Do Black voices count in American discourse?

by William P. Muhammad

Regarding the discourse between the Black masses and the politically connected elite, speaking truth to power has long been a method for airing grievances. From voicing principled opposition to making one’s displeasure known to government, the freedom to speak one’s mind is perhaps the most important component to so-called American democracy and the exercise of its stated values.

Although most politicians and pundits extol the virtues of free speech, depending upon the importance and weight of the subject matter, there is often a price to pay in exercising that right. While often times dismissing as illegitimate ideas that run counter to either corporate agendas or the ambitions of the privileged few, within the context of defying boundaries set by the establishment, proponents of new or popular ideas are often marginalized by way of dismissal or distortion.

Through the power and influence of commercial news media, reports and broadcasts often reflect the fears, agendas and aspirations of corporate interests. From international issues to domestic concerns, in many cases, the American public is offered news favoring the wants of the few over the needs of the many.

For instance, when Libyan leader and African Union Chairman Muammar Gadhafi, in a recent address to the UN General Assembly, blasted what he identified as injustices inherent within the UN Charter, he was ridiculed and condemned by major American news outlets. Without regard to the merits of his arguments, the media focused its attention upon him as a personality as opposed to the issues he raised. Therefore causing its audience to shift their attention, American corporate news media was successful in distracting from an issue often raised by many of the world’s developing countries.

Regarding the Black community in America, this tactic is also nothing new. For as long as there have been newspapers in the country, perspectives of the White elite have more often than not trumped those of Blacks, other ethnic groups and the poor. Although today reporters of color may be the face on a broadcast or the name on a byline, it remains true that editors, producers and in some cases even advertisers have the last word on the nature and content of a given story.

After the urban uprisings of the mid and late 1960s, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) recommended that media require “a greater level of sophistication than they have yet shown in this area—higher, perhaps, than the level ordinarily acceptable with other stories.” While the Kerner Report was specifically referring to the media’s handling or urban unrest and violence, questions nevertheless remained over the aim, purpose and accuracy of news reporting in the Black community.

With more than 40 years having passed since the release of the commission’s report, contemporary news stories regarding youth violence are raising questions as to whether or not the young “urban male” is salvageable and worth the effort of saving. While the tragedy of senseless violence should spark earnest discussions over causes and solutions, the suggestion of writing off an entire generation opens doors to potentially dangerous interventions on the part of government and society.

Nevertheless, when workable answers come from those whom “mainstream media” have painted as controversial, they make it difficult for themselves to acknowledge the works and deeds of respected individuals. With editors then choosing to leave tried and tested solutions on the cutting room floor, the perceived lack of a solution is then compounded by the act of omission. In other words, ignoring all solutions but those deemed appropriate by the handlers of corporate media, the problem of urban violence appears to have no end in sight.

The continued marginalization of Black voices reflects a problem within so-called American democracy. If the “fourth estate” will only validate and recognize persons, organizations and movements deemed appropriate by the elite, then the corporate media is actually an institution of control and regulation. Unless and until we are able to speak with one voice, the problem of media overlooking substantive input from Blacks will continue. Corporate media will go on in positioning our leaders, organizations and movements as they see fit, and we will continuously appear as being reactive rather than proactive and one step ahead.

If the opinions, suggestions and ideas of 40 million divided Black people really do not count in American discourse, then it is time to try unity. When our voices become united, there is no telling how far we will go as a people. It is long past time to try it and for the sake of our unborn generations, it’s time to do it.