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UB DMS 107LEC - In Living Color: Race and American Culture

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MICHAEL OMIIn Living Color: Race and American CultureThough many like to think that racism in America is a thing of the past, Michael Omi argues that racism is a pervasive feature in our lives, one that is both overt and inferential. Using race as a sign by which we judge a person’s character, inferential racism invokes deep-rooted stereotypes, and as Omi shows in his survey of Ameri-can fi lm, television, and music, our popular culture is hardly immune from such stereotyping. Indeed, when ostensibly “progressive” pro-grams like Saturday Night Live can win the National Ethnic Coali-tion of Organizations’ “Platinum Pit Award” for racist stereotyping in television, and shock jocks such as Howard Stern command big audiences and salaries, one can see popular culture has a way to go before it becomes colorblind. The author of Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (with Howard Winant, 1986, 1994), Omi is a professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent project is a survey of antiracist organizations and initiatives.In February 1987, Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, the nation’s chief civil rights enforcer, declared that the recent death of a black man in Howard Beach, New York, and the Ku Klux Klan attack on civil rights marchers in Forsyth County, Georgia, were “isolated” racial incidences. He emphasized that the places where racial confl ict could potentially fl are up were “far fewer now than ever before in our history,” and concluded that such a diminishment of racism stood as “a powerful testament to how far we have come in the civil rights struggle.”1Events in the months following his remarks raise the question as to whether we have come quite so far. They suggest that dramatic instances of racial tension and violence merely constitute the surface manifestations of a deeper racial organization of American society — a system of inequality which has shaped, and in turn been shaped by, our popular culture.In March, the NAACP released a report on blacks in the record industry entitled “The Discordant Sound of Music.” It found that despite the revenues generated by black performers, blacks remain “grossly underrepresented” in the business, marketing, and A&R (Artists and Repertoire) departments of major record labels. In addition, few blacks are employed as managers, agents, concert promoters, distributors, and retailers. The report concluded that:1Reynolds’s remarks were made at a conference on equal opportunity held by the bar association in Orlando, Florida. The San Francisco Chronicle (7 February 1987). Print.625MAA_4700X_09_Ch07_pp614-696.indd 625MAA_4700X_09_Ch07_pp614-696.indd 625 10/14/11 8:06 PM10/14/11 8:06 PM626 AMERICAN MAKEOVERThe record industry is overwhelmingly segregated and discrimination is rampant. No other industry in America so openly classifi es its operations on a racial basis. At every level of the industry, beginning with the sepa-ration of black artists into a special category, barriers exist that severely limit opportunities for blacks.2Decades after the passage of civil rights legislation and the affi rmation of the principle of “equal opportunity,” patterns of racial segregation and exclusion, it seems, continue to characterize the production of popular music.The enduring logic of Jim Crow is also present in professional sports. In April, Al Campanis, vice president of player personnel for the Los Angeles Dodgers, explained to Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline about the paucity of blacks in baseball front offi ces and as managers. “I truly believe,” Campanis said, “that [blacks] may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a fi eld manager or perhaps a general manager.” When pressed for a reason, Campanis offered an explanation which had little to do with the structure of opportunity or institutional discrimination within professional sports:[W]hy are black men or black people not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy. . . . They are gifted with great musculature and various other things. They’re fl eet of foot. And this is why there are a lot of black major league ballplayers. Now as far as having the background to become club presidents, or presidents of a bank, I don’t know.3Black exclusion from the front offi ce, therefore, was justifi ed on the basis of biological “difference.”The issue of race, of course, is not confi ned to the institutional arrangements of popular culture production. Since popular culture deals with the symbolic realm of social life, the images which it creates, represents, and disseminates contribute to the overall racial climate. They become the subject of analysis and political scrutiny. In August, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations bestowed the “Golden Pit Awards” on television programs, commercials, and movies that were deemed offensive to racial and ethnic groups. Saturday Night Live, regarded by many media critics as a politically “progressive” show, was singled out for the “Platinum Pit Award” for its comedy skit “Ching Chang” which depicted a Chinese storeowner and his family in a derogatory manner.4These examples highlight the overt manifestations of racism in popular cul-ture — institutional forms of discrimination which keep racial minorities out of the production and organization of popular culture, and the crude racial 52Economic Development Department of the NAACP, “The Discordant Sound of Music (A Report on the Record Industry),” (Baltimore, Maryland: The NAACP, 1987), pp. 16–17. Print.3Campanis’s remarks on Nightline were reprinted in The San Francisco Chronicle (April 9, 1987). Print.4Ellen Wulfhorst, “TV Stereotyping: It’s the ‘Pits,’” The San Francisco Chronicle (August 24, 1987). Print.MAA_4700X_09_Ch07_pp614-696.indd 626MAA_4700X_09_Ch07_pp614-696.indd 626 10/14/11 8:06 PM10/14/11 8:06 PMMichael Omi / In Living Color: Race and American Culture 627caricatures by which these groups are portrayed. Yet racism in popular cul-ture is often conveyed in a variety of implicit, and at times invisible, ways. Political theorist Stuart Hall makes

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