Media conversations about racism are rarely accurate, let alone honest, facilitating the status quo and hindering systemic change. A discussion between Dylan Rodriguez, Eddie Conway, and Jaqueline Luqman
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Four years after the massacre of nine black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina; two years after the murder of a white anti-fascist and anti-racist activist in Charlottesville, Virginia; and days after the racially motivated massacre of 22 people who were targeted because their murderer wanted to kill Hispanics, America has reached a crisis point where we finally have to talk about racism in our society. But is the media approaching this conversation in an honest and accurate way that will facilitate real, honest conversation and change? And if the media isn’t, how do we expect to overcome an issue we can’t even get right in the discussion?
Here to talk about this with me today are Dylan Rodriguez, Dr. Dylan Rodriguez. He’s a scholar, activist, and teacher who has written three books, including the forthcoming book, White Reconstruction. Dr. Rodriguez is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Welcome, Dr. Rodriguez.
DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Hey, good afternoon.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And with me in the studio is Eddie Conway. Eddie is a former Black Panther and a producer here at The Real News Network. Eddie, thanks for joining me here today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: All right. So obviously because of the horrific racially-motivated murders and other incidences that have happened over the past few years, not just days, but years, even to the most recent barbarous anti-immigration policies being carried out, racism is being forced into the public discourse in the media. And that’s a good thing, right? But does it seem that there is a fundamental lack of understanding about what racism really is in that discourse, Eddie?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, yes. I think the way it’s being presented is that each one of these incidents is a one-off incident. I think it’s this person was retarded or this person had some kind of personal problems or this person had difficulties adjusting in society and it’s an aberration. When in reality there is an underlining philosophy of white supremacy of all of these particular incidents, and it’s about economics and it’s about the ruling class and how the ruling class is managing to maintain its position in America by divide and conquer. And I think the media doesn’t look at that and doesn’t look at in whose interest it is to have people fighting with each other because of their ethnicity. So I think until—And of course, the media is owned and controlled, 85% of it, by the corporations that run America, that run the world. So I don’t think we’re ever going to get a real look at what’s happening here unless we take it upon ourselves to educate each other and the public.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So that brings, that starts off with a great point. The fact that we need to educate each other and the public. So Dr. Rodriguez, when we see the media broaching this topic of racism, are they discussing racism accurately? And if they’re not, exactly what is racism?
DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: So the first thing that we have to understand when we engage a question like this is that the corporate and dominant media is itself constituted in histories of racism. From popular cultural depictions of black folks, of Native people, and others, to the way in which the corporate news media is highly selective and deeply gendered and racialized in how it’s conceptualized its reports on things like crime and violence and warfare. You can’t separate the actual power relation of racism from the way that the media itself is formed institutionally, so that’s the first thing we have to understand. How can we possibly assume that corporate-dominant media is going to generate an accurate, robust, and serious conversation around racism when it itself is already implicated in that power relation? So that’s the first thing.
But the second thing is that we have to understand racism as a technology of power. It is multidimensional, it is complex, and it is historical. What this does for us is it pushes back against the attribution of racism to notions of what is in somebody’s heart, right? Or for that matter, whether or not somebody is or is not mentally ill or disabled, which is a really deeply pathologizing discourse for mentally ill and disabled people. And so if we understand racism as a technology of power, then you’ve got to talk about the different dimensions of it. First of all, racism is about a logic of how – of knowledge dominance. There are particular categories of people on this planet— now and historically— whose humanity is presumed and there are other categories of people whose humanity is constantly in need of explanation and in need of defense and is therefore vulnerable to denigration, dismissal, and sometimes extermination. So it’s a knowledge structure, right? And not everybody on the planet is equally subjected to the knowledge structure of racism.
The second part of this that I think is somewhat more commonly understood among liberals and progressive is that racism is a logic of social construction as well as institutionalization. So what racism does, it produces differential access to things like the labor market, produces different kinds of cultural representation. It produces economic class difference that are more severe between gender and racial groups and so forth. But what we’re seeing more and more now, particularly in recent days, is how racism is inseparable from historical logics of physiological and cultural violence. So both of those previous two things, the knowledge dominance that racism is constituted by and the institutional relations that racism defines are always inseparable from physiological and cultural forms of violence. And not just one-off forms of mass shootings, but generally pattern forms of racial terror.
So when you talk about El Paso, when you talk about Dayton, when you talk about Charlottesville, these things are not one-off isolated incidents. They’re part of historical relations that is constructed in racist terror. So racism cannot be separated from the historical relations of terror, by which I mean people who are subjected to racial dominance experiencing the imminent, the always-about-to-happen violence on their people, on their bodies, and on their relations because of the kind of structure of violence that is endemic to racism.
The last thing I’ll say, too, is that a concept that doesn’t get brought up nearly enough when we talk about racism is how it’s inseparable from the historical patterns of genocide and proto-genocide. Whether we’re talking about the Transatlantic trade in captive Africans or the conquest of this hemisphere, racism has never been conceptualized and articulated separate from these structures, these activities, and these practices of genocidal and proto-genocidal violence, including conquest. So there’s a whole body of people that we should be reading together around this, right? Scholars, activists, cultural workers, artists, and others. But we’ve got to have a more serious and rigorous definition of racism that doesn’t attribute it to what’s in somebody’s heart because otherwise you’re never going to figure it out. You’re never going to find out what’s in somebody’s heart. It also doesn’t matter what’s in somebody’s heart.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That’s amazing and that is so much to unpack, but I want to go back to what you and both, Dr. Rodriguez said and what you also said, Eddie. You alluded to the same things that I think ties to this component of the media and that is thought control.
Eddie, you talked about the corporate entities that are controlled by – that control the media, that control the narrative, that are very wedded to the idea of white supremacy. And Dr. Rodriguez, you talked about the media is constructed in white supremacist ideology and thought, so then that not only serves—and Eddie, I want you to correct me if I’m wrong— that not only serves to mask our understanding of what racism really is, and how deep it is, and how wide it is, the breadth of it and the long history of it. But it also infects our relationships, our understanding of how even marginalized groups of people are affected by this very thing that we don’t have a clear definition of.
Let’s say, for example, when we’re describing tensions between say black people and other marginalized groups of people. When we look at ICE raids in Mississippi and we’ve seen some black people, not a lot, but some black people supporting these raids and supporting Trump’s immigration policies because they believe that getting rid of immigrants will be better or good for employment for black people.
MAYOR WILLIAM TRULY, (D) CANTON, MISSISSIPPI: I now know that they are documenting and identifying illegal immigrants and those versus who are legal.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: How does the media misinterpretation or misdirection of what racism is, play into the understanding of other marginalized groups of people and their relationship to that same white supremacist structure? How does that media narrative that’s completely false about racism affect the way we see each other in this system?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I think I would take a step back first and, as Professor Rodriguez said, that there’s a history. The media is responsible in a great many ways for perpetrating racism across America and it was done by the invaders, the people that decided that they would colonize the Americas. And once they started that process, they were faced with Indigenous populations. They were faced with enslaved Africans, which they brought with them. And they were also faced with indentured servants, who were people – part of their populations they brought with them. And they were faced with this collection of populations that coordinated, organized, ran away together, rebelled together, interacted together. And it narrowed down their ability to protect and defend their assault as they encroached upon people’s land and people’s lives and liberty. So their media, they used the media to create this mysterious white race. Before it was Italians. Before it was Spanish. Before it was Germans. Before it was British. Before it was Danish, Polish, etc.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right. Or Christians and non-Christians.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. All of a sudden, it became white. And it became a white race and it was a collective of all of these different groups. And their nationality disappeared and they became a new nationality. And they used the pen to spread that idea and spread that propaganda. And they used those early papers in the 16th, 17th, 18th century to demonize the Chinese, the Indigenous, the blacks, and anybody that supported those groups. And in the process of doing that, they gave value points.
If you were a part of the white race, you were definitely civilized, superior, noble, etc. If you was part of the Native population, you were savage. Albeit, sometimes a noble savage if we wanted to marry your daughter, but a savage, nevertheless. If you were Chinese, you were— thanks to the British Opium War— you were a drug addict. And if you were an African enslaved, you were less than human. And so they put value on those different populations. And they perpetrated that myth throughout their papers. Throughout their history. You could see it. In the process of doing that, they made certain populations, certain people within the population, accept those qualifications and start to look down upon each other. “Well, I’m better than you. Well I might not be there, but I’m better than you.”
And at the same time that we’re doing that, the ruling class was constantly telling their population of whites that they were better than all of those other groups. And even though they were being abused, just like all the rest of the groups, but they might have received some creature comforts. But all of this came to their use and spread of the media. And the history of the media, like Dylan said, is one of creating this racism and endorsing this white supremacy. And then having those people that were in lesser positions, look at people that they considered lesser than them. And so now we’re—And it’s divide and conquer. And now we’re looking at people that are not us and saying, “You’re taking our jobs.” Or, “You’re the reason we can’t get those jobs.” But that’s always been the premise of the ruling classes. And it goes back to Julius Caesar— divide and conquer. Give them circuses and give them bread. Those are the things that they did when they brought the conquest, Western conquest, to the world. Divide and conquer.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let me see if I understand what you’re saying, that this tension between oppressed groups of people is in itself a function of racism. It is the way racism and white supremacy works between kind of laterally, between all of the oppressed groups of people. But when we look at it horizontally, that’s how it works for the people who, or the groups of people, who are implementing or who have perpetrated those ideas through the media. Is that that pretty much what you’re saying?
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Dr. Rodriguez, when we’re looking at the media today from that context, understanding – and this is all by design. I’d love to get your response to what recently happened on MSNBC where Dr. Eddie Glaude made these comments just a few days ago on this issue of confronting racism in America.
EDDIE GLAUDE: You know, America is not unique in its sins, as a country. We’re not unique in our evils, to be honest with you. I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them and the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness. To hide and cover and conceal so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence. See, the thing is that when the Tea Party was happening, we used people where we were saying pundits, “Oh, it’s just about economic populism. It’s not about race.” But what was driving the Tea Party were anxieties about demographic shifts, that the country was changing, that they were seeing these racially ambiguous babies on Cheerios commercials. That the country wasn’t quite feeling like it was a white nation anymore. What we know is that the country has been playing politics for a long time on this hatred.
We know this. So it’s easy for us to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders. And if we’re going to get past this, we can’t blame it on him. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us. I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a tradition that didn’t believe in the myths and the legends because we had to bear the brunt of them. Either we’re going to change in the cold or we’re going to do this again and again. And babies are going to have to grow up without mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, friends, while we’re trying to convince white folk to finally leave behind a history that will – maybe, maybe, or embrace a history that might set them free from being white. Finally. Finally.
NICOLLE WALLACE, MSNBC NEWS: What else?
EDDIE GLAUDE: Lord, help us.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Dr. Rodriguez, what are your thoughts on the fact that Dr. Glaude said what he did on corporate media? What is your response to what should happen now? What are we supposed to do? What do we do with that incredible moment?
DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think we need to take advantage of the space that it creates to generate a real serious conversation about how white supremacy is structuring liberal and progressive discourse as well as the Trump-istas and the far-right. This is what is, I think, vastly missing from the national conversation around white supremacy and racism. There’s a weird way in which I think white liberalism and multicultural progressivism have disavowed white supremacy of a particular compartmentalized type in order to distance their own political and cultural formations from implication in the very same logics of domination, violence, chauvinism, nationalism, racial nationalism, and everything else that we generally affiliate with the far-right.
So what professor Glaude is helping us do, I think, is to push the conversation so that we think about white supremacy in its totality, to think about racism in its totality. That this is something that implicates the Obama administration in a different kind of way, but it overlaps with the Trump administration. This is not unique to 2016, to 2019 and forward. It’s about generating a larger conversation about how the people who presume themselves to be the friends of anti-racist and liberationists, queer and trans activists and other kinds of folks, should not be presumed to be their friends. We need to think about how it is that these forms of violence and power permeate liberalism. They permeate the progressive community as well.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I mean, I wish we had time to continue this conversation because we definitely want to talk about why we need to have this conversation in the context of economics, in the context of classism and militarism and other -isms that a lot on the progressive left, Dr. Rodriguez, I’m glad you brought that up, like to say is more important – are more important issues than racism. But we don’t have any more time. We have to leave this conversation here. But we want to be sure that you understand that if the corporate media and the politicians who are supposed to be working for us— that’s a-whole-nother conversation— are not doing a decent enough job at making these points about the importance of racism and the pervasiveness clear, then that’s where we in independent media come in. That’s where we do a better job. So we can at least contribute to setting the discourse right. So maybe there are other conversations we do need to have on this topic, but for today I want to thank Eddie Conway for being in the studio with me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you so much, Dr. Rodriguez, for joining us from California.
DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: I want to say thank you and we should do a part two and a part three and a part four.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And maybe if we’re having an honest conversation about this, the parts will never end until we at least get a mobilization, a grassroots mobilization, that’s as effective as the white supremacist one that exists. I don’t know. But we will see. In the meantime, thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network from Baltimore.