How Did Media Policy and Gun Policy Merge?

How Did Media Policy and Gun Policy Merge?


POLITICO’s Mike Allen (@MikeAllenreports Vice President Biden will meet with former Sen. Chris Dodd of the Motion Picture Association of America; National Cable Television Association CEO and former FCC Chairman Michael Powell; Comcast lobbyist David Cohen; National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian; Directors Guild of America Executive Director Jay Roth; and National Association of Broadcasters CEO and former GOP Senator from Oregon Gordon Smith at 6PM tonight.

When we add race to the mix, the whole issue gets even more confusing. Take Quentin Tarantino’s new film “Django Unchained.”  Here’s a clip:

The film has received mixed reviews on its portrayals of African-Americans and of violence against whites.  Spike Lee, in an interview on VIBETV, called the movie “disrespectful.”

Commentary about Django and the gun control debate stemming from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have together underscored a chilling relationship between racism and gun control.  According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Small Arms Survey, even though the United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, it is “home to 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.”  The U.S. also has the highest gun ownership rate worldwide, averaging 88 guns per 100 people.

Despite a spate of gun violence in recent years, including the Sandy Hook shooting, Pew Research Center for People and the Press reports only a modest change in how Americans view gun control policy. While more Americans favor gun control (49%) compared to those who believe protecting the right to own guns (42%) is more important, this rate has barely changed from the rate of 49% and 45%, respectively, in April, 2009—before the shootings in Tucson (January, 2011) and Aurora (July, 2012).

Still, the Sandy Hook shootings led to widespread public outcry for tighter gun control laws.  In response, National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed Hollywood and the media industry for gun violence.  Marion Hammer, a former NRA president, equated gun laws with racism, suggesting that, similar to Jim Crow laws, gun laws are about preserving preferred “cosmetics.”  In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Tarantino said blaming Hollywood for gun violence is “disrespectful.”  Reverend Louis Farrakhan said the film was a “preparation for a race war” by creating fodder to justify gun ownership by whites who fear a backlash by African-Americans.  Interestingly, according to Pew, African-Americans favor tighter gun control laws over protecting gun rights at a rate of 68% to 24%, while the rate among whites is 51% to 42%.

I sat down with Professor Charlton McIlwain, Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU to demystify some of this …

Me: Can you help us understand a little bit more about the racial frame of gun control and the way the issue has historically been presented in the media?

CM: What comes to mind are two dominant and different sets of images when it comes to race, guns and the media. I think of the Blaxploitation films of the seventies and the gangsta films of the late 1980s-1990s, both express the prevailing association between African Americans and guns. In the first instance, they are the feared, gun-toting, brutal black buck looking to kill “Whitey” (as an aside, “gun control” and other kinds of weapons prohibitions were common in the post-slavery era because of fears of violent retribution). In the second, they are violent, murderous thugs shooting up their own neighborhoods and own “kind.” On the other side of the color line is the image of the Cowboy. He’s white, rides alone, is skilled with a six-shooter and associated either with upholding the law, fighting the law on the behalf of wronged citizens, or fighting the law to get his just due (which is whatever he wants; he is entitled to it all).

These two racially divergent media images I think frame the way we think about race, guns and gun control in the U.S., and the way that gun violence gets reported in the news media.

I walked into my favorite coffee shop a couple of days ago, and a guy that always likes to engage me in political discussion showed me a headline about the recent spate of shootings in Chicago. He showed me the paper and said,“no amount of gun control is going to stop that!” His assumption reflects the broader sense that black (and brown) gun violence is simply the expected outcome of a deficient culture, one that couldn’t be helped by any form of legislation. But it also reflects the sense that such violence is restricted to “those” people, “those” neighborhoods, and therefore there is little for those outside of those neighborhoods to fear. The fact is that gun violence, tragic gun deaths, and the senseless killing of innocents in these neighborhoods do not attract broad media attention.

However, because the association between whites and guns has historically been a positive one, it is gun violence against white victims that draws more media attention and cries of “tragedy.” More importantly however, the perpetrators in those instances are always – like the rugged Western individual – reflective only of their own individual problems, such as mental illness. We don’t talk about white-on-white crime; we talk about a solitary individual whose acts are an aberration.

Okay, so what does this mean for gun control? Well, for one, it means we see gun control as a necessity primarily to protect white citizens and white neighborhoods. It also means that people oppose gun control by evoking the historical association between whites and guns, not non- whites. Guns and gun owners are seen as essentially law abiding and patriotic. Thus, limiting access, the argument goes, is an affront to patriotism.

Me: You’ve written about the role of the media in using race to affect the national dialogue about Barack Obama’s candidacy. You noted that the infamous New Yorker cartoon casting Michelle and Barack Obama as militants invoked imagery associated with white fears rooted in terrorism and the black power movement.  How does Django trigger some of that same imagery?

CM: I believe it does, though in a way that is perhaps more real than even that New Yorker cartoon. The Imagery in Django – the storyline itself – speaks to and triggers what is at the heart of white people who fear of blacks. It is that thought that black people – black men especially – hold a simmering grudge against white people because of slavery. The perpetual fear is that any black man, at any time, might act on that. And so even though Django tells the story of a man who justifiably goes after the woman stolen from him, the prevailing image is still of a black armed man looking to do violence and repay the white man for the horrors he inflicted on him. It is consistent with, and reinforces what we already think about black men in particular.

Me: Pew Research Center has also reported a rise in the number of people who get their news from social networking sites, as opposed to newspapers.  They also reported that 69% of Internet users in the U.S. use social media and 45% of adults own a smartphone, so the landscape has changed very much in terms of how media is consumed.  So do you think the effect of the film industry on the way racial issues are perceived is offset in any way by the use of social media? Or do you think our use of social media exacerbates a largely negative national dialogue about race?

CM: Well, I think that social media technology and those who use it have the potential to challenge these prevailing images and associations. But I believe it’s an uphill battle. For one, the science behind implicit associations demonstrates that these racial associations – particularly between black and violence – are extremely strong, so much a part of our psyche that we often aren’t even aware of it. And so it will take much to ameliorate decades of collective racial conditioning. Second, I think the prevailing pattern with social media thus far shows that those with the biggest megaphone wield the most influence. Hollywood and traditional media still have the biggest megaphones, the greatest reach and the loudest voice. If you look at Twitter, for instance. Who dominates Twitter? Celebrities and big television and print media outlets. And so those same images are likely to still be dominant in their circulation. But social media, digital media tools are probably the most democratic tool that citizens have at our disposal and so I think we can use it to challenge those images. But to do so often and effectively will take a concerted effort by citizens to both produce and circulate counter-images and critiques at the same rate and volume as traditional mass media have and continue to do.

Me:  Thanks for joining me.

CM:  Thank you.

The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies or its partners and affiliates.


UntitledCharlton McIlwain, Associate Professor, Media Culture and Communication at New York University