The Philly media’s 'Angry Brown Man' mayoral candidate narrative
Cranky Philly Latina journo here.
If you’ve read me before, you know I’ve taken several journos to task this past season for the characterizations they’ve attached to the first Latino mayoral candidate in the city, Nelson Diaz. This isn’t unprecedented, I’ve taken journos and their editors and media organizations to task about their characterization of undocumented immigrants and the advocates who fight for them as well.
You might think, from this, that I neither like nor respect my fellow journalists. Not so. I feel warmly toward and admire the vast majority of them, and hold some of the pieces they’ve written as truly groundbreaking and award-worthy (Tom Ferrick’s “Lost Generation” piece for Metropolis, for example).
The way we choose to represent a community (or a member of that community) matters.
The words we choose matter.
As media we’ve had to face our failures at this. Yahoo news was called out, for example, when two nearly identical photos of survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were published, one characterizing the Black people carrying food back in chest deep waters as “looting” a grocery store for food while the one depicting white people was captioned as “finding food” at a grocery store. AP, likewise, faced tremendous criticism for its word choices in a tweet about the verdict in the Renisha McBride killing.
And in Philly, the representation of mayoral candidate Diaz by the media has been shaped by specific words ....
Diaz has repeatedly been called loud.
What I would like to point out is that, even if every one of those is 100 percent accurate, loudness and excitability are a Latino racial stereotype that we hate. It is also, most often, a stereotype brought up as a way to question our professionalism, or our ability to fit in at the higher reaches of a corporate structure. During Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation fight, for example, her detractors used it — describing her as a loud, outspoken “fiery Latina tempest," and calling into question her ability to fit in with other justices. And the truth is, I'm not sure noting volume in any way adds to the stories where it's mentioned, but it does go hand-in-hand with the next part of how Diaz has been represented ....
Check out the word choices used in headlines and articles to describe Diaz during this campaign: jilted, flips out, blew a gasket, angry, attacks and attacks, rips, strident and angry. He’s also characterized as outlandish, as having hijacked a tax plan, of stealing a municipal bank idea, and of bragging.
Are you tired yet? I am.
No other candidate has elicited such sustained “colorful” and charged language, except Milton Street, and it is — in my estimation — to the same end. They are the “Angry Brown Man” and the “Angry Black Man” in the narrative that’s being constructed by the media in this Democratic mayoral pre-season. White liberalism is deeply discomfited by old-school civil rights activists like Diaz and Street. Their quite different — but undeniably community-centered — focus on the social and racial justice issues that seriously impact disenfranchised communities gives lie to the belief that we live in a post-racial America.
And let’s face it — most general interest media is invested in thinking we live in a post-racial America. Post-racialism means pieces like Being White in Philly, or the tone-deaf article pointing at Black vernacular use in Doug Oliver’s first TV ad, or positing that the endowment of a Latino civil rights chair at Temple Law is a convenient campaign ploy, will all be published without a second thought.
"Three-fourths of white Americans have only white people in their social networks. They don't have friends with different experiences for them to learn and draw information that may challenge their preexisting notions,” Dan Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute told VICE News in an article titled Half of America Believes We Live in a Post-racial Society. "People without those experiences and those friendship networks tend to have very different attitudes about racial issues. They are probably more likely to believe that race is no longer an issue because generally, in their lives, it doesn't really come up."
I honestly believe most journos and editors don't notice they're using more over-the-top language for Diaz than for the other candidates (again, except for Street). But not noticing is not a praiseworthy quality. Go ahead, I challenge you, put the headlines side by side; search the body of texts for unusual verb choices. You'll come away with a very clear and distressing picture where fairness and accuracy are concerned.
The last thing I want to bring up about this media narrative of Diaz is that it has, on occasion, made him a faceless “Angry Brown Man.” Way back on March 4, Philly Mag was advertising their upcoming conversation with Nelson Diaz on Twitter, and the tweet had a composite photo of Anthony Williams, Jim Kenney, Lynne Abraham and Doug Oliver. No Diaz. Likewise on April 20, a tweet (not the story itself) about whether Philly’s racial makeup will predetermine who will be the next mayor used that same composite photo of Williams, Kenney, Abraham and Oliver. To Philly Mag’s credit, this second time I pointed it out, they fixed the twitter card.
Diaz being left out of that composite photo was, in all likelihood, an accident or tech problem to be fixed — but when it happens, we need to call attention to it anyway. Civic engagement in every community in Philadelphia is something that benefits all of us, and something all of the media works hard to encourage with our articles and analysis. Not seeing the Latino candidate's photo in the composite of candidates unfortunately does just the opposite. More, it reinforces the sense that Latinos have been and are being left out of the greater "composite" picture of our city.
Anger can be righteous. Anger can be the catalyst for long deferred change. Anger can bring down outmoded structures, political and societal.
But the “Angry Brown Man” narrative as it has been written for Diaz does none of that. It rolls its eyes. It mocks. It disempowers. And that is why this column has to be written as many times as necessary before we get out and vote on May 19. Not because we expect journos and editors and news organizations will never make mistakes (God knows, we’ve made our share at AL DÍA), but because we Latinos cannot let stereotyped narratives go unremarked and we cannot stay silent when we are left out of the picture. Not only during primaries and elections, but every day.
We will be part of the new American narrative. We will be part of the new Philadelphia narrative. That is all.