Robert Fikes, Jr.

San Diego State University

Several years ago, Prof. S. James Gates of the University of Maryland was talking informally to some inner-city elementary school kids when one of them blurted out within earshot, "Gee, you're the first black physicist I ever saw. I didn't know black people did physics."

Nearly 30 years had passed between the youngster's poignant exclamation and when Malcolm X asked rhetorically in 1965 why blacks were never asked by members of the press corps "what they think about the problem of world health or the space race to land a man on the moon." He knew there were talented, well-versed and articulate blacks willing to be interviewed and quoted as experts on a broad array of topics if only those in a position to select them had the courage to do so.

A perennial hot topic discussed in the black press and academic journals is the often projected unflattering images of African Americans on television, particularly the sitcoms and reality crime shows that have mined gold recycling buffoons and social deviants. Typically, critics lament the cumulative effects of negative stereotypes which, they inform us, can result in skewered perceptions by whites who rely too heavily on the popular media to interpret the diverse experiences of blacks, and blacks themselves who's self-esteem is wounded by repeated exposure to fellow blacks suspected in acts of incivility, violence, sexual irresponsibility and more like the parade of shameless, misguided souls appearing daily on "Jerry Springer," "Cops" et al.

It is not so much that the critics blame the media for giving inordinate attention to these folk who, as satirist Ishmael Reed once put it, "are always messin' up," it is more that there is minimal effort to balance the unsavory representations with wholesome, positive images--to take seriously the obligation to strive for fairness and reality in portraying a people. But virtually unspoken of late is the unmistakable development over the past few years of blacks appearing increasingly on television, radio and in print as authorities on everything from aardvarks to zooplankton.

A black authority used to mean some minister, politician or activist making shrill demands to relieve whatever injustice or social pathology was present in the community. Things have changed dramatically. Over a two-week period in March the compulsive channel surfer could have seen an African American fireman describing the hazard of a backdraft, a horticulturist (Jessie Mack) on planting annuals, a classics professor (Shelley Haley) explaining the bloodlust of the of the mob at the Roman Colosseum, a federal highway administrator (Gloria Jeff) reacting to reports of the growing danger of truck accidents, an Old Testament scholar (Stephen Reid) and a Catholic bishop (Wilton Gregory) queried on topics ranging from Moses to the future of the Church, a geophysicist (Waverly Person) showing off equipment used to measure earthquake intensity, and two world-renown neurosurgeons (Benjamin Carson and Keith Green) shown performing delicate operations on patients.

Similarly, during the same two-week period news readers could scan articles by conservative economist and regular "Forbes Magazine" contributor Thomas Sowell castigating protesters of Elia Kazan's Oscar, "Washington Post" syndicated columnist William Raspberry commenting on a U.S. Europe trade war, "Chicago Tribune" syndicated columnist Clarence Page prognosticating on the next presidential election, or law professor Margaret Russell's piece on the constitutional rights of immigrants in the "Los Angeles Times".

Strange as it may seem, the quite noticeable upswing in the use of black experts can be traced back to the O.J. Simpson trial when, according to "Washington Post" columnist Donna Britt, formerly invisible black lawyers, psychologists, journalists and other professionals appeared to come out of the woodwork offering their opinions and "insights far more complex than any poll had suggested."

Over the past decade the African American professional class has grown significantly. The U.S. Department of Labor confirms that between 1993 and 1997 the number of blacks employed as college and university teachers -- a choice group to be called upon for sound bites -- rose 56 percent, from 37,056 to 56,485. So hit the remote for the Fox Channel and see Princeton's George Philander discussing global warming, or C-Span to find Shirley Ann Jackson (the newly announced president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) chairing a session of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or switch to PBS and find Harvard's James Cash analyzing the phenomenon of online auctions, or to an ABC affiliate where UCLA psychiatrist Gail Wyatt dissects the persona of the Spice Girls.

Public television and public radio stations have been particularly conscientious, hence successful at locating minority persons to interview as experts. By now accustomed to hearing film reviews by entertainment critic Elvis Mitchell on National Public Radio (NPR), a majority of listeners would have to be told, given no telltale patois was discernable, that black guests have included Cal Tech biologist Stephen Mayo on developing computer algorithms to design proteins, Gary Williams on the use of videotaped evidence in the courtroom, Stanford's Dr. Alex Clerk on the efficacy of anti-snoring devices, Princeton's Nell Painter on the lessons of the Persian Gulf War, UC-Berkeley's Troy Duster on the ethics of cloning, John H. Morrow on advances in aviation in the early 1900s, science fiction author Samuel Delaney commenting on writer Alfred Bester, and museum director Lonnie Bunch promoting the latest Americana exhibit at the Smithsonian.

One of several organizations working to change how the press approaches minority communities is the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University which recommends, among other things, that editors and reporters add to their Rolodexes minority persons who can speak authoritatively on a number of issues important to all citizens. Dick Feagler of the Cleveland "Plain Dealer" recalls a while back when he worked at a local television station he had the novel idea of interviewing and quoting black professionals on every conceivable matter except race. He thought of his plan as a sort of, "image affirmative action (that would) without bending the truth, give a much more accurate picture of how our black fellow Clevelanders really functioned."

Feagler tried to sell the idea to the news director. "I was listened to politely," he said, "and that was that." But apparently there are more editors, associate producers, and news directors than ever before willing to test the hypothesis that minority persons do in fact spend the majority of their waking hours focused on such mundane concerns as survival, work, play, love, food, family, the environment, the mortgage -- the same as practically everyone else ­ and that most of their co-citizens can appreciate this and can identify with them on this level.

Thus, the next time astronomer Neil Tyson appears on ABC's "World News Tonight" to summarize the dangers posed by enormous comets moving close to Earth, most viewers at first glance should not expect him to expound on the black point of view on the matter; or when fellow black astronomer Gibor Basri is questioned about his discovery of a brown dwarf in the "San Francisco Chronicle" the majority of readers initially should not assume it has anything whatsoever to do with a diminutive African American floating in space 400 light years away.

Lest we congratulate the media prematurely, in the midst of what many would consider welcomed progress there is one possible adverse consequence, voiced by communication studies professor Robert M. Entman of Northwestern University, who has cautioned that increased use of blacks as authoritative sources, "while perhaps counterbalancing all the criminals and victims, could simultaneously feed the complacency of whites who insist racial discrimination has ceased."

There is also the fear that these black experts could be taken advantage of by cunning anti-affirmative action media employers who would exploit them as a substitute for hiring and promoting black journalists, reporters, and auxiliary personnel. Understandably, any sign that the media is correcting the preponderantly negative image of blacks has to be weighed against what remains to be addressed: that long trail of abuses and slights that once prompted Malcolm X to wonder aloud why the nation's media steadfastly refused to recognize and display the diversity of expertise within the black population, to allow them to demonstrate their limitless ability to contribute to the betterment of society.


©Robert Fikes, Jr. 1999

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