Dark Data

The Black Image in the White Mindby Robert M. Entman and Andrew RojeckiUniv.of Chicago Press. 305p $26

What may even be worse than racism, an African-American friend said not long ago, is white guilt over racism. He went on to quote everyone from Lenny Bruce and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to W. E. B. Du bois. Racism was a problem, yes, but focusing on what is not being done to balance racial relations in this country has created even more of one.

So it makes me wonder what my friend would think of The BlackImage in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. This detail-laden and ponderously dry study by Robert M. Entman, a professor of communications at North Carolina State University, and Andrew Rojecki, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago, does not say much that has not already been said. Blacks are underrepresented in the mainstream mediaunless, of course, the subject is crime or poverty.

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What sets The Black Image in the White Mind apart, and is likely to make it an incendiary study for blacks and whites alike, is how Entman and Rojecki say it. Though both are white men in their middle years, their overwhelming conclusion, stated with mind-numbing repetition, is that all white folks are racist. It’s simply a matter of degree.

Employing trusty statistical samples and more than half a dozen years of research, the pair establish a handy four-point spectrum of white racial sentiment: comity, ambivalence, animosity and racism. These are further distinguished by groupings of statistics-speak such as Negative Homogeneity, Structural Impediments, Conflicting Group Interests and Emotional Responses.

In the professors’ passionless view, those on the upper end of the spectrum experience low intensity, positive or neutral feelings about blacks, to which they also refer as comfort. Way at the other end is hatred, defined as intensely and globally negative emotions towards Blacks.

Granted, academics working with statistics do not often give themselves a lot of wiggle room. But as Black Image in the White Mind sees it, even those who accept black individuals as full and valuable members of society come up short, because they don’t apply that acceptance to African-Americans as a group.

But does anyone, with any aggregate of any race? What Entman and Rojecki utterly fail to take into consideration in their study are the variables of exposure and intellectual and emotional compatibility. People tend to choose as friends and acquaintances those with whom they most often come in contact. Individuals reared in largely white, affluent suburban enclaves simply do not often come across similar large groups of people almost like them except for their color.

(I spent a good chunk of my formative years in Puerto Rico. Nearly all those with whom I associated at school and in other social activities had darker skin than I, but that was never an issue. Like mine, their home lives were comfortable and rather sheltered. Academic achievement was critically important, and what social distinctions were drawn were based, as they were in the States, on perceptions of class rather than race.)

Entman and Rojecki in essence try to argue that racism would not be such a thorny problem if all the black images white folks saw were like those depicted on The Cosby Show. Well, yeah.

Granted, they’re indisputably correct when they cite findings that African-Americans are more likely to be shown on television newscasts in crime storiesespecially at the local levelor reporting on welfare issues. That, however, is ancient news. The mainstream media have always been slow on the uptake on matters of equality; then again, mainstream media have, as popular culture has too, always been driven by economics more than anything else.

At the minimum, they write, the news media’s focus on Blacks as entertainers and athletes registers a lost opportunity for Whites to learn more important things about African Americans than that they can sing a song or dunk a basketball.

A statement such as that, which is only one of several, is distressing in its arrogance. The authors say nothing about the seepage up of hip-hop culture, which is predominantly black, into the edges of middle-class and mostly white teen mainstream, nor do they address the very real democratizing forces of jazz and rock n’ roll.

What the authors only touch upon and ultimately dismiss is that while there will always be virulent and inexplicable hatred by some toward others because of their color, we’ve come a considerable distance from African-Americans being the elephant in the room everyone sees but about which no one wants to talk. Many would agree we have not come far enough. But is a real solution to this very real and troubling deficiency simply a matter of increasing the number of black experts on national newscasts or giving equal time to the commission of crimes by poor urban whites on local television?

The answer is much more complex and challenging than Entman and Rojecki indicate with their tidy tables and charts and graphs. Both Brown v. Board of Education and the passage of the Civil Rights Act could not accomplish what the authors say needs to be done. Why would trying to change the statistics work any better? The truth is, we are not where we used to be, but we are not where we should be, either.

Everyone, black, white or both, would be better served by a passionate anecdotal study along the lines of Michael Harrington’s The Other America or Vijay Prashad’s recently published The Karma of Brown Folk. Numbers may not lie, but in the case of Black Image in the White Mind, they do not do a great deal to help shore up the truth, either.

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