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Good intentions won't stop stereotypes from shaping our culture


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

The gruff, yet playful tones of my esteemed colleague, columnist Bill Maxwell, greeted me last Monday morning as Bill unfolded an advertisement he'd stumbled on in that day's New York Times.

The gruff, yet playful tones of my esteemed colleague, columnist Bill Maxwell, greeted me last Monday morning as Bill unfolded an advertisement he'd stumbled on in that day's New York Times.

Taking up a full page, the ad was commissioned by the AFL-CIO to protest the fact that corporations can break major laws and still get plush government contracts, while the average working family would just get jail time.

The centerpiece image was four pictures, formatted to look like family portraits, reflecting the diversity you'd expect from an ad supported by the NAACP, Greenpeace, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, among others.

Each photo reflected one of the nation's four largest ethnic/race groups: white, black, Hispanic and Asian. And each picture had a clean cut, nuclear-style family: mom, dad and some kids. Except one.

The black folks.

In that picture, there was just two women, presumably a mother and daughter. No man in sight. And a look of such grim determination on the faces of both ladies, you had little doubt they were getting along just fine without.

What's this supposed to mean? That the average working class black family doesn't have a dad? Or that the AFL-CIO thinks the average working class black father doesn't deserve representation (U.S. Census figures for 2000 show less than half the nation's black families, 44 percent, are headed by single women)?

David Ruffin, deputy director of public affairs for the AFL-CIO, told me the juxtaposition was a simple mistake.

"Nobody called these families together to photograph them. . . . We looked through a pool of images, and this family looked strong and positive," Ruffin said. "This mistake shouldn't crowd out the bigger picture that we're talking about."

The fact that Ruffin, a black man, had returned my phone inquiry was no doubt intended to ease my concern.

The truth is, I have no reason to doubt his explanation that the photograph collection was an honest mistake. Ruffin says a graphics designer simply pulled the photos from a pile of stock images, and that the organization would never intentionally send the message that the average working class black family doesn't have a father.

But that's just the problem. Those of us who create advertisements, TV reports, newspaper stories, magazine covers and radio reports sometimes regurgitate old stereotypes without thinking.

And the AFL-CIO, which carefully chose its pictures to reflect a range of ethnicities, still wound up inadvertently reflecting a serious dysfunction.

"It's a long legacy of not having photographers of color doing the work and thoughtful editors," says Kenneth Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

"The files (of photos) people pull from is often very one-dimensional and biased in its representation of ethnicity," he adds. "Combine that with editors who are not educated, the editing leads to warped presentation."

Yale University political scientist Martin Gilens proved that point in 1997, unveiling a study that found most poor people portrayed in the national media are black -- despite the fact that most poor people in the United States are white. On the evening newscasts offered by ABC, CBS and NBC, Gilens found 65 percent of stories on poverty were illustrated with footage of black people, even though the 1990 census found only about 29 percent of the nation's poor were black.

The nation's newsmagazines performed only slightly better, showing black people with poverty stories 62 percent of the time. So it was no surprise that when he polled a sample of the general public, 55 percent of them believed more of the nation's poor were black than white.

And the issue goes beyond a black/white dynamic. Arab-Americans constantly complain about movies such as Executive Decision, True Lies, The Siege and Rules of Engagement that cast terrorists as swarthy, brutal Middle Easterners. USA Network -- which has an Asian-American, Stephen Chao, as president -- has just bought the rights for a British show called Bonzai, featuring Japanese hosts speaking fractured English and a character named Cheeky Chappie.

So is it any wonder these images seep into news coverage and advertisements?

"The distinction ought to be made between those who are malicious -- and there are people like that out there -- and those who make an honest mistake," Ruffin noted.

True enough. And it's also true that a picture essay on working families probably should include a single parent household.

But as a black father of three, the last thing I expected to see from the AFL-CIO was a portrait of the nation's families that left me out while regurgitating an awful image.

That it was unintentional isn't much comfort. Just makes me wonder what else might be out there, developed by people with good intentions who just couldn't help themselves.

- Eric Deggans is the television critic for the Times.

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