The book Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, by Martin A. Berger explores the dual role of Civil Rights Movement photojournalism in promoting and limiting the possibility of civil rights reform in the 1960s.
Berger argues that photos of civil rights protest – the unforgettable images of Bull Connor using attack dogs and firehouses on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, for instance – too often told the story of the movement in terms that reduced black Southerners to one-dimensional victims.
Photos of white-on-black violence shamed Northern whites. But, those photos didn’t make them feel guilty, a distinction that’s rarely examined. He argues that whites felt shame because they identified with the white perpetrators shameful behavior rather than with the black protestors. But, because the perpetrators were acting within a system of laws that didn’t exist in the North, and were presented to them in the media as monstrous “others,” they didn’t feel complicit in these acts of white-on-black violence. Instead, they felt race shame and distanced themselves from Southern whites, even while the conditions of life for black people in the North were only nominally better at the time, and then only in the objective, legal sense.
But while the spectacle of white brutality and the victimization of peaceful black protestors sold newspapers, the price of profit was that support for civil rights of many whites of the era was limited to cleansing themselves of shame rather than winning justice for the victims of racism, though there is some question as to whether any other outcome was possible at the time.
And this dynamic continues. Consider this fascinating little nugget:
…In 2009, Canadian and American psychologists published the results of a study in which they asked non-black subjects to rate their level of distress after being exposed to incidents of white-on-black racism. Study participants who either read about or watched a video of overt racial prejudice practiced against blacks deemed the incident significantly more distressing than did those who observed the incident in person. The researchers hypothesized that when removed from actual events, subjects consciously adopted a mindset that allowed them to draw on egalitarian values in imagining their responses. And they concluded that subjects who witnessed the racist incident in person responded more spontaneously to reveal their latent biases against blacks.
When those who read about or watched a video of the incident were asked to predict if they would choose to pair up in a subsequent exercise with the black man subjected to the racist slur or the white man who made it, 75 percent of subjects who read about the incident and 83 percent of those who watched it indicated a preference to partner with the black. These white predictions of behavior clash with the clinical observation that 71 percent of those who witnessed the incident live actually chose to partner with the ‘racist’ white rather than the ‘victimized’ black. This clinical study demonstrates the propensity of Americans to experience heightened emotional distress when confronted with representations of racism and their relative indifference to racism in daily life. But it also suggests how representations mask the core beliefs on which people act. In the study, textual and visual representations facilitated strong emotional reactions because of the distance they created between viewers and the racist acts. They did not, as photographic historians frequently assume, make the incidents more immediate.
In other words, when presented with safe, media representations of white-on-black racism, most non-black folk react by siding with the black guy. But, when the incident is happening right in front of them, they side with the white person because proximity causes a more gut-level response.
Or, put another way, racism is a cultural problem, rooted in identity and how we understand and live in our identities as defined by race. The politics of spectacle, of shock and awe, in which we present laundry lists of ills and photos illustrating incidents of explicit racism can be helpful, but in the end, folk need to be able to see themselves depicted when they see people of color represented as victims. Making them see will require us to address implicit racial bias. Unless we can see through race, we will continue to be divided by it.