Books for the News

What does shooting a chimpanzee have to do with a stimulus bill?

On Thursday, the New York Post issued an apology for a cartoon “meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.” Caricaturing last week’s police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut, the cartoon caused an uproar after some observers felt the image was racist. Over at the New York Times‘ City Room blog, Press author Andrew Rojecki weighed in on the cartoon: “The cartoonist, whether he did this consciously or not, was drawing upon a very historically deep source of images about African-Americans that African-Americans do not have a lot of control over.”
Rojecki is an expert in racial patterns in the mass media and how they shape the ambivalent attitudes of Whites toward Blacks. In his book The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America, which he coauthored with Robert M. Entman, he uses the media, and especially television, as barometers of race relations, going beyond the treatment of African Americans on network and local news to incisively uncover the messages sent about race by the entertainment industry—from prime-time dramas and sitcoms to commercials and Hollywood movies. While the authors find very little in the media that intentionally promotes racism, they find even less that advances racial harmony. They reveal instead a subtle pattern of images that, while making room for Blacks, implies a racial hierarchy with Whites on top and promotes a sense of difference and conflict. Commercials, for example, feature plenty of Black characters. But unlike Whites, they rarely speak to or touch one another. In prime time, the few Blacks who escape sitcom buffoonery rarely enjoy informal, friendly contact with White colleagues—perhaps reinforcing social distance in real life.
Entman and Rojecki interweave such astute observations with candid interviews of White Americans that make clear how these images of racial difference insinuate themselves into Whites’ thinking. Despite its disturbing readings of television and film, the book’s cogent analyses and proposed policy guidelines offer hope that America’s powerful mediated racial separation can be successfully bridged.
For more on the subject, check out the The Entman-Rojecki Index of Race and the Media.