Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Black Panthers in my town: a look at how the press shaped local activist history

The media prime us in ways of thinking about the world, particularly in terms of whom we accept and dismiss as legitimate or illegitimate political actors. In this way, the media frame and “crystallize history.” Media coverage of events affects our understanding of history and “preconditions what collective action we take.” These were the ideas with which Jules Boykoff, associate professor of political science at Pacific University, opened the presentation I attended on March 18. The lecture was organized by The Northwest History Network and entitled “'We’re going to defend ourselves': The Portland Chapter of the Black Panther Party & Local Media Response."

Who were the Black Panthers? What was the organization's mission nationally and locally? How were the wider community's ideas about the group shaped by the press coverage of its activities? What is the party's legacy today? These were some of the questions addressed by the presenters, who, aside from professor Boykoff included Kent Ford and Percy Hampton, both original members of the Portland Black Panther Party chapter, and Martha Gies, an Oregon author who has written extensively about the Portland Black Panthers, one of approximately fifty chapters affiliated with the national party, a progressive organization dedicated to social and economic justice and black empowerment.

The speakers addressed a full house of about eighty-five people (more than thirty were turned away at the door for a lack of space), spanning multiple generations, but somewhat lacking in racial diversity, with approximately ninety percent of the audience being white. In attendance were also two nurses and one laboratory technician who volunteered in the Black Panther-run Portland health clinic forty years ago.

The weekly, Portland Mercury, was the only local paper tocover the talk, however, as we will see below, the report failed to explain the Black Panthers' mission or to provide a larger sociopolitical context for the organization's activities. Additionally, the Mercury article neglected to mention any critique of the media whatsoever provided that night. This is curious, given that scrutiny of the press was one of the main topics discussed; a lens so key to the lecture, in fact, that even the title--not once stated in the Mercury article--included the words “Local Media Response.”

In light of understanding the media's power in shaping history, Boykoff and Gies discussed their findings from a survey they conducted of the local press to see what kind of coverage the Portland Black Panther Party received in Oregon during its most active period from 1969 to 1979. Their inquiry, due to be published in the fall issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, examined all the articles printed in the local newspapers during that decade.

Investigating the press, Boykoff and Gies found that police were nearly always the only sources quoted in the stories, with the press almost never quoting Black Panther members themselves or ever mentioning the party's ten-point plan, which included: “the power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities;” full employment for the Black and oppressed people; reparations for slavery; decent housing and education; free health care; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black and oppressed people; “an immediate end to all wars of aggression;” and “people's community control of modern technology.”

Looking at how the press presented the BPP is important, because, according to many, including historian and activist Manning Marable, quoted in Boykoff's book Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, the Black Panthers were one of the most influential revolutionary organizations in the U.S.

Plenty has been written about the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in Oakland California and active nation-wide throughout the 1970s, but it is important to supply a little bit of historical information when so much is missing in the recent local coverage of this presentation. According to the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party's platform and message was so powerful, "it became a movement of itself," resulting in "a rapid proliferation of other, like minded organizations."

From the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation website:

"Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in Southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland based organization to a national organization, as black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.

. . . At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs. [These included] free breakfast programs and free clinics, but also grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, school and education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs, among others.

One of the greatest strengths of The Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, rather than race-based, solution to social justice. Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the BPP, said: "Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ organization’s banner declares: ‘Unity is strength.’"

In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, pledged to wage a campaign to crush the Black Panther Party, stating the Party represented "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S." He enlisted the assistance of local police departments to do so, and thus began the era of raids and assaults on the Party's field offices, accompanied by the FBI's use of "informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder."

A program of the BPP seen probably as most controversial by the wider public, was that of armed citizen patrols, an effort to monitor police interactions with the black community, in order to shield community members from police harassment and excessive force.

Bobby Seale commented on the Party's police monitoring work this way, as quoted in Beyond Bullets:

The party realizes that the white power structure's real power is its military force; is its police force. And we can see our black communities are being occupied by policemen just like a foreign country might be occupied by foreign troops. Our politics comes from our hungry stomachs and our crushed heads and the vicious service revolver at a cop's side which is used to tear our flesh, and from the knowledge that black people are drafted to fight in wars, killing other colored people who've never done a damn thing to us. So how do we face these cops in the black community? We have to face them exactly how they come down on us. They come down with guns and force.

Nationwide, writes Boykoff, the media undermined the Panthers and depicted them as "wrongheaded, antisocial, and a national threat."

In Oregon, Boykoff and Gies identified three dominant angles, or frames, used in the reporting.

In his book Beyond Bullets, Boykoff writes:

The mass media present social movements and their actions through a process of framing, in which easily identifiable lenses refract the news and shape public opinion. A frame is “an interpretive schemata that simplifies and condenses the 'world out there' by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one's present or past environment.”. . . By framing socio-political issues and controversies in specific ways, news organizations present—if tacitly—the foundational causes and potential consequences of a social problem or issue, as well as possible remedies.

The three dominant frames Boykoff & Gies identified in the local press coverage of the PBB were: criminality, violence, and community organizing. Sixty-three percent of all the articles used the criminality frame, amplifying arrests and trials of party members, thus creating the perception of “a threatening, menacing network of criminal enterprise which justified the need for police presence,” to use Boykoff's words.

Criminality was used as a news peg—a central purpose or justification—for a story in about half the articles with a criminality frame. Such coverage only helped to perpetuate the damaging stereotype of African American men as criminals or “black demons” that has plagued the African American community since the colonial times and is still so prevalent today in mass media depictions of black men, according to sociologist Dennis Rome whose book Black Demons: Mass Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype, which Boykoff referenced.

Additionally, violence was used as a frame in nearly half the stories, making no distinction between self-defense and other types of violence.

Surprisingly, Boykoff and Gies did not find a dominant anti-white frame in Oregon's press, though the depiction of the Black Panthers as anti-white was abundant in national press forty years ago.

The community organizer frame was present in just over a third of all the articles, though whenever the Black-Panther-run Portland clinic or breakfast program for the poor were mentioned, this was done without substance and “without the civil rights context,” Boykoff said.

Letters to the editor were the only places of dissent, contention and more substantial information about the Black Panthers—perhaps a lesson for today's activists to use this space more actively in order to shed a light on often underrepresented voices in the media, as Boykoff suggested.

The Portland Mercury already covered the bulk of the experiences shared that night by the Oregon Black Panther Party members, but what kind of language was used to do so?

The article was entitled In The Shadows: Talking with the Black Panthers. Why in the shadows? The readers are never enlightened as to the reason for this word choice. Again, the BPP's mission or function in the community is never quite explained. We are told that Kent Ford “was the founder of Portland's chapter of the '60s-era black empowerment organization.” But the rest of the activities of the organization are hardly, if at all, expounded upon. We learn about the Black Panthers' free breakfast program: “The free breakfasts the group handed out to school kids on NE 7th and Wygant are no more.” No context there. The readers find out about the free health and dental clinics run by the Black Panthers, again without the larger context. The only example of patients treated there is that of drug-addicted prostitutes.

The paper informs of the BPP's mission to end police brutality in this way: “Tensions between police and African Americans in his NE Portland neighborhood running at a dangerous high.” Again, this brief statement leaves out the historical context of the Panthers' struggle for justice.

Percy Hampton's crystallizing life event which led to his involvement with the BPP is described somewhat ambiguously: Two officers harassed Hampton while he was walking to a grocery store. “The two officers got angry, beat him up, and sent him to jail for 90 days for assaulting the police.” Nothing more.

Next we learn that the local leader Ford “remembers standing on Union Avenue (now MLK) with a shotgun, monitoring police arrests of black people.” To those unfamiliar with the philosophy and activities of the party, this type of a quote again casts the light of a threatening presence that could potentially justify the use of violence by the police, a dangerous image to broadcast without further explanation, given today's heated struggle against recurring cases of police brutality and use of excessive force, disproportionately affecting Portland's African American community.

It is unfortunate that forty years later, the history of one of the most influential progressive organizations dedicated to affecting social change in this country remains shrouded behind the misleading language used by the press, and in what is missing between the lines. The wider public continues to be "underinformed," if not misinformed, by the media about the real work and achievements of the Black Panther Party. The media, especially the smaller, alternative press like Portland Mercury, should strive to do better than this.


Life has been a whirlwind. But because I haven't been posting here doesn't mean I haven't stayed dedicated to my personal mission of working towards racial justice.

Over the last year, I have written several articles that I would like to repost here. They are not necessarily directly related to parenting, but they do show some of my thinking and involvement out in the wider community.

It is my hope that more white people will educate themselves as well as speak up and stand up against racism in both interpersonal and institutional contexts.

Over the last year or so, I have been doing that in the articles I have written, but my commitment to the work strengthens as time goes on and as I find more allies and more concrete ways to affect change.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diversity at my son's school: are they for real?

A couple of years back, I wrote a post, also published at Anti-Racist Parent--now renamed Love Isn't Enough, in which I surveyed my son's library to examine gender stereotypes and the representation of people of color in his books. I took a trip down memory lane this week, and conducted a similar experiment at his school during my short stint as a volunteer at a Scholastic Book Fair/Fundraiser. Fascinating.

Of course, the school AND the company Scholastic both like to pay a lot of lip service to "diversity." Who doesn't these days.

The first article by Scholastic on "diversity" that popped up in my search says:

Even 3 and 4 year olds are tuned in to matters of culture and ethnicity. For them, the issues are not social but personal, and are closely related to their self-esteem. . . If your child's preschool validates cultural diversity, you'll know it just by looking around. Are a variety of faces represented on the walls?

That article was published in 1996. So, how is Scholastic doing now as far as honoring diversity with the reading materials it sells in the communities who choose Scholastic book fairs as venues for fundraising?

First, let's look at my son's school community. I know that each classroom, during enrollment, tries to balance equally the gender represented in the student body. Racially, in my completely unscientific estimation, the population of the school is about eighty percent white, reflecting--and possibly proportion-wise surpassing--the racial make-up of Portland, the whitest US city with a population of over half-million. (Portland is about 78% white, while the state of Oregon is 87% white. Just to throw in a bit of trivia, the Czech Republic, where I grew up, is about 97% white). Religious affiliations are impossible to determine, though I know for sure that at least three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) are represented. A myriad of ethnicities are represented, however, the only ones I can determine, other than those overrepresented in the region (e.g. Anglo-American and Scandinavian-American), are ones based on the languages I've heard at the school. I have heard Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish. The languages spoken, of course, don't necessarily give me information on specific ethnicities (for instance, a French speaker could be Canadian, Hatian, or French among many other possibilities) but at least we can establish that a percentage of children at my son's school are growing up bi- or multi-lingual.

Let me just say, that to some, this may seem like an odd exercise in face value symbology. But we would be kidding ourselves if we asserted that we live in a colorblind society and that our ideas about people are not influenced by the racial, gender, and many other types of stereotypes which we encounter just about everywhere--in the media, in books, in advertising and entertainment, in our families, etc.

So, I was curious to see what a giant such as Scholastic was doing to educate our children, and if their book selection for the young was reinforcing or helping to shatter two categories of stereotypes in particular: gender pigeonholes and stereotypes about people of color still so prevalent in this society.

As far as gender, I counted how many book covers featured girls and women, paying attention to the numbers of "visible minorities" (yes, indeed a subjective definition), and to what the girls were pictured doing. Were they shown in midst of interesting and varied activities or just standing there looking pretty (and pretty "useless")?

As far as race, I took note of the number of books showing people of color, and again in what context they appeared.

In this survey, I only focused on book covers due to a time constraint, and because it is the cover that usually determines whether parents and children choose the book to pick up, flip through, and possibly purchase.

So, what was the Scholastic preschool/early elementary-level book selection like? Here are my findings:

Of the nearly 300 books displayed, 75 portrayed people only, and 21 showed people and animals together. The rest of the book covers showed either only animals, a scene, a building, or nondescript characters such as aliens. So, about one-third of the books for sale featured people on the front covers.

Of the approximately 100 covers with people on them, 20 featured "visible minorities." Of those books, 11 displayed girls or women on the front, interestingly almost always with one or more males. Four books showed people of color interacting with animals, six showed people of color alone (though I'm being generous here, because one cover was of a must-look-very-closely-to-ascertain African-American boy's arm carrying a suitcase--and I still counted it). Finally, ten, or about half, showed "visible minorities" together with whites.

Three of the twenty books with people of color had Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders on the cover. Yes, that's three out of 100 when my son's school has quite a few students of Asian heritage, and when the Portland population is more than twice that, percentage-wise. Needless to say, I was disappointed to see such underrepresentation.

Only one of the books had a Latina on the cover (Dora, the Explorer). That's right; only one out of a hundred books showed a Latina, while Latinos, according to the US Census Bureau, represent fifteen percent of the US population, and in the greater Portland Metro area, depending on the location, 7 to 50% of the total local population.

Sixteen of the twenty book covers featuring people of color showed African-Americans.

Eight of the books with "visible minorities" on the front focused on athletes, all African-Americans, and all but one of the many athletes shown on the book cover "collages" were male sports figures. Additionally, two book covers showed Barack Obama--one where he was alone and smiling, and the other where he was smiling, surrounded by his smiling family. Are you smiling yet?

So, let's talk more about what we see people of color doing on the book covers. The Asian girls are just standing there, one looking startled (whoa, she's not smiling!), the other... drum roll... smiling pretty. The one pair of Asian parents we are shown is smiling, climbing up and hugging a giant dinosaur. And Dora? She's at the doctor's office, sitting on the examination table with a stethoscope in her ears. Dora--pictured with a doctor who is a white woman--is, you may gasp now... smiling. And the African-American characters and personalities? Some are engrossed in sports games, others happily posing in sports jerseys. Other than sports figures, there is one black girl sitting on a bench with a book in her lap. However, she is not reading, but talking to a friend instead. And there is one black kid taking eggs out of an Easter basket. And there is that boy carrying a suitcase--his arm only, rather--because the rest of his body is on the back cover. But the remaining people of color are just standing there or jumping up into the air smiling, looking pretty. Even a photograph of Ruby Bridges on the book cover of her autobiographical story for children about being the first African-American to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, is pictured just standing there, smiling. A beautiful photo, nonetheless, but she is seen without books, pencils or anything hinting at the theme of the book. Inside, the book does have powerful photographs of the protests surrounding desegregation and of Ruby at school with her teacher and friends, but on the cover, her image is stripped of the historical context, so central to the story.

It is interesting to note that of all the people, the athletes (and a couple of kids who look scared of ghosts or who knows what) are the only ones whose facial expressions show intensity, this while focusing on a sports game. Otherwise, all the rest of the people, and especially those of color are seen smiling and looking "non-threatening." Showing people (and animals with human-like features) in their happy-go-lucky best is a definite trend with books for this age group in general.

Of the nearly 100 books featuring people, 39 included girls on the cover (Remember, most accompanied by boys or men). Ten of them were girls or women of color. About half the book covers with females showed girls as active and engaged in an activity, including painting, cooking, playing with dolls, performing theater, riding a horse or building a snowman. The other half of girls were pictured mostly posing with smiles on their faces. A much smaller percentage of "active" females was shown on the covers featuring women of color.

As far as the catalogue for the book fair, designed by Scholastic, of the fifty books featured, only ONE book cover displays a person of color, an African-American girl hugging a dog she rescued.

So, in conclusion. Are we seeing Scholastic breaking with or reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes? I must share that I am disappointed that, though a large percentage of books featured females on their covers, many of the girls, especially the girls of color, were shown not engaged in ANY interesting or meaningful activities. Instead, they were posing on the book cover, looking cute. Most of the girls shown as active were doing typically "girly" things such as art, playing with dolls, dancing or cooking. I didn't see any girls (ok, except for the one building a snowman) engaged in scientific pursuits or activities stereotypically assigned to boys, such as building, using machines or doing sports (other than one female basketball player and a horse rider).

I was also unhappy about the relatively low numbers of books featuring people of color, and even deeper than that, that the range of activities in which "visible minorities" were shown engaging was by far much narrower than that of their white counterparts. I mean, half of all the African-American "faces" belonged to athletes. What about the scholars, the scientists, the artists, the writers, the teachers... You get the drift.

Should I send my "analysis" to Scholastic? I think I'll do that... and report back.