“Food, Inc” is an amazing documentary that will scare the hell out of you. It examines our food system and how unhealthy our food truly is. After watching it I only ate grass and tree-bark the next three days. But since that time I have frequented many drive-thru windows. Why? Simply because I did not continue watching “Food, Inc” each day afterward. How fearful would we be of fast food if we watched that film daily? Fear is an animal which can only live if fed. Fear of black men lives on because the nation watches the equivalent of “Food, Inc” daily, only the subject is not food but black males–call it “Black Man, Inc.” We have been conditioned each and every day by the media to fear our darker brother and that “we” includes the police who always “fear for their lives” when shooting black men, even if unarmed. Much about policing needs to be fixed but the media feeding this animal of fear must be tamed if we are to make true progress on race.
I have never visited an industrial farm and as such, “Food, Inc” is my only window into that world. My takeaway was to be very afraid. Just as my entire knowledge of farming came from a documentary, most of America learns about Black people from media sources. America is a very segregated country. According to Brookings, if “0” represents “perfect integration,” a number of larger cities like New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit exist well above 70 (Milwaukee is at 81). Much of what the broader society knows about Black people does not come from personal experiences because they do not in fact exist. With this in mind, media portrayal is critical and especially so when we approach the subjects of crime and public affairs. Today’s cops grew up in a world in which local television news was the primary source for public affairs information. In an effort to boost ratings, news outlets have focused heavily on violent crime. A sample from Los Angeles County found that although murder was less than 1% of all crime, it was the focus of 17% of all crime stories sampled. In fact, the number of murder stories in the sample roughly equaled the number of all crime stories. We are being programmed.
For decades we have been conditioned to exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime. Beyond that, we have all been conditioned to accept that black men, especially, are inextricably linked to violent crime. We all know that black men are grossly overrepresented in reporting on violent crime but the programming runs much deeper. Cops today grew up, as Dr. Mary Beth Oliver points out, watching Black suspects shown in ways to suggest that they were more threatening and physically held by officers or handcuffed, with far more likelihood than non-Black suspects. Further, Oliver points out that while Blacks were overrepresented as perpetrators, whites were overrepresented as victims of violent crime in media. Unlike my experience with “Food, Inc,” none of today’s cops had control over the content they were consuming on a daily basis. Indeed, even black cops grew up with the same content and all were shaped by it.Having been pounded daily with these images shaping their reality, today’s cops then hit the streets with every bias fully functional in the brain.
To be sure, research has found that for whites, the amygdala, a brain region associated with experiencing fear, tends to be active when they see an unfamiliar black male face (regardless of their conscious reports about racial attitudes). To compound the matter, those cops were sent to work in a policing and policy context (largely due to the “War on Drugs“) which has created an “us vs. them” scenario. Police are interacting with black communities not to protect and serve but to target and arrest, only reinforcing the biases ingrained from years of media consumption. If an officer is programmed by media to fear Black men and working daily with people labeled “suspects” it is not hard to arrive at a conclusion of Black equals scary and threatening. Yes, there are serious public policy fixes needed in the realm of policing but we must also shift the culture and watching “Black Man Inc” daily will not help.
For Black people, our concern must be with what we can control. What are we consuming? What foolishness are we supporting? If we are in positions to influence media content then we should. The privileged Hollywood elite who happen to be Black should continue focusing on producing their own content and telling meaningful stories, even if that means pooling resources to make it happen. We cannot control every telecast but we are a decent segment of the market that producers must cater to and that is where we should focus our energy. We should continue to push for better policies around policing but we must also kill the animal of fear which media continually feeds us as well as the cops on the beat.