Half the story
Trayvon Martin and Kendrec McDade illustrate how the unresolved issues that led to the LA Riots exist today
By Kevin Uhrich 03/29/2012
Since the six days of rage that came to characterize the Los Angeles Riots 20 years ago beginning on April 29 — the worst urban rioting in US history, which caused 53 deaths and more than $1 billion in damage — much in America has changed for the better.
Then again, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, much has remained unchanged. In fact, some aspects of race relations in the United States today seem to be as fractured as they ever were in the 20th century.
Yes, a black man has become president, a rather competent chief executive, one who appears to understand American and international politics better than any three or four of his predecessors combined. And there have been black statesmen and stateswomen, like former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Ron Brown, as well as Secretaries of State Colin Powell, one of the country’s premier military leaders, and Condoleezza Rice, one of the world’s savviest businesswomen and political scientists. All of these people rose above blatant racism and vicious stereotypes to attain almost mythic stature, not just in America, but around the planet. Over the past two decades, the list of African-American, Latino and Asian-American federal, state and local lawmakers and administrators elected or appointed to some of the highest offices in the land has become quite lengthy.
Yet, in the minds of some, progress in the sometimes tortured historical relationships shared by white Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans is measured best not by the number of people who serve at the pleasure of presidents but by what happens on the streets — as illustrated by the case of Altadena’s Rodney King, who was mercilessly beaten on March 3, 1991, by four LAPD officers who were acquitted more than a year later, sparking widespread rioting throughout LA County, including Pasadena.
On the streets, indicators of racial equality and social justice are stark, dramatic and often terrible — just the right combination of ingredients for a news story of great interest. Only these stories have usually been told with dispassion, and sometimes disinterest, by people who have no stake in what happens to the heroes, villains and victims in these all-too-often tragic tales. It seems only when something is simply too big to ignore does it get any play, and then it gets overplayed, primarily to boost ratings and increase advertising revenue.
This schism between what we see on TV and what happens in real life could not be more painfully symbolized than by two recent events: The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot by an armed Neighborhood Watch volunteer at a Florida housing complex. Rallies demanding “Justice for Trayvon” are being held in the youngster’s name in cities around the country, including LA. His story — now neatly packaged by mostly white TV news honchos as the story of an innocent black child victimized by a man of mixed Latino and white heritage with a penchant for violence — resonates with millions of Americans. People are apparently choosing to ignore or overlook possibly uncomfortable aspects of the case that are only now emerging, like one claim that Trayvon was the aggressor, and law enforcement’s contention that George Zimmerman was within his rights to shoot the youth. In spite of these recent twists, people are picketing, in no small part because they not only see themselves apart from white-dominated society as a whole, but, like Trayvon and countless others, they have personally experienced being excluded or picked on by government officials, police, business leaders, bank officers and angry white men in positions of power — for no other reason than their race, sex or ethnic heritage.
The other potentially incendiary incident involved Saturday night’s officer-involved fatal shooting of 20-year-old Kendrec McDade, who police believe was reaching for a gun in his waistband when he was shot and killed by two officers following an alleged car robbery gone sideways in Northwest Pasadena. One problem for the authorities in this case is police have yet to find the gun they say McDade was reaching for when he was shot to death just before midnight Saturday.
Looking back over the years, having covered the riots for the Pasadena Star-News and the now-defunct Los Angele Reader and knowing firsthand the dearth of minority voices not only in television entertainment but also in the news industry as a whole, it’s not difficult to see this hugely consequential event as both violent rioting, as the white media has traditionally portrayed it, and a form of rebellion. Perhaps it was a mass rejection of the way blacks and other minorities groups have been ignored, stereotyped and ultimately marginalized — not only by the criminal justice system, but every cultural, social, legal and economic institution in our society, including media.
Back in the late 1960s, after racially charged violence swept through major American cities like the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, Chicago in 1966 and Detroit in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, so named for its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. Among other things, the Kerner Commission was charged with critically examining the country’s media landscape — TV, radio, newspapers, magazines — to determine just how much of a voice minorities really had in America. The commission’s findings: Blacks and other minority groups had neither a voice nor a presence in mainstream media.
Mass media’s main function is not to make friends, but money, and stories were and still are framed to fit the perceptions of the primary group of people with money being targeted by advertisers — whites. Whites were, and still are, mainly the people who reported these yarns, and thus, all others learned of what was happening in their worlds from a white and usually male perspective. That was primarily because most news agencies then — and now — are run by aging, white men. While that sounds somewhat cliché, it’s as true today as it was in the time of Kerner’s Commission, which in 1968 concluded from judging from the types of stories being reported and the types of people doing the reporting that “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the report states. “Our nation is moving toward two societies — one white, one black, separate but unequal.”
The simple, awful truth is African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans simply did not and still do not see themselves adequately represented, if at all, in the cultural oracles of our times. People well understood they were being rendered invisible and systematically “annihilated,” as social scientists like to say, if only symbolically, from the country’s collective consciousness.
When combined with other social factors — defunding of public transit opportunities in minority communities, cuts in health care and child care services and slashed public education budgets, all of which started in the 1980s and continue today — the line separating riot and revolt in regard to the 1992 “unrest” becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish.
Certainly good things have happened since 1992. Along with political strides, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and even Native Americans — easily the most oppressed and marginalized of all American minority groups — have all made tremendous gains in terms of representation on TV and in movies, with entertainers like Jennifer Lopez becoming multimillionaires and actors such as Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning Academy Awards for their respective theatrical performances.
But will those significant yet still relatively unique accomplishments be enough to offset the years of neglect in promoting and advancing positive images of minorities through the rapidly changing world of mass media? Will people — with those from all minority groups now totaling nearly 35 percent of the US population, according to the 2010 US Census — be able to turn on their TV sets or look in their local newspaper and see reflections of themselves, or, more importantly, some semblance of what they know to be the truth in coverage of an incident that occurred right out on their street the night before?
In the days after the King episode, I had the pleasure of speaking with Odessa King, Rodney’s mom. She didn’t want to talk about the incident and warned that only terrible things could come of replaying that videotape night after night, sometimes hour after hour. She understood how her son’s tragedy was being exploited, not by people who really cared about things like social justice, but the media, which profited with every airing of that tape. And with that, she hung up.
With the same profit-driven, white male-dominated hegemonic powers still very much in charge of literally everything we hear, see and read — and now including control of Facebook, Twitter, other social media and video games — don’t hold your breath waiting for significant changes to occur any time soon in the upper ranks of the ruling media elite.
But more to the point on this 20th anniversary, do incidents like those involving Trayvon Martin and Kendrec McDade and the messages being delivered about them by the white-dominated media covering these stories — all set against the backdrop of even worse economic times for minorities than the 1980s — have the power to spark yet more violent racial unrest?
Just stay tuned n