By ROMAIN PITT
“Black” people tend, naturally, to focus our concerns about racism on the police for partiality in law enforcement, on governments for lack of vigour in protecting us from discrimination, and on business for not giving us a fair shake in employment and borrowing money (the last, an area not nearly emphasized enough). We tend, understandably, to ignore the institution that may well be, wittingly or unwittingly, our greatest enemy on this score, because of the subtlety in the manner of their operation. It would be very difficult to make the case that the media wittingly embraces racism or bigotry, but we ignore it at our peril.
I recently congratulated a “Black” father on the academic success of his three children and commented, as Oprah Winfrey had done years ago, that his were not the kind of children we would read about in the media. He missed the point when he told me that one of them had been written about in Share newspaper. Frankly, the frequency with which the ethnic papers tell positive stories about “Black” people illustrates the point better than anything else. I recall a few years ago reading in Share or Caribbean Camera about graduation at the same time of several (maybe 10) “Black” female doctors from low to moderate income backgrounds, while simultaneously reading in the mainstream press about how poorly “Black” kids were doing generally.
One does not have to be a keen observer to have noted that the mainstream media is not interested in the stories of either ordinary or “successful Black people”. Most Ontarians have no idea of the huge number of “Black” people who are in the conventional professions like medicine, law, engineering, accounting and teaching at all levels, public and private administration, science (research and applied), nursing, computer and other technology, banking and finance and a host of such skilled and semi-skilled occupations. About which they have no doubt, however, is that Black people rank high in the rank of criminals. One letter writer to the Toronto Star acknowledged the Star to be the source of his information on the responsibility for crime.
I referred to the subtlety of the media’s approach, although the use of that expression might be too generous to them. I recently complained to CBC radio for referring to recently deceased novelist Austin Clarke as well-spoken, and a few years ago the Star for using the same expression to describe Professor Anita Hill, ironically, in a very laudable article on her. The eminent “Black” scholar Dr. Keith Ellis confirmed my belief that well-spoken is used to mean articulate, eloquent and coherent all in a way that is perceived as exceptional to the group that the speaker represents in the mind of the commentator.
The same Star recently used a “Black” man to illustrate generalized financial victim stupidity, and shortly thereafter chose a “Black” single mother in its feature story on how families would benefit from the enhanced federal family assistance plan. Reports of so-called Black-on Black-violence is reported as if it were a sociologically significant phenomenon, and there is hardly ever any attempt to note the connection between the criminalization of drugs and the relative frequency of the killings of unemployed Black youth.
It is useful in thinking about the media to keep in mind a few of its operating principles: One, out of the mouth of one of its prominent insiders, encapsulated in the following pithy statement that “people are wrong who believe the media tells them what to think. What it tells them is what to think about”. Another comes from the pen of Princeton University scholar, C. Edwin Baker, in a study on Advertising and a Democratic Press (Princeton University Press 1995, page 56) in which the author concluded that “advertising operates as a social control mechanism that is often more effective than government censorship in limiting press freedom”. Finally, from the mouth of press magnate, Izzy Asper, of whom Alan Fotheringham in the Globe and Mail of January 2, 2002 wrote: “In a now-famous address to the reporters at a New Zealand paper he had just bought, told them a newspaper is essentially a tool to sell advertising and that their job was to fill in the spaces between the ads.”
When, a few years ago, a retired tycoon, Gwynn Morgan, writing in the Globe and Mail bizarrely blamed tenured professors for the alleged shortage of skilled labour in the country, the Globe simply ignored my letter calling attention to a later finding that belief in the existence of the alleged shortage arose from the unreliability of information generated by the abolition of the long-form census.
The media regularly censures the views of those they deem powerless, notwithstanding how important, objectively, those views may be. The Star denied me space to publish a short statement from the Court of Appeal of Ontario on anti-Black racism to contradict the assertion of a policeman that it did not exist in Ontario.
As you can see a lot of what the media does with “Black” people is stereotyping, rather than overt support for racism. Indeed the Star has been overtly a champion for equal treatment of “Black” people by police. You may view the media’s behaviour as ongoing efforts to make “White” people feel their place in the racial hierarchy is deserved, and therefore should not be challenged. In that way multiculturalism can proceed without real challenge to the primacy of “White” people. The best of “Blacks” are anomalies, or exceptions, and their worst is normative. Another habit of the media which may well be unplanned is to juxtapose positive news about “Black” people with crime news about them, which serves to remind the reader what their proclivities truly are.
In the context of the contrast propagated by the media between “Black” and “White” people, the worst modern exemplar was in 1994 when the guilty plea of a “White” sex offender to charges of sexual assault of 200 young boys (estimated to be in fact 2000 by psychiatrists for both prosecution and defence), four of whom had been known to have committed suicide, was placed on the inside pages of the Star on the same day that pictures of the coffin AFTER burial, of a policeman killed by a “Black” man was placed on the front page.
The perspectives on groups of people promoted by the media pretty much determine how these people are perceived, especially if the perspective provides comfort of their own superiority, to those being influenced. It is almost impossible to persuade many “White” and other “non-Black” people to join in the struggle for racial justice if they see “Black” people as undeserving of equality. You may have noticed how few non-Black people in this country get involved in anti-Black racial issues. Make no mistake about it, their help is needed. Those who do are real champions. Their associates, friends and relatives question their judgment. It is a challenge we must confront on all fronts.
Romain Pitt is a retired superior court judge, a graduate in economics from the University of Toronto, and a 2015 University College Alumni of Influence.