MINORITIES: TV Images Reflect Changing America


This article originally appeared in Issue# 44

Television has given a new, visual dimension to the ever-present racial subtext that runs like a thread through much of American politics. Although race has certainly been a sometimes unstated political issue throughout U.S. history, the tube has added a new dimension, constantly and inevitably reminding us of race without uttering a word. The unexpected success of Jesse Jackson with primary voters has brought this visual dimension into the open.

As a candidate, Jackson made many choices during his presidential campaign. But he was denied one option, the choice not to look black.

Richard Gephardt could darken his eyebrows for TV (which he reportedly did). Michael Dukakis could use tweezers to lighten his. But Jackson, even if he had wanted to, could not change the color of his skin.

Every time Jackson stands in front of a camera, his presence sends a clear message of his racial identity. During his campaign those same cameras proclaimed a clear message: a black man is miming for the presidency.

Like Geraldine Ferraro's femaleness in 1984, Jackson's blackness has become a major campaign image. For the moment, it increases the significance of race as a campaign issue, whether discussed openly or ignored.

As the first serious black candidate, Jackson joins the limited company of modem pioneers whose presence on television reminds us how much our society has changed – and how far we still have to go.

As a white ethnic, John F. Kennedy, the first Irish Roman Catholic president, was able to use television as a positive factor in his own campaign to break a political taboo. A decade later, the central role of Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in the televised Watergate hearings reminded voters of the prominent position a Japanese-American had attained in the U.S. Senate. In the same way on the regional level, the appearance of San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros on Texas newscasts helps to remind voters of a future in which Hispanics will play a greater leadership role.

Of course, the racial background of these political figures, as well as Jackson, would not be a secret without television. But their presence in our living rooms lends to emphasize their backgrounds in a way that John Kennedy's – or Michael Dukakis's – does not.

By imposing its message in visual terms on literate and illiterate viewers alike, television has driven home the message that increased participation of all groups in American politics is on the rise. By merely watching television we can see America changing. And the picture we see is of a future in which more and more Americans – whatever their last names or the color of their skin – will be able to play their part.

Author Bio: 

Carlos Cortes is Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside. His most recent books, The Children are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (2000) and The Making - And Remaking - Of a Multiculturalist (2002), were published by Teachers College Press. He is co-author of the Houghton Mifflin Social Studies series (2005) and Cultural Consultant for Nickelodeon's Peabody-award-winning children's series, "Dora the Explorer", while he also performs his one-person, one-hour autobiographical play, A Conversation with Alana: One Boy's Multicultural Rite of Passage".