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multi-racialJust stumbled across an article on media race (ethnic) bias on DailyKOS that I found thought-provoking.

Let me say right off the bat that I’m not sure what to do with the term “race” since it’s basically meaningless. Race is a manmade cultural overlay that fools us into thinking that the color of a person’s skin really does have something to do with the “content of their character”, as Dr. King put it.

Let us, for the moment, accord race the status of a “thing” or a meme. What is racial bias? What does it look like? As the DailyKOS article notes, it is one of those “I know it when I see it things”. It is also something that some of us do not believe exists at all. In this worldview, America is post racial—an egalitarian utopia in which all men and women are uniformly treated as equals.

What do I think? I think bias based on ethnicity, culture, social class, skin color, gender and any other form of “otherness” undeniably exists in some pockets of society. However widespread it is, what the DailyKOS article offered (under the byline Egberto Willies) was an illustration of what the blogger understood as media bias.

From the article:

Yesterday another subtle instance of racial media bias occurred on Meet the Press. It is one that flies under the radar but works subliminally. Former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry and Former Congressman James Traficant died this year. They were both featured in the standard memorials that media do at year end.

Marion Barry was a well-liked activist and politician in his community. He was arrested in an FBI drug sting. He received a six-month jail sentence and a $5,000 fine. James Traficant spent seven years in jail for bribery and racketeering. He was expelled from Congress.

What is the difference between their crimes? Marion Barry’s conviction was for a “personal failure” that affected none of his constituents financially or otherwise. James Traficant used his elected office to provide favors and bribes. He indirectly leveraged taxpayer dollars. Yet in the memorial, Meet the Press featured Marion Barry’s drug sting and featured James Traficant giving a speech. This type of racial media bias is constant throughout the corporate-run media.

So, here are some possible reasons for this obviously skewed portrayal of the two men in the choice of visual representation:

  1. Conscious racial bias: the producers of the show chose visual elements calculated to make Marion Barry look more criminal than Traficant.
  2. Unconscious racial bias—the producers of the show chose visual elements that best matched their sense of who these two men were.
  3. Simple coincidence—the producers of the show chose visual elements randomly and just happened to choose images of Barry being arrested and Traficant being a legislator.

I’d choose door number two, in part because I know how prejudice or bias can undermine our best attempts to be impartial and how important it is for us to recognize and try to eliminate our deepest prejudices, and in part because I pray that no one would insert that sort of bias intentionally, let alone for the reasons the blogger believes they do it—to divide and control the members of a society that less than eight years ago, rallied around a racially mixed presidential candidate.

I find it impossible to believe that the choice of visual images was “random” in any meaningful sense of the word. Even our supposedly random choices are made because we feel they are appropriate, beneficial, characteristic, etc. We make these choices based on impulses that—arising as they do from our deepest psyches—cannot ever be truly objective or truly random.

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