Is a picture worth a 1000 words? Race and the politics of mourning

Hank Willis Thomas

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June 26, 2013

By

A couple weeks back, Melissa Harris Perry and her guests discussed the power of images, focusing on the debate as to whether or not the public should see images of Newtown violence.  While recognizing the pain and difficulty for the Newtown parents, each seemed to conclude the stakes were too high and that the public needed to see the images.

Michael Skolnick called upon Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to release the pictures. The past reveals that the sight of images has the potential to change the course of history.  Amid the gun debate, the sight of young (middle-class white) children brutalized may galvanize change.  Skolnick, who later noted, “Newtown changed the conversation because they were white,” highlights the power of the photographs of whiteness.

I think that for Americans, we have to see these images. This is not about politics. This is about lifting the consciousness of our nation. We have to know, yes, these were angels that went to heaven, but this was a brutal, brutal attack on children whose hands were blown off, whose faces were blown off and torsos were blown off. This is not just about glamorizing or sensationalizing what happed in Newtown. This was horror.

Yet, so much of the conversation was about the universal power of seeing evil; that viewing the horrors of gun violence, brutality, or abuse compels outrage and action.  In fact, Melissa Harris-Perry started the show by highlighting the power of images to sway public opinion; pictures shape the debate, elicit emotion, and inspire action:

So it’s a tough choice. And when it comes to choosing to show the image, the slain child, it’s a decision no parent should be faced with having to make. But it is a decision that Mamie Till-Mobley did make in the case when her son Emmett Till was killed in 1955. Instead of having a reserved, low-key, private family funeral, Mamie decided to open the casket. To make the funeral a public experience. To show how killers, lynchers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant brutalized and tortured her 14-year-old son to death. Her decision to show the world the battered body and unrecognizable face of her son Emmett served as a spark for the civil rights movement. Till’s example might lead all of us to ask Newtown parents to release those pictures. Be as brave as Mamie Till was.

To illustrate the power of image, Harris Perry and others noted how the sight of Emmett Till, beaten beyond recognition, compelled national attention and outrage, spurring the civil rights movement. In reality, it galvanized and inspired action, among African Americans.  However, the sight of Till’s disfigured body didn’t produce systemic change; it didn’t lead to legislation from congress nor did it compel federal intervention.  It didn’t lead to white America to look in the mirror or confront racism because it had seen its brutality.  Even the acquittal of two men didn’t propel a national movement across communities demanding justice and change.  Till’s death and his life, his humanity, wasn’t, to borrow from Mark Anthony Neal, “legible.” Black suffering was and continues to be “illegible” to much of white America.

Instead, Till’s death and the horrifying images impacted Black America.  Much of white America continued to accept Southern apartheid.  All images are not created equally; the white supremacist gaze clouded the moral, political, and cultural responses. 

It is no wonder that as we look at the Till generation, as we look into the historic archives to bear witness to the impact of the lynching of Till had, we see examples of how the lynching of Till galvanized activism from within the black community. Muhammad Ali and Diane Nash, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, Anne Moody and members Black Panther Party all spoke of the transformative impact of Till. Harvey Young describes the importance in “A New Fear Known to Me”:Emmett Till’s Influence and the Black Panther Party”

While spectacular murders of black people, both male and female, by white individuals and mobs had occurred for centuries within (and across) the United States, the Till case proved extraordinary thanks to Bradley’s concerted efforts not only to openly display her son’s bloated and misshapen corpse but also her maternal grief for the world to see. Although not recognizable as a person – much less a teenager, the face of Till, captured by a photographer and circulated via print media, promptly became a representation of the severity of racial hatred, prejudice, and violence that continued to exist in the nation. … It asserts that the killing not only encouraged a newfound self-­awareness among black youth as “black” and, therefore, as being susceptible to violence, but also provided additional motivation toward the formation of political organizations like the Black Panther Party, which advocated a more aggressive pursuit of social reform than the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Till’s influence on “the Party” appears not only in the recollections of members, who were nearly the same age as Till when he was murdered, but also in the Party’s skillful use of images of injustice to raise civic awareness and mobilize a new movement for social reform, efforts to monitor the police, and establishment of community-based, social service programs which sought to create a hopeful future for new generations of black youth.

Death and its meanings is clouded and constrained by race, class, and nation; bloodshed and violence is narrated through America’s white racial frame.

The differential levels of mourning and outrage afforded to different bodies are visible throughout history.  In fact, the civil rights movement used white supremacy and codified white privilege as part of its struggle to bring down the walls of Jim Crow segregation.  The Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer relied on violence against white civil rights workers to compel national attention, governmental intervention, and widespread outrage.   One organizer noted that, “the death of a white college student would bring on more attention to what was going on than a black college student getting it.”  In other words, the reports of the beating, bombing, brutalization, or murder of African Americans didn’t elicit sufficient outrage and action; images of maimed black men and women, and those who lost their lives to white supremacist hands, did not compel mourning or calls to action.  The sight of maimed white bodies, of whiteness, marked as innocence, as civility, as citizen, and as the future, provoked a differential emotional, political, and media reaction than did violence directed at black bodies.   Writing about a SNCC Poster entitled “For Food . . . For Freedom,” which featured a blond haired white child, Leigh Raiford reflects on the powerful ways that SNCC used the accepted humanity of white bodies in their fight for justice:

The “for food . . . for freedom” poster also suggests SNCC’s increased awareness of the value assigned white bodies over black bodies in the estimation of U.S. liberals, a cognizance that prompted the recruitment of more than eight hundred predominantly white, predominantly northern college students for the massive voter registration efforts of Freedom Summer. James Forman and Bob Moses rightly anticipated the media attention and general sympathy that would come to bear as young white men and women experienced, if only for a few months of 1964, the same vulnerability that beleaguered African Americans in the face of white supremacist violence. The poster speaks to the precarious situation of whites dehumanized by the matrices of race and poverty.

Pictures exist in a social context; the sight of violence and death is always read through socially-produced scripts and gaze.   Gun violence is profiled racially. Victims are profiled racially. Perpetrators of violence are profiled racially; communities are profiled racially.  The visibility and invisibility of death perpetuates this profiling schema; it reflects the logics of racial profiling as well.

The notion that visibility of violence or death compels national outrage erases the real world context of Trayvon Martin, who has been turned into the perpetrator rather than the victim within some parts of white America (see Fox news).  Look at Jordan Davis, Hadiya Pendleton, Chicago and New Orleans.  What about Oscar Grant, and so many others who have died at the hands of “law enforcement” #every28hours?

When talking about photographs, we must recognize that every life is not treated equally; every person’s humanity is not seen so much so that every image will elicit action and change. As Rebecca Wanzo argues in The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling, shaming or “sentimentality” is an “insufficient means of political change.”  Substantive change, especially when we are talking about the suffering and bodies that aren’t “legible” to white America, requires more than exposure.  A photograph that potentially forces white American into a moral crossroad does not guarantee reaction and action toward transformation.   Consciousness isn’t a natural outcome of knowledge; it’s not all about the photo.  Change results from organizing and agitation.  That is the true lesson from history.

Post script

After watching the George Zimmerman trial all week, and listening to a defense team along with the media portray Zimmerman as sympathetic terms; after watching the trial and listening to the demonization of Martin, and the deafening silence as it relates to the case from much of white America, it is clear to be that a picture is sadly not always worth 1000 words.  A picture’s worth is very much wrapped up in the scripts of race, gender, class, innocence, criminality,

Faux News: Lies, Deception, & the demonization of Salamishah Tillet

The summer of 2013 has mirrored the summer of 2012 or 2011 in many ways, especially as it relates to the assault on women’s bodies.  Enacting countless pieces of legislation and working overtime to silence critical voices, the GOP and their faux news allies have continued their march backwards toward a retrenchment of patriarchy and misogyny.

During a recent segment on MSNBC, Dr. Salamishah Tillet spoke out about the continued war on women from the GOP. She provided an important historic context for understanding the “abortion debate” and more importantly the GOP’s assault on women:

So I think that there’s a kind of moral panic, a fear of the end of whiteness that we’ve been seeing a long time and I think Obama’s ascension as president kind of symbolizes to a certain degree and I think that this is why one response to that sense that there is a decreasing white majority in the country and that women’s bodies and white women’s bodies, in particular, are obviously a crucial way of reproducing whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege.

She points to the sad truth of history.  From Eugenics to forced sterilization, from America’s immigration policies to slavery, the connections between reproduction, systemic efforts to control women’s bodies, and race are clear.  American as apple pie.

In the aftermath of the 2008 election of Barack Obama, in light of Census reports about demographic shifts that point to end of white majority, and media accounts on how “Most Babies Born in America Are Not White” there is a growing unease or anxiety from segments of white America.

Context matters – that was Dr. Tillet’s message. 

Fears about lost power and privilege, and anxiety about becoming “the minority” are wrapped up in discussions about birth rates and population size.  To ignore this context when discussing abortion is myopic and short-sided – FOXish.  And that is exactly what happened shortly after Dr. Tillet’s appearance last weekend.  Bill O’Reilly took to the airwaves to denounce Dr. Tillet’s comments as a racist attack on whites. He offered the following “assessment:”

If you oppose late term abortion and you’re white, you might be supporting white supremacy.

An amazing display of bigotry and insensitivity to the abortion issue.

An incredible display of racial hatred on national television.

If you oppose late term abortion and you’re white, you might be supporting white supremacy.

Clearly, the “F” in Fox stands for failure, because O’Reilly, Megyn Kelley and others continuously demonstrated poor reading or listening comprehension skills. I can only imagine the historiography in O’Reilly’s books.

Notwithstanding the systematic mischaracterization of Dr. Tillet’s analysis, O’Reilly fails to account for the anxiety and fear resulting from “not enough white babies.”  Instead he denies this reality, and not surprisingly FACTS.  Because for Fox, the “F” is silent when talking about facts, leaving us with a channel that merely acts or pretends to be a source of news.  This is why rather than engaging Dr. Tillet’s analysis, O’Reilly chose a path defined by bullying, disengagement, distortions, and an overall dismissal of the real issue at hand: white anxiety and its impact on the abortion debate.

Maybe he doesn’t watch his own network. In 2006, John Gibson made clear the connection between race (white anxiety), demographics, and reproduction:

Do your duty. Make more babies. That’s a lesson drawn out of two interesting stories over the last couple of days.

First, a story yesterday that half of the kids in this country under five years old are minorities. By far, the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic. Why is that? Well, Hispanics are having more kids than others. Notably, the ones Hispanics call “gabachos” — white people — are having fewer.

Now, in this country, European ancestry people, white people, are having kids at the rate that does sustain the population. It grows a bit. That compares to Europe where the birth rate is in the negative zone. They are not having enough babies to sustain their population. Consequently, they are inviting in more and more immigrants every year to take care of things and those immigrants are having way more babies than the native population, hence Eurabia.

Why aren’t they having babies? Because babies get in the way of a prosperous and comfortable modern life. Peanut butter fingerprints on the leather seats in the BMW. The Euros are particular — in particular can’t be bothered with kids. Underscore that second point….

To put it bluntly, we need more babies. Forget about that zero population growth stuff that my poor generation was misled on. Why is this important? Because civilizations need population to survive. So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can’t carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way — a slogan for our times: “procreation not recreation.”

Misery loves company. In the aftermath of reports about death of whites exceeding its birthrate, Pat Buchannan penned a panic induced treatise on the end of civilization

In demographic terms, more white Americans died in 2012 than were born. Never before — not during the Civil War bloodletting, not during the influenza epidemic after World War I, not during the Great Depression and birth dearth of the 1930s — has this happened?

In ethnic terms, it means that Americans whose forebears came from Great Britain, Ireland and Germany, Southern and Eastern Europe — the European tribes of North America — have begun to die.

The demographic winter of white America is at hand, even as it began years ago for the native-born of old Europe.

Such feelings are widespread. Erin Gloria Ryan, at Jezeel, highlights the anger, disappointment, and outrage resulting from reports about the number of non-white babies:

Readers of Fox Nation, that reliable bastion of whackadoodlery, rated the story of the nonwhite birth rate surpassing the white birth rate as “Scary.” And commenters are frightened, but resigned. One said, “It was bound to happen.. with anchor babies and pay raises for more chillrin…” Others, who clearly still don’t understand the concept of “structural racism” having nothing to do with sheer numbers and everything to do with power, wondered if they’d get special consideration for entering “government school” now. You know, like all those Mexican children of undocumented farm workers who are applying for admission to Harvard, unseating deserving white applicants. Another said, “Not hard to believe. Los Angeles in the 1970′s was overwhelmingly white. Now it’s overwhelmingly latino. The latinos took over. Just look at the school demographics. That pretty much tells the story. This country is slowly being returned to Mexico with the help of politicians.” Hard to argue with that!

Over at the Washington Post, one commenter can’t wait to cash in on anticipated white minority status: “I’m been trying to get my white college age sons recognized as a minority at their college, because they are a minority – white – male – and enrolled in college — but the institution laughs at me and says I am misinformed. My grandchildren and great grandchildren will have to work very hard to organize in order to be recognized as a minority, and I believe this needs to be jump started ASAP in order to protect their rights.”   

While O’Reilly and Leslie Marshall (the “liberal” who discussed Dr. Tillet’s appearance) want to locate these viewpoints as those of “extremists and skinheads,” they are central to American history; they are evident within a myriad of contemporary spaces, from FOX to the GOP. The truth hurts (there clearly is no “T” in Fox).

But why bother with truth when you can just be a bully.  Yes, I said it.  Bill O’Reilly is a bully.  Why else would he put Dr. Tillet’s picture on the screen several times but to arouse his audience? To spark vitriol; to intimidate.   Does it surprise anyone that she received hundreds of hateful messages?  With a huge platform, Billy and his faux news minions are a threat to democracy and substantive conversations.  That is neither a controversial statement nor anything new, but a threat nonetheless.  Fox being Fox cannot be a defense.

The combination of miss characterizations – LIES – and their play to emotionality, white resentment (their race card), and ignorance are all essential to the playbook of a bully – a  dangerous bully.  One can only hope that by 2014, we see an end to the GOP’s assault on women, and faux news assault on reason, facts, and honest debate.  Sadly, I am not holding my breath for either.

“There’s a war going on outside:” Health Care and Women of Color (part 1) | The Feminist Wire

Credit: Favianna Rodriguez

“There’s a war going on outside:” Health Care and Women of Color (part 1)

April 20, 2012

By David J. Leonard

Anna Brown sought out the care of St. Mary’s Health Center in St. Louis, MO because she was not feeling well. Complaining of extreme pain, so intense that she was unable to stand, one doctor identified Brown as “healthy enough to be locked up.” She refused to leave and demanded treatment; the police who wrongly thought she was under the influence of drugs instead took her to jail.

Brown would later die as a result of blood clots that traveled from her legs into her lungs. The underlying health issue is not what killed Brown. But the suspicion that she aroused in both the doctor and the police who saw her as a criminal in need of incarceration rather than a sick patient in need of medical attention stopped these trained professionals from giving her the care she deserved.

The disrespect and disregard for her humanity has continued within a public that has been silent regarding the shameful incident. The absence of a sustained public discussion, whether in the media or from political leaders, embodies the value afforded to her as a homeless black women in America. On Medicaid, her pain was neither heard nor seen at St. Mary’s or the other two hospitals she sought care from on this fateful September day. Yet, the disregard for her life, and the dangers of being sick while black, extend beyond this moment as the value ascribed to her body and experience overdetermines her continued victimization.

Amid all the discussions of the “war on women” few have brought up the experience of Anna Brown or other women of color whose health, bodies, and humanity remain a dream deferred. Media accounts often chronicle the issue of health care through a partisan lens, in recent weeks talking about the “war on women” (as if this is new). The failure to provide universal health care, like the assault on Planned Parenthood, is particularly harmful to women of color. According to Britni Danielle, “As the Supreme Court deliberates about the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the death of 29-year-old Anna Brown reminds us why health coverage is so vital to all.” Universal access to health care represents a dream deferred for many women in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, over 17 million women between the ages of 18 and 64, that is 1 in 5, lack health insurance. One in 10 women who work lack health care; even those who are insured are often unable to secure needed care – 16 percent of women report being denied coverage or payment for needed health services. As noted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in 2005:

As earlier mentioned, while many women carry some form of health insurance, numerous policies do not cover the services most needed by women. According to the KFF, as health costs swell, 27 percent of non-elderly women (under age 65) and 67 percent of uninsured women report that they delayed or went without treatment because of the cost for that treatment. Additionally, uninsured women are far less likely to be screened for breast, cervical and colon cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis—all major maladies affecting women.

Reflecting a health care system based on employer-provided coverage, which because of gender inequality in the labor force leads to denied health care and sexism within the insurance industry, health care and affordable health care remain illusive for women. In other words, the opposition to health care reform and the refusal to institute a single-payer system constitutes a continued war on women. More specifically, it reflects a war on women of color, particularly those who are poor.

African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos all face a society that seems either unaware of or unfazed by the lack of affordable and available health care. For example, as of 2009, 21 percent of African Americans lacked health insurance compared to 15 percent of white women – black women are twice as likely and Latinas are three times as likely to lack health insurance. This is evident at the national level and also at the state level where the inequalities are startling. In North Dakota, American Indian women are five times more likely to lack health insurance than white women, as are Alaska Native women. In the District of Columbia because of denied access, the lack of affordability, and denied health insurance, black and Latina women are three times less likely to receive prenatal care, which contributes to low birth weight, high infant mortality, and a myriad of other health problems.

Continue reading @ “There’s a war going on outside:” Health Care and Women of Color (part 1) | The Feminist Wire.

CODE BLAH: Racism in Republican Politics | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture

CODE BLAH: Racism in Republican Politics

By Guest Contributors

James Braxton Peterson and David J. Leonard

Some days it seems as if the GOP candidates are competing to be the governor of Alabama, circa 1960, rather than running to be President of the United States in 2013. Since the republican process to elect a nominee commenced, we have been treated to an endless string of racially awkward moments. Whether instances of ignorance or ignorant instances of institutionally racist ideology, too many of the republican Presidential candidates have re-revealed for us the colorblind fact that we are NOT post-race. In fact, judging from some of the candidate’s miscues and the underhanded pandering directly to the racial Right, we might actually be Pre-Race.

During a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Rick Santorum, responded to a familiar question about government spending with a longwinded diatribe that ultimately led him back to the GOP’s sweet spot: demonizing (and tacitly racializing) the social safety net. Focusing on the size of government and spending, Santorum stated:

It just keeps expanding—I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don’t sign up more people under the Medicaid program. They’re just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That’s what the bottom line is.

But this was not the “bottom line.” Santorum went on to ‘clarify’ the links between government spending and race, rehashing the accepted argument of the right that the federal government, especially under President Obama, is dedicated to taking money from hardworking white Americans and giving it to lazy and nonworking African Americans. He argued, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money. And provide for themselves and their families. The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.”

Santorum’s seamless transition from government spending to blacks on welfare is a non sequitur; it is indicative of the power of a white racial framework that consistently imagines African Americans as welfare queens and unproductive parasites on/in society. These stereotypes of African Americans stand in juxtaposition to the vision of middle and working class white folk as the racial model of hard work, virtue and dedication. While only 9% of African Americans in Iowa are on food stamps (nationally, 39% of welfare recipients are white, whereas 37% and 17% are black and Latino), Santorum’s comments resonate with the GOP’s vision of race and policy. His comments complemented Newt Gingrich’s recent lamentation of the deficient work ethic of black youth, his recycling of the culture of poverty/Moynihan Report, and his constant references to President Obama as a “food stamp president.”

Not surprisingly, Santorum and his fellow candidates have denied the racial implications here. Arguing that he did not actually say “black,” that some of “his best friends are black,” and that he was merely giving voice to the issues raised in Waiting for Superman, Santorum his been dealing the race-denial card from the top, bottom, and middle of the deck.

Despite the denials, the comments fit a larger worldview seemingly shared by Santorum and the entire field. Earlier in his campaign, Santorum argued that President Obama, as a black man, should understand the dangers of the government deciding who is and isn’t a person. “The question is — and this is what Barack Obama didn’t want to answer — is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says ‘no,’” Santorum argued during a television interview. “Well if that person — human life is not a person — then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘we’re going to decide who are people and who are not people.’” This effort to invoke race and to analogically integrate his pro-life agenda with anti-black racism isn’t just a campaign strategy.

Continue reading @ CODE BLAH: Racism in Republican Politics | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture.