that according to the genre traditions, the hero is traditionally a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who is saving the Western civilization from threats to its structures and way of life. The antagonist is usually a foreigner, and often his skin color is darker than the skin color of the white protagonist. Parenti (1992) lists Native Americans, black Africans, African-Americans, Russians, Arabs, alien monsters and evil cosmic powers as familiar Hollywood villains. As a character the villain is typically depicted as devil, subhuman, sadistic, anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist, and of an anti-Judeo-Christian religion (Welsh, 2000; Parenti, 1992; Schatz, 1994).

The villain in action movies is commonly something that people fear. Seeing that fear defeated by the hero is a way to assure the audience of the Wests supperiority and provide hope that good (us) will always triumph over evil (other). Noting this its not surprising to see a new film come out where the villain is actually a bank. Arabs took on a larger role as the other in the white American consciousness.

While arabs were becoming villains on the big screen African Americans were increasingly becoming the protagonists on the small screen. Hilzoy uses The Cosby Show as an example. While i think that might work for some i think my best example is actually Will Smith's Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember watching Will and the Banks family engaging in the typical family drama sitcom. It never really made an impact on me that they were Black and that Black people living the lifestyle they lived was something extremely rare.

The importance of portraying Black people as no different than white people is important and should not be understated. By placing Black people into the dominant social narrative television helped to break down any perception in younger viewers that Black people were anything other than regular Americans. As Hilzoy writes,

The general point, though, is: I think that things are very, very different now. A white kid who's now twenty would not have gone to a grade school with no black kids, as I did. She might have gone to a college where people of different ethnicities tended to eat at different tables, but the simple fact that the number of non-whites is vastly higher than it was would have to make interaction a lot more common, and thus no big deal. And black kids who go to Ivy league schools, or end up in investment banks, have many more role models to look to, and so have less need to invent ways of being who they are in those worlds entirely from scratch

I assume that in my life im going to encounter Black people in all different walks of life. Some will be much smarter than i am so more gifted athletically some wealthier. They will be doctors and lawyers and judges, business people. Maybe i'll get to meet the one who is going to be President for the next four years. The point is that as a 20 something i expect to encounter a high number of Black people in positions not available to them during even my father's lifetime. I just assume that not only will they be there but that they should, that it is normal.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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