Pop Culture Jump Starts Debate
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"I couldn't believe that my upscale, well-educated, successful counterparts, who were black, were followed in department stores by house detectives because they were black," he says. "Or that they were pulled over by cops and frisked just because they were black. It showed me that I didn't know all the answers."
In one conversation, he was struck by the remarks of a black woman who recounted her specific fear that a policeman would hurt her son. "My fear about my sons is a much more general concern that something will happen to them at random," says Mr. Louv.
"I came away thinking that one way to talk about race is not to talk about how we can get along better, but rather about how we perceive the world," he says. "What we fear, is one area. If you really compare experiences between people, go into it as an exercise in how we perceive reality, that can be very interesting, and the end product is that we get along better because we've walked in each other's shoes. What we're talking about is perception, and perception is the reality."
Pop culture too diluted?
Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is among those who are not convinced that "Amistad" will spark serious dialogue. He says popular culture can be an aid, "but the problem with it is that for something to reach mass audiences, it has to be so watered down it doesn't get to critical questions."
Although some people praise Spielberg's film as a moving account of black misery and heroism, Mr. Gilliam notes that it "is as much about a white man, John Quincy Adams, as it is about slaves. It has all the elements of white salvation - if it weren't for Adams, these poor slaves wouldn't have succeeded. If you're going to make a story about the Middle Passage [of blacks from Africa to slavery in America], then why not just make a story about that?"
Gilliam has been conducting a series of studies to be published in book form next year that explore "perceived reality" and negative racial stereotyping. One study on crime involves showing participants a 12-minute newscast with a segment on violent crime, in which the suspect is sometimes portrayed as black, and sometimes white. The results show that exposure to a black perpetrator leads the audience to ascribe more negative stereotypes to black people - qualities like "lazy," and "unintelligent." Surprisingly, Gilliam says, the study found that the effect is more pronounced among people who call themselves liberals.
Gilliam has taken his work to a variety of forums, including juvenile-justice groups and academic conferences. The study prompts vigorous discussion, he says, because blacks must first accept the statistically true information that blacks proportionally commit more violent crimes than whites do, and liberal whites must accept that they may be part of the problem by being more prone to negative racial stereotypes than they believe.
"Changing culture is so critical, but the problem is that both sides are so encamped in a kind of rhetoric," he says. "Our work raises questions in an almost agnostic way, it's not accusatory ... because once you start an accusatory discourse, there's no hope of ever finding a common talking point."