As a child, growing up in the ’70s and still feeling the nearness of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, I believed that as time progressed America would become more and more open as a society and less prejudiced against people who are different from ourselves.
But, in his new book, Race-Baiter, media critic Eric Deggans calls into question my assumption that in America intolerance and narrow-mindedness are on a slow, but constant decline.
Instead, in an interview with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, he suggests that modern media outlets, including 24-hour news programs, reality TV and even scripted television exploit prejudice and bias to build audience and sell advertising.
Part of the problem stems from our inexperience in talking about race, says Linda Tropp, who studies perceptions of racial differences. She contends that race is a taboo topic in our society. As a result, we lack sophistication when we broach the topic and conversations about race provoke more anxiety than necessary.
The media only widens the divide. Unlike in the past, when there were a few television stations that had to appeal to a wide swath of Americans, we now have hundreds of media outlets, each motivated to appeal to a certain societal niche.
Deggans suggests that television stations and other media outlets are motivated to appeal to only a certain segment of the population — the segment that is most interested in what they are presenting. To gain and keep an audience, the media draws people in and encourages them to reject their competitors. Intolerance of other viewpoints, stereotypes and bias are commonly used to achieve this goal.
We’d all like to think that we are savvier consumers than that. And ultimately, the solution to these divisions might be that we increase our awareness of the biases surrounding us.
At the same time, it’s essential to understand that no matter who you are, if you are exposed to situations that don’t accurately reflect reality, you become biased in your views. For example, if you watch the national news and see several stories in which African-Americans commit crimes against Caucasian women, you may develop a faulty belief that all African-Americans are dangerous to women. If you repeatedly hear opinion represented as fact, you will begin to believe those attitudes, often even in the face of contradictory facts.
We don’t become biased because we are weak. It is simply how our brains are wired to work.
Deggans suggests that we need to restart the conversation about our differences in a nonthreatening way that might achieve something. He recommends setting boundaries before beginning these types of conversations. For example, one boundary might be not to engage in attacks.
Talking about race and culture is vital to understanding each other, says Deggans. Everyone must feel they can be a part of the conversation, but the conversation must be conducted with sensitivity and openness.