Negative Images 'Brainwash' African Americans
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.
Longtime adman Tom Burrell argues that the longest-running, most successful propaganda campaign of all time is for black inferiority, from posters that advertised slaves for sale to the New Yorker's radical Obamas cover, unrelenting, powerfully persuasive efforts to promote what he calls the brand of black inferiority.
Even today, for every positive image of African-Americans, he finds 100 negative stereotypes, too many of them perpetrated by blacks themselves.
After more than four decades in the ad game and induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, Tom Burrell founded the Resolution Project, a nonprofit that promotes community-based media campaigns, and he has a new book out.
So how do these images play out in your life? Tell us your story. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program: How does productivity in your office change with the advent of March Madness? And also, the creator of "Dilbert" will join us. But first, Tom Burrell is with us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio, founder and former CEO of Burrell Communications and the author of "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority." And it's nice to have you with us today.
Mr. TOM BURRELL (Author, "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority"): It's great to be here.
CONAN: And your book is both descriptive and prescriptive, and we'll get to that second part in a bit.
Mr. BURRELL: Right.
CONAN: But you bring special expertise, I think, on the imagery. I did not know, for example, that slave auction posters are amongst the earliest ads in American history.
Mr. BURRELL: Well, you know, advertising came in many, many forms, including any form of communication, such as the Bible, text, posters, placards, and we could even consider the caricatures of African-Americans and salt and pepper shakers and banks as a part of advertising.
They're basically images, images and words. They're very powerful. Images and words are very powerful, and they conveyed and carried out this whole idea of African-Americans being less than, not as good as: the myth of black inferiority.
CONAN: And the concomitant myth of white superiority.
Mr. BURRELL: And the concomitant myth. We were all sold a bill of goods: the myth of black inferiority. That was a myth that had to be created in order to justify slavery within a democracy. These two contradictions had to be reconciled, and the only way that they could come up with to reconcile it was to declare and then substantiate that these slaves were not human. So then you could say all men are created equal and move ahead.
CONAN: A paradox contained in the single individual of Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. BURRELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, he said all men are created equal, and then he said Africans, by their very nature, are inferior to whites.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask - we're asking our listeners to say: How did this play out in your life? And growing up there in Chicago, how did this play out in your life?
Mr. BURRELL: Well, I grew up in the era of the New Deal, and we were very much subjected to learned helplessness. I mean, the idea of our inferiority was played out constantly by reinforcing the thought that we could not take care of ourselves. And that was played out in the media as we grew up, as I grew up with characters in movies who were buffoons, characters on the radio, whether they be Beulah or Amos and Andy, who were basically servants and clowns. We didn't see ourselves portrayed in a positive and powerful way growing up, and we basically heard that we were not as good as white people.
CONAN: But was there a moment for you when you said, hey, wait a minute? When did the light dawn?
Mr. BURRELL: Well, I have to say that the images had been so powerful, I was probably 40 years old before I realized that the whole thing was a sham. You know, what you do is you kind of fake it till you make it. And you think, well, maybe either I'm the exception to the rule. Or you think that, well, maybe I'm not as good or as smart as people think that I am, and maybe I'll just keep trying to fool them.
Then it comes - it dawns on you at some point in your life, perhaps, if you're lucky, that wait a minute. This is a myth. Of all of the images that I've been fed, all of the concepts that I have been taught to accept are false. It's false advertising.
CONAN: And by that time, you'd been in the advertising business for a while.
Mr. BURRELL: I'd been in the advertising business for almost 20 years. And, you know, the whole thing is that both for blacks and whites, this whole myth is internalized and some people live with it for their whole lives.
CONAN: There were any number of - well, let me ask you specifically. In those first 20 years before the light dawned, are there, looking back on it, any ads that, well, you'd regret, in retrospect?
Mr. BURRELL: That we created?
Mr. BURRELL: Well, we were very fortunate that when I started the company in 1971, halfway through my career, we were assigned to the African-American consumer market. So I basically had to study the African consumer market.
So what we did that was totally unique, coming out of the black power movement of the late '60s, which sprung out of the civil rights movement, is we concentrated on what we call positive realism. I had come up with the phrase: Black people are not dark-skinned white people. And that was related to the idea that we came to this country in a way totally different from any other group, against our will and into servitude and into vilification and enslavement. And that shaped a lot of how we behave as consumers.
CONAN: Give me a for-instance.
Mr. BURRELL: A for-instance is we spend an inordinate amount of money, of the money that we make, on goods and services, primarily goods that we really don't have to have. We - and goods that are usually depreciated from the time that we get it, they start depreciating, especially automobiles.
CONAN: Oh, so high-end automobiles or things like that.
Mr. BURRELL: But - so you asked the question, well, why is it that we spend everything that we have on things that aren't going to appreciate for us? And the answer lies in the fact that when we came to this country, we were stripped of everything. We were stripped of our name, of our origin, of our language, of our religion. We lost contact with our families. We had nothing.
And we lost our status as human beings because we came here and were deemed to be property, less than human. We were put on the auction block, and we were sold like cattle, okay?
So in our attempt in a materialistic, capitalistic society, to gain somebody-ness, what do we do? In a materialistic society, we try to do it through getting stuff and owning stuff. And it's not a matter of buying things that we can't show off. It's all about things that we can show off, that basically are saying here, look at me, world. I am somebody.
CONAN: Some people might point out that emancipation happened in 1865. The great civil rights legislation of 1965 ended the era of Jim Crow, at least legally. Things have changed a lot, yet you say the stain of that experience in slavery continues many generations later.
Mr. BURRELL: What we have to understand is that we aren't talking about ancient history. You know, we have slave narratives that were written in 1933, people who lived in slavery. So this whole idea that we're talking about ancient history, we're talking about a few generations ago. And these traditions, this inferiority that was drummed into us through the media, through propaganda, has passed down from generation to generation just like a favorite family recipe.
So we haven't - you know, if you don't address issues, if you dont - if you have a cancer, if you have a tumor, you can't just wait for it to dissipate. It doesn't just go away. It gets passed down. And you have this illusion of progress, you know, or even a delusion of progress, that just doesn't take away the fact that after all of the efforts that have been made, we are still, as a people, at the top of just about every bad list and at the bottom of just education, income, incarceration, out-of-wedlock childbirth, teen pregnancies, HIV, childhood obesity, infant mortality. I mean, just go through the list.
And so you say, well, why is that? Well, it's because of the fact that we bought into the fact of our - the myth of black inferiority, and everybody else bought into that, as well, as well as the myth of white superiority.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. James on the line calling from San Antonio.
JAMES (Caller): Yes, I'm about 26 years old, and I remember even as a kid, for me, most of - in the media, specifically TV and film, I mean, you have things like "The Kenan and Kel Show" and the Fat Albert remake and "Family Matters," and I agree with the gentleman that it seems like most of the black figures are kind of dumb or outrageous or buffoonery. And the Tyler Perry, you know, it's not politically correct to say, but I see the same thing there. And you sometimes have to look to white shows, if they decide to include black folks at all, they're a little bit more not cartoon characters. And...
CONAN: Well, maybe you were too young, but "The Cosby Show" certainly portrayed a different image.
JAMES: Yes, yes, "The Cosby Show." And that was a show run by - I wonder if some of these shows are run by white executives and trying to show something that maybe white people in Hollywood think blacks are. That's all I wanted to say.
CONAN: I think Bill Cosby ran that show. But anyway, thanks very much.
Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, Bill Cosby did run that show, and that's why it came out the way that it came out - very positive, you know.
CONAN: We're talking about the myth of black inferiority. Tom Burrell's book is titled "Brainwashed." More of your calls in a moment. How does these images play out in your life? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Tom Burrell writes in his new book: The marketing of black inferiority and white superiority as building blocks for the founding of America is a chicken that has finally come home to roost. His book is "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority."
You can read an excerpt at our Web site about the aspects of American culture and media that endorse, reinforce and promulgate what Tom Burrell calls African-Americans' most self-destructive habits. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
How do the images that focus on negative stereotypes of black Americans play out in your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's see if we can go next to this is Patricia(ph), Patricia calling from Walnut Creek in California.
PATRICIA (Caller): Yes, hi.
PATRICIA: I love this this show really makes my head think. I need to think about this, because, Mr. Burrell, I think I'm brainwashed. I'm 55 years old, and I'm a product of a military family. I was raised in born in St. Louis, raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in San Antonio, Texas.
And as I grew up, the images that I saw were very I mean, I was totally embarrassed, totally angry. You know, forgive me, Buckwheat, Stepin Fetchit - I couldn't stand any of that.
So I think I need to read your book because what happens for me when I see Tyler Perry and Madea, they make me laugh. You know, my mother is 84 and a product of the Mississippi segregation. She enjoys him, you know, immensely. And I'm thinking this show today is really going to be part of my discussion today at lunch with my girlfriends as we talk about this because this is troubling if indeed it's true that, you know, these sort of images that are self-destructive to us.
I mean, I loved "The Cosby Show," but then when I was growing up, too, I mean, we never saw many blacks on TV that used hair products or brushed their teeth. And when they finally did in the 1970s, we were so excited.
I think by the time "Good Times" came around, what is it, the one with the bigot. I can't remember his name right now.
CONAN: Oh, Archie Bunker, "All in the Family."
PATRICIA: "All in the Family." We were excited to see black folk on the TV. We were excited about that. So now, I think we've come full circle from this, and like I said, Mr. Burrell, I'm going to have to read your book, because either we're missing the boat or not. I mean, I love Tyler Perry. I love his movies. I support them. I have in the past. So what am I doing?
Mr. BURRELL: Well, I hope you don't mind if I agree with you, that you may be brainwashed.
PATRICIA: Yeah, probably.
Mr. BURRELL: Here's the deal about brainwashing. What brainwashing does, and you know, I'm speaking as a person who was in that business for 45 years. What that brainwashing does is get you to a point of being so insensitive or desensitized that you become unconscious to what is going into your head and what you're seeing and hearing.
You also become a party to the brainwashing, or black people become a party to the brainwashing. But see, that's the nature of brainwashing, that you join in and become your own victimizer.
And so what has happened is that you have bought into this whole idea of it not of it being harmless, you know. And it is not harmless because what it is, it is reinforcing all of those negative things that you get back when you were Stepin Fetchit. But if you look at it objectively, you see very little difference between Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and then Tracy Morgan...
PATRICIA: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Black Sambo. I hated that.
Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, but moving forward to Tracey Morgan, Tyler Perry and the Madea character and so forth. It's a straight line, it's just that it's put in a different kind of context that gives it a kind of air of respectability.
CONAN: And as you point out in your book, this is done by black entrepreneurs with black people behind the camera, black people writing the script and African-Americans running the company.
Mr. BURRELL: And then we buy it. You know, and what it is, is that we are more capable of carrying out or executing this than the people who basically indoctrinated us to do it in the first place. You know, it has more credibility once we grab it.
And, you know, like for instance, we have a chapter called neo-coons that talks about comedy. You know, in the old days, when we started, you had white comedians putting on black cork and basically humiliating and ridiculing black people.
Fast-forward, you get this thing called progress. Then black comedians came in and says hey, you guys don't have to do that, we'll do it. We'll take it over. And they have taken it over to the point where, like in the use of the N-word, for instance, white people can't even begin to say it as fast as we can say it and with such conviction. And we own it as if we are being empowered by it, when in fact what we're doing is we're continuing to damage ourselves with it. Because if...
CONAN: Patricia Patricia, I just wanted to say thank you very much for your phone call.
PATRICIA: Oh, I appreciate your candor.
CONAN: We wish we could go to lunch with you today. It sounds like it's going to be an interesting time.
Mr. BURRELL: Right.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to this is Denise(ph), Denise calling from St. Paul.
DENISE (Caller): Hi, this topic really touches a nerve. I have to tell you, the question of capability, and your guest Mr. Burrell is absolutely on point. I mean, we only have to look, nationally, at what has happened with the president's social secretary, Desiree Rogers, the questioning of her abilities and her subsequent stepping down.
I worked for a company and reported to a white woman who constantly questioned my I think my right to be in the company. She would look at my work, which in comparison to my colleagues, I felt I was on par. But she often questioned in a way that wasn't direct, but she would say well, you don't just quite fit. You're not like the others.
It completely undermined my confidence, and of course in most organizations, there aren't the systems for black people support systems for black people to go and have an honest conversation and say, you know, what is going on here?
CONAN: And would you say, Tom Burrell, in this situation she's describing, basically both people had been brainwashed.
Mr. BURRELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, both people basically have been brainwashed. And it gets to a point where people become accustomed to where they are. You know, Carter G. Woodson, a famous black historian, talked about the idea that African-Americans have been basically conditioned to go around to the back door, and if there is no back door, we will insist on one.
Whites, on the other hand, are comforted by this whole notion of white supremacy, especially given the fact that there is some fear factor there, as well, because underneath, there is this feeling that maybe their ancestors did something wrong.
So they look for reassurance that they're okay. And if you can get a black comedian to show up on a late-night talk show and just act the clown, it's comforting to those people who say, you know, yeah, they are a happy people. You know, they are they're okay. You know, it's just like going up to a dog and saying, boy, you know, I hope it doesn't bite. And if he starts wagging his tail, you know, you say oh, that's great. I love it, you know.
So yeah, it is a perfect kind of toxic mix, the idea of white supremacy, white superiority, and black inferiority. It kind of goes together, and people get comfortable in their roles, and they accept their roles.
CONAN: Denise, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the phone call.
DENISE (Caller): Thank you.
Mr. BURRELL: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Kate(ph) in Portland, Oregon. I was struck 40 years ago with this issue when I was in high school. I knew a young black man who wanted to be a doctor. His parents could not afford to send him to the school he wanted to go to for pre-med, so he was focused on getting a scholarship. That meant a 4.0 GPA, National Honor Society, a host of extracurricular activities.
What impressed me was that at 15, he was able to accept the rejection and derision of his peers for, quote, trying to be white, unquote, and pursued his dream in the face of it. I was disturbed that he had to make that choice at all.
Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, we have a chapter calls "D's Will Do: Why Do We Expect So Little Of Ourselves and Each Other?." And there are several reasons why that happens. I mean, there is lower expectations means fewer disappointments. You know, if you are taught that blacks are inferior, then you set up your own substrata of - for performance. The other thing is that you basically become comfortable with negative behavior, so then being smart gets interpreted as acting white. Because to act - to be smart, is also to be different. And to be different means that you try - you're trying to be better than we are, those who aren't striving.
So I mean, there have been cases - I mean, I had my own situation when I was in grade school. I was doing pretty well in fourth grade, but I saw myself being moved away from my peers who were basically into the-D's-will-do category, and they basically started to reject me so I had to dumb down in order to fit in. And we get that phenomenon going on all the time. What we want to do is we want to change that model so that being smart becomes acting black, you know? That's what we have to overcompensate for what has been in existence.
CONAN: I did want to ask you about one thing in the book. You wrote that the only comparable campaign of inferiority was that waged by the Nazis against the Jews in the '30s and '40s. And you said, but that was only 12 years.
Mr. BURRELL: Right. And that's being liberal, being 12 years, because some people would argue that it was four years.
CONAN: And some people would argue it was 2000 years, that pogroms go way back and that this is not new. And why did you feel the need to say ours is the worst ever when the Jews and the Irish and the Kurds and the Palestinian, any number of groups would pick a fight with you?
Mr. BURRELL: Well, I'm talking about the fact that we have - we're talking about one country, basically, and we're talking about a particular form of slavery called American chattel slavery. That didn't exist anywhere else because there was no democracy anywhere else. It wasn't the slavery that was the main problem. It was the need to justify it by building up the myths, so that after the myths - after the slavery was abolished and the chains were removed, the psychological chains remained.
But getting back to the idea of - I'm not into a contest to see who, you know, who suffered the most pain. The only thing that I wanted to do is put American chattel slavery into some kind of perspective. The comparative is that we're not talking about slavery in Jews. We're talking about Hitler. We're talking about Nazism and Jews, versus America and blacks.
CONAN: Different but not necessarily worse or better. Anyway, the book is called "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Author Tom Burrell is with us from Chicago. And let's see if we can go next to Shadiqua(ph) in Tallahassee.
SHADIQUA (Caller): Thanks, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
SHADIQUA: I have - I wanted to ask the (unintelligible) about what to do with our young black children today. I'm in an interracial relationship. My first son is - he's all black. But in any event, a lot of people call them out the '40s and the '50s. And I want to know what can we do about it right now?
For instance, one day, we were at (unintelligible) and we were on our way to the dentist office. And my stepson, he said - his father is white. That's who I'm with now. He said, well, is the dentist going to be white or black? And my son said, oh, no, he's going to be white. I mean, if he was going to black, he'd be like a rapper or a basketball player or something. So it was time to turn off the radio.
CONAN: And that's when we get to the prescriptive part of your book. Go ahead, Tom Burrell.
Mr. BURRELL: Yeah. But before the prescriptive part, you have to understand that it is the media that is feeding that information to these young kids. It's in the form of lyrics. It's in the form of images and the video games that feed into that.
Now, as far as the prescriptive is concerned, we have a wonderful opportunity, now, to turn around these 300 years of negative images into positive images with one weapon, and that is a library card. A library card...
SHADIQUA: We go to the library. We go to the library. I have doctors in my family. I have lawyers in my family. And I tell them that all the time. That's one of the reasons why we can't watch a lot of television. I tell them that, of course.
Mr. BURRELL: Right.
SHADIQUA: But it's - well, I don't know if it was this program that Neal said - or another program was talking exactly that, that the media - I'm like, I'm just one voice, if you will, and these 24/7 images that they have.
Mr. BURRELL: Right. Right. And what we've got to do is we've got to turn those images around. We have got to start to come together. We have a chapter, also, on unity, how we need to - how we've been taught the concept of individualism instead of collective thinking, collective gathering as a collective mass. And we have got to say we aren't going to take that from our kids.
If you read the book, you will not go away being as - you'll be much more conscious of the cues that your kids are getting every day, reinforcing this whole idea, because I'm afraid that there are some things that are getting into his head that you are not necessarily seeing - because they get so subtle.
But anyway, the antidote is the new technology where you can have a movie studio in your computer, and you can have a recording studio in your computer, and we can use the creativity that has caused us to survive all these centuries to start creating positive images, to offset the negative ones. We can also, through stopthebrainwash.com, which we have set up, setup a watchdog kind of coming together where we can basically point out those culprits, point out those instances where we are being fed toxic material and discuss it.
SHADIQUA: But even the family member makes it hard for us. Because like - my children can't really watch too much Disney, even "Hannah Montana." Not many black people are in there...
Mr. BURRELL: Of course. Yes.
SHADIQUA: ...(unintelligible). They're in, you know, they're either servers or whatever. And my mom and other family members are like, there's no harm in that. You're too this, you're too that. How can you be so pro-black and you're in an interracial relationship. And, you know, even family members think I go overboard when I don't let them watch, you know, television, that it's just not a black man that has a reputable position on that show.
Mr. BURRELL: Well, I hope you can get him to read the book.
CONAN: Okay. Shadiqua, we wish you the best of luck. It sounds like you're up against it. But good luck to you. Thanks for the phone call. And Tom Burrell, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. BURRELL: Thank you.
CONAN: Tom Burrell's book is "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority."
Up next, quick, turn off that basketball game. The boss is coming. How does the tournament change your office? This is NPR News.
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