As a teenager I remember watching an episode of the TV show called The Equalizer. In this particular episode there were a number of racist skinheads that were causing problems and using violence and intimidation. But then, in a later scene, a black gang in a van road into a white part of town and while shouting “black power!” opened fired and killed innocent victims.
I remember being shocked by it because it was portraying African Americans in a negative light. But I did a quick internal check. I asked myself this: Is it’s okay for us to portray white racists using violence against African Americans – so that we can see that this is wrong? Yes. Then why is it not also acceptable to also portray African American racists using violence against Caucasians to equally condemn that sort of violence and racism as well?
With my new found openness I, rather then being appalled at the show, thought they were gutsy for portraying both sides of racism like this.
A moment later, the scene changed and the blacks who had shot and killed people took off their makeup and we saw it was actually the skinheads after all. Apparently they were killing whites (while disguised as blacks) so that whites would fear blacks. I threw my new found openness out the window and sighed with relief.
A little later, I did some soul searching over this. For that brief moment where I thought the media has portrayed blacks being racist against whites, I had been troubled by it. Why? What in particular makes me troubled about a portrayal of one sort of racism and not another when I know plain well both exist? Though modern prison or drug shows (particularly on cable) have made such depictions, they were unheard of on primetime television at the time and are still rare.
What I decided was that I was worried about a negative portrayal of a minority more so then an (for lack of a better term) “empowered” group. A minority that is not well liked (including Mormons by the way) has a lot less ability to counteract negative portrayals about them then a majority group who can. The minority is often quite helpless against false views amongst a majority. So I felt that this justified my sigh of relief over realizing that the black people killing white people were really racist white people.
(Side Note: That is why I worry about people who make a career out of giving their views to the media on what Believing Mormons are really like. Even if they manage to portray Mormons fairly — a difficult feat in and of itself given their own biases – there is still a huge concern with how even a fair portrayl might not lead to a fair view in the population and how it might negatively effect the lives of the minority who simply lack the power to give their own point of view with equal distribution).
Not too long later I saw an episode of Family Ties where Mr. Keaton convinced his African American boss to move into his suburban neighborhood. This was, of course, a well to do African American since he was Mr. Keaton’s boss. When he moved in, people’s home values started to plummet and people started moving out of the neighborhood. This lead to threats of violence against Mr. Keaton’s boss including people doing things like breaking into their home and grafting it in the inside with threats saying “go away or else” and the like.
It was only later when I lived in Detroit did I realize how farcical this was as a portrayal of things like white flight as happens in real life. While White Flight is truly a concerning thing, it just isn’t anything like how it was portrayed on Family Ties.
However, I had a second thought about this gross misrepresentation of white flight that I feel justifies the simplified portrayal even if it’s not really very accurate to real life.
I think entertainment wants to portray morality. Entertainment is usually story, and story is conflict. And the best conflicts are ones that invoke our moral sense which is also our sense of purpose in life.
But there tends to be much disagreement over what really is right and wrong. So the media usually sticks with issues that are ‘safe’ by simplifying real life issues to the point where there is no moral dilemma any more at all. Someone is good and someone is bad and that is that. We are to cheer for the good and hate the bad.
Of course there are exceptions. The media tends towards a liberal bias so they often have little concern with portraying the good guys as liberals and the bad guys as closed minded conservatives. And lest we think the media is all one way or the other, one can’t overlook the ‘moral’ situations that the show 24 liked to bring up – often with a strong conservative bent.
Over my life I’ve swung back and forth on how I feel about entertainments over simplification of morality. At times it really bugs me. One can’t really learn about how to deal with the moral problems of white flight by watching Family Ties. Nor can you get a serious picture of racism by watching the media where all racists are not only always white but always openly violent.
And yet it’s hard to deny that these simplifications do have value. For one, programs like this do help form our feelings that racism is wrong. Without them, it’s unlikely we’d be as sensitive to the issues of racism. And, to be frank, it’s still primarily entertainment. I don’t get up and walk out of Lord of the Rings either just because no one is really as bad as Sauron (or is that even true?) In truth all entertainment is a ‘simplification’ of real life. Even the dialog in entertainment is fake beyond reason. No one in movies ever talks over each other or cuts each other off as is normal in real life. And no one ever does a poor job of explaining themselves — except in screwball comedies where they are meant to; and even then it’s fake beyond reason how far they go to avoid explaining themselves to keep the joke running . But if it weren’t this way, it just wouldn’t work well as entertainment.
With these thoughts in mind, I could accept the oversimplification of white flight in Family Ties.
But it was when I was watching an episode of Early Edition called “March in Time” that I finally asked myself if there might also be a negative to the oversimplification of racists.
In this episode of Early Edition (a show about a man who receives tomorrows newspaper today) our villain is a militant style racist that loves to go around from town to town and get people to march with him in favor of racial segregation and white supremacy.
The thing that made this episode so interesting was that it was probably the single most realistic portrayal of racists I’ve ever seen on prime time television by the late 1990s.
One things that they added to make it more “real” was that only the main villain was truly a bad person. The people that marched with him – though also racists – were just normal — but confused – people that were letting their emotions get away with them. The very fact that we saw a portrayal of what we might call ‘normal people as racists’ (if only as non-speaking extras) was a landmark in and of itself.
Making things even more complicated was the fact that the militant racist villain was intentionally avoiding any sort of violence in public. Now to be sure, the moment he was not in public and no police were around we were shown he was secretly a violent racist. This went without saying. But plot-wise no one opposing the villain (save only our hero) knew he was actually a violent person. Everyone else in the show believed he was just just someone with nasty words that was inflaming racism in others.
When our villain (named Darryl Foster) came to town he first went and got a permit to march. Seeing as we live in America – you know, that place with freedom of speech — this is of course entirely legal. But the people of the town were outraged by it, as well they should be. So the townsfolk showed up and picketed him as he got his permit. Again, as it should be.
But then, as anger rose, things turned a bit ugly. Credible threats of violence were made at him if he didn’t leave town. The credibility of the threats was important to the plot because Foster keeps showing up dead in tomorrow’s paper and there is a ‘who’s-going-to-do-it’ sort of mystery going on.
Now in Early Edition, there were three ‘main characters.’ Gary is the man that receives tomorrow’s newspaper today. He’s our hero. Chuck is a white man that is a bit goofy and emotional and plays our comic relief. Marissa is a blind black woman that is the peace maker and voice of conscience.
So naturally Chuck, being a hot head, vocally tells Gary to not save the racist because he deserves to die and openly agrees with those wanting to use violence on him to stop him from doing his peaceful but racist march. To this rant Marissa steps in and reminds him of a little thing called freedom of speech and the constitution. So this was the second landmark of racism on national television: they actually bothered to remind us that racist speech is constitutionally protected speech. We might wish it was otherwise, but it’s necessary if we are going to protect our own freedom of speech.
As the course of the story unfolded, Foster continually finds that many people are willing to threaten him with violence. He is, of course, too smooth an operator to let this worry him. (He doesn’t realize, of course, that tomorrow’s newspaper shows him dead.) This is what makes him such a good villain. It looks like he is unstoppable because he never loses his cool. Perhaps violence will be necessary to stop him?
Because so many people are threatening violence against him, our future seeing hero can’t figure out who it is that is going to kill him. So he keeps showing up trying to stop the murder of this racist and nabs the wrong person. But why does our hero protect the racist? We are specifically told it is not to protect the racist’s life, but to protect the person who is going to commit the murder from doing something they will regret.
At the climax of the story, the villain finally marches on the town. Boldly, the town people refuse to let him do it by standing in his way. A confrontation takes place – a show down between what is right (anti-racism) and the law. While this is happening, our future seeing hero (Gary) finally finds the murderer. The would-be-murderer has a sniper rifle aimed at the racist and is about ready to shoot when Gary-the-hero catches him and convinces him that if he (the would-be-murderer) does this, he’ll be as bad as the racist. This, of course, finally causes him to not commit the murder.
At the same moment, the racist’s own young son switches sides in the confrontation over whether or not the tows people will let the racists hold their march – thereby defying his father for the first time. By joining those that are not going to let him march this causes the other people in the racist march to realize what a schmuck the racists is. They are disperse and the racists is finally defeated – all without using violence. The Moral™
I confess, it was a really good episode. And it was striking for the fact that it actually went out of its way to include issues you don’t normally find in a prime time TV show on racism, like addressing the constitutional freedom of speech and that not all racist are violent or even bad people.
Is There a Down Side to Simplification?
And yet I realized that maybe we’ve gone to far. At some level I couldn’t help but note that the show reflects how we honestly feel about racists and racism. That is to say, the show mirrors our public value system, reflecting ourselves back at ourselves. (As television is wont to do.) We honestly do feel that freedom of speech has lesser moral claim on us than opposing racism. That the townsfolk were about to deny someone their constitutional rights via use of violence was not seen as morally problematic. Instead it was portrayed as a heroic act that the law just hadn’t really caught up to yet.
And perhaps even worse, we apparently honestly feel that racism is morally equivalent to murder.
I can’t accept either of these positions. The fact is that non-violent racist speech is not equivalent to murder. Had the murderer gone through with shooting the villain, he wouldn’t be ‘as bad’ as the racist, he’d be considerably worse. When did non-violent racism (as the murderer believed) become grounds for forfeiting a right to life? And when did we as an audience come to accept that this is true?
We are all just people. And our laws are often wiser than we are. This is because the laws (when made correctly anyhow) represent a fair process rather than a fair outcome. The problem with seeking a fair outcome is that we are so easily self-deceived. So a fair process should be a real goal.
I think this principle has far reaching consequences. I consider, for example, the issue of judicial restraint vs. judicial legislation. The principle at risk is fair outcome vs. fair process. Do judges have a moral duty to make sure the outcome is what they know in their hearts is right? Or do they have a moral duty to try to bury what they believe is right and interpret the laws honestly?
I think the vast majority of people I know – liberal or conservative – fall (often unknowingly) into the “fair outcome” camp. Both sides have a strong temptation to ‘do what is right’ in their hearts regardless of the law. (For liberals Roe vs. Wade. For conservatives Lochner.) This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue, it’s a human one.
I confess, I cheered right along with the rest of the television audience when I first saw the show back in 1998 when the racist was finally stopped. It wasn’t until a much later viewing that it first occured to me that maybe the right thing for the good townsfolk to have done was not to threaten violence at the racist march but to go home and let the racist march happen without a single spectator. To me, that would have been the best of all possible heroic endings.
In any case, the show was — on both viewings — extremely thought provoking.