Race, perception, and reality

Several recent themes come together in Ron Jacobs’ very interesting 2000 book, Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies). There is the recurring theme of racial separation in American society, this time with respect to divergent perceptions of important historical events. There is the role of representation and framing as a component of identity and agency. And there is the question of realism: given the fact of divergence, what sense can we make of the question, what really happened?

Jacobs is a cultural sociologist, within a group of theorists who believe that social imagination, representation, and framing are interesting and appropriate objects of sociological inquiry. Like theorists in the broad field of social mobilization, he believes that an understanding of these “subjective” features are key to understanding mobilization and action. But he also takes very seriously the idea that an individual’s (or group’s) mental framework is constructed by concrete social processes, including the media. And, finally, he offers a sophisticated framework in terms of which to analyze and dissect the media itself. This is an approach that blends the methods of the social sciences and the humanities in a very constructive way.

His specific goal in this book is to try to identify crucial differences of framework between African-American and white publics in the United States at several important junctures. He studies the African-American and mainstream press in their reporting of the Watts uprising (1965) and the disturbances that followed the Rodney King beating and court findings. The African-American press serves an important “fragmented public”, and Jacobs wants to identify in detail the differences in perspective that exist between it and the mainstream press.

The theoretical frame for Jacobs is Habermas’s thinking about communication, discourse, and the public sphere. He largely buys into Habermas’s notion that a populace constitutes itself as a collective identity through discourse in public spaces. And the media represent some of those spaces. But he diverges from Habermas’s views in emphasizing that there are multiple publics and multiple discourses. And this point is particularly important when it comes to race in the United States. The OJ Simpson trial illustrated this point very sharply, with widely divergent opinions about the trial among African-Americans and white Americans.

Jacobs’ primary method is narrative analysis. He analyzes several thousand news stories with respect to plot, characters, and genres. And he finds there are substantial and consistent differences between mainstream and African-American press accounts of Watts, Rodney King, and the innocent verdicts for the police assailants of Rodney King.

What Jacobs doesn’t assert, and what probably isn’t true, is that the perspective found in, say, the Chicago Defender, is a faithful, exact expression of the collective perspective and framing of the black public of Chicago at a point in time. Rather, theDefender is a media publication with an editorial perspective and a small group of writers and editors. They have their own perspectives. As Jacobs points out, the Defender helps to influence black perspective in Chicago, but it isn’t identical to the mentality of the black Chicago public or publics. (One might speculate that much of Chicago’s black youth took a more radical and less patient view of police harassment than the Defender.) In order to probe these mentalities on the ground, a different kind of research would be needed — ethnographic rather than documentary.

So this invokes one of the themes of realism we’ve surfaced in recent posts: what can we say about the truth of the matter when it comes to assertions about social perceptions and representations? And here I’m not thinking of the veridicality of the black teenager’s perceptions of the police, but rather the veridicality of the sociologist’s representations of that group’s perceptual scheme about race and the police. How does critical realism come into the picture when we are discussing intangible, subjective features of imagination and representation by a social group? Can we be realists about mentalities?

I believe that the answer is “yes”. There are research methods that permit a degree of confidence in assessing the forms of thinking associated with a given group at a given time. These range from participant-observer methods, to ethnography more broadly, to the kind of historical ethnography practiced by Robert Darnton, to survey methods attempting to measure attitudes and values. These methods generally require interpretive skills and judgments on the part of the investigator — in this respect the sociologist is also a humanist–but it is reasonable to think that evidence-based inquiry can lead to reasonably confident conclusions about facts of subjectivity.

And this leads to another connection to realism: subjective schemes of interpretation are linked to actions as well. Mentality and action are linked. So the fact that Chicago teenagers in 1968 perhaps shared a narrative of police brutality very plausibly played a causal role in their behaviors in Chicago’s uprising. So realism about the causes of contentious politics requires a degree of realism about mentalities as well.

(All of the action in Jacobs’ book involves Los Angeles, a city with a very specific racial history. Readers will find the Easy Rawlins novels of Walter Mosley a vivid representation of African-American life in LA in the 1950s — e.g. A Red Death (Easy Rawlins Mysteries). But even here a question of realism arises: can we gain realistic understanding of a historical moment through a novel? Does Mosley offer a true depiction of race in LA?)

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