The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) hosted a discussion on “The Black Male Image through the Media” at its general body Chapter Meeting on Tuesday.
The discussion was moderated by PABJ President Johann Calhoun and featured four culture, social, media and education leaders who offered their perspectives and suggested solutions.
“Black men are special. We are the only group of individuals in America that, when we leave our house in the morning, we have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Father’s Day Rally Committee (FDRC) President Bilal Qayyum, one of the discussion’s panelists.
“We don’t know whether we are going to be killed by the police officer, [if] we are going to run into another angry Black man — we don’t know when we get to work, if we’re going to have a job,” he said. “No other group — Black women, white women, white men, Asian, Latino men and women — have to live by that daily pressure. I always say to folks the image is already painted in America, in the sense that our ancestors came here under gun point.”
Upon setting this frame of reference, the discussion then centered on specific cases of Black male images in mainstream media, ranging from coverage of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., to President Barack Obama.
Opinions on each issue varied. Some panelists were satisfied with coverage of Ferguson, because it helped to expose the organizing of Black youth for a cause, inclusive of Black males. And, some pointed out depending on the station, you may or may not see fair coverage of America’s president.
But the panelists, agreed, in general, the media does skew negative, toward violent and thuggish images, when it comes to the Black male.
Eric Grimes, 900AM WURD host of the Shomari Show and one of the panelists, used demeaning coverage of Obama, “the most powerful man in the world,” as a primary example. In a 2009 New York Post cover story on the president’s stimulus package, the Post published a cartoon image of Obama as a chimpanzee, held at gun point by police. Such images, Grimes said, send a key message.
“When you live in a culture that can equate your president to a chimpanzee that’s worthy of a police shooting, then that’s going to trickle down,” he said. “If I can kill your president, then Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. If this is what they can do to the most powerful man in the world without ramification, then all bets are off regarding the way the average, basic brother is going to be treated.”
The question was then raised if Black males contribute to this negative coverage with self-perpetuating stereotypes, such as the wearing of sagging pants.
Several of the panelists dismissed the notion, making the point such a look is not unique to Black males. White male youth adopt the sagging pants as well, but it is usually called by a different name, they said.
“Sagging pants, slang talk and less than flattering lyrics is negative on a Black body, but on a white body it’s skater culture or maybe it’s death metal,” said panelist Christopher Norris, CEO of Techbook Online. “If you go into King of Prussia or if you go into South Philly by the stadium where they are skating, you’ll see the white boys dressed like that with their pants down and they are dropping f-bombs … they are doing all this stuff that Black males do, but they are not demonized for it.”
To correct or change this phenomenon, the panelists said there needed to be a push for balanced coverage, and advocated for more Black media ownership.
“Advocacy for Black males and equity in the media process is important,” said panelist Thomas Butler, director of Advancement and Operations for the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable. “Wherever we can try to balance the information [on] how Black men are portrayed, that for me is the best way ... equity doesn’t necessarily mean equality. Because there is so much negative [information] about Black men, we have to do double time to [publish] the positive.”
For Grimes, Black journalists “taking over” their media and communications spaces is the most effective answer, even more so than “protest[ing]” for fair coverage.
“We are the only people who are crying about this issue,” he said. “Overnight you can create a whole communications system that’s at scale, that’s where the work is. And then, all of a sudden, these images will change real quick. You don’t have to worry about your protests because you’ll have your protest by building your own institution.”