Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A 'Picaninny' in a Veritable Human Zoo: Why Did CNN Choose to Feature a Story About a Black Toddler Acting Like a "Ghetto Thug?"

8,000 comments later, most of them racist screeds too low and disgusting for even the bathroom wall at a Neo-Nazi meeting, CNN has finally decided to close the discussion on its story about a half-naked black toddler, who encouraged by its parents and other adults, curses, poses, and acts like a "ghetto thug".

My politics are direct and transparent.

I am very traditional in my concern for and commitment to the politics of black respectability. I have repeatedly argued that a decline in the public norms around shame have been a net negative for American society. Based on those priors, the video (taken by law enforcement agents as a warning to the ghetto underclass) of a black child acting like an adult street pirate--learned behavior that signals something profoundly wrong about the child's home environment--is abuse, as well as grounds for the parents to be put in jail and the minor to be handed over to the state.

The late Richard Iton wrote a genius book called In Search of the Black Fantastic.

There he worked through how the Black Public Sphere and black private spaces were challenged and compromised by technology such as the Internet, and a spectacular public gaze that is simultaneously obsessed with African-American culture, yet still hostile to full and human representations of black humanity, and serves as a tool of the surveillance state.

Iton also details how black Americans and other members of the diaspora have found ways to use new media and other technologies in ways that can be simultaneously both liberating and regressive in how they are located relative to the new post colonial Jim and Jane Crow racial order, globalization, and neoliberal politics.

CNN's choice to give a platform to a video of a black toddler performing in a veritable human zoo and freak show is located solidly within Iton's framework. The speed and rapidity of how the Internet circulates an ostensibly private moment is a challenge for old models of communication and privacy. However, the thuggish black performance displayed by the black child in CNN's story is also a callback to old racist stereotypes and caricatures of African-Americans that served to legitimate chattel slavery and American Apartheid.

As such, the "ghetto" "thug" toddler in the CNN video (as taken by the Omaha Police Officers Association) is a 21st century version of the white racist caricature known as "the picaninny".

The picaninny is one of the standard characters in the white racist imagination and American popular culture. Depicted as a black child, he or she was shown in sexual ways, often as bait for alligators, neglected by absent and irresponsible African-American parents (this served as a way of indicting the black community and its families), in various states of undress, and acting like an adult who partakes in all manner of mischief.

The default question here is a simple one: was CNN "racist" to provide a space for such a derogatory and viciously ugly depiction of black Americans? That is too easy a prompt. "Racism chasing" provides empty calories and is of limited use or service to the Black Freedom Struggle in the post civil rights era. While identifying a given social act or institution's relationship to white supremacy is important, we should ask the bigger and more salient question: "what is this an example of?"

The adultification of a black child by irresponsible parents, and CNN's choice to offer a human zoo featuring a black picaninny for its viewers' and readers' entertainment (operating under the guise of concern and shock) legitimates the prison industrial complex, punitive policing, and a belief that black people are irresponsible, lazy, hyper-libidinous, immoral, criminal, and lack impulse control.

Popular culture does political work. CNN's story about a ghetto thug toddler exists in a broader constellation of images, TV shows, films, and music that highlight black hooliganism and violence. Reality TV is a prime offender, where shows such as The First 48 and Cops are nothing more than advertisements and endorsements for the mass incarceration of black Americans that do their political work by misrepresenting the racial dynamics of crime in order to scare its white viewers.

Racism can be active or passive, conscious or subconscious, personal or structural, intentional or accidental. As a lived social practice, racism also dissolves those easy binaries.

A producer or programmer at CNN made a choice to air a video of a 21st century black picaninny. This producer or programmer of that segment could have made a different choice. For example, he or she could have found any number of examples of white parents and their children acting badly. Whiteness is normalized. White children are a protected class. Thus, such an equivalent depiction would be in "bad taste". In comparison, black deviancy and bad behavior are expected and normalized.

Thus, and if we are to understand how racism and racial ideologies are reproduced in "post racial" America, perhaps the question should be the following one.

Why did CNN make the choice to air a video of a black human zoo when they could have easily made a different decision?

If we are seeking a more easy rubric or decision-rule for determining if a choice or act  is "racist" or not, then we can always default to how a given public responds, in this case, to a given example.

When a story about a black child attracts 8,000 comments from overt white racists, who are attracted to a depiction of a black child that is directly out of their racially pathological minds, then yes, CNN's decision to post a video of a black picaninny in a veritable human zoo--and to not close the comments or pull the story--was probably in fact "racist".


Bryan Ortez said...

I'm with you here, Chauncey. They didn't have to play the video if they wanted to discuss the reasons why the police department put it on their website. I don't know why this idea of publicly shaming people like this is done. The adults in that video do not care one bit, you call them out, they'll get in your face about it.

The White family of West Virginia has had several documentaries and movies about them. One is called the "Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia." Wild and Wonderful is the West Virginia state motto, so that's where that comes from. Their drug use and sexual lives find a large market of Americans who will celebrate them.

In the comments, some folks will trash talk the family, then other people will rise up to defend them. One person even says he would let the Whites steal from their Wal Mart store because they sold him pot.

Recently I read a letter from the Universal Zulu Nation to the owner of WorldStar HipHop. He was unsparing in his criticism of the uncouth portrayal of hip hop culture on his website.

Black Sci-Fi said...

I'll rank this video with the decades of local network news stations that lead-off their newscasts by firmly establishing African-Americans as the leading cause of crime in our nation. After decades of willful misinformation there is no one left to convince to the contrary. Propaganda has become generic fact. I look forward the white panic (Tea Party on steroids) that will ensue when the demographics of this country become majority minority. Thanks, TNC, for taking the time to raise the roof.

KissedByTheSun said...

You might need to re-cork, your blackface makeup is wearing off.

KissedByTheSun said...

Once again one black person represents all black people. The day when a black kid can walk into a school and shoot to death a bunch of white little boys and girls, whilst still being seen as an individual, is the day we are truly "post-racial".

Buddy H said...

I'm always suspicious of what "journalists" (and yes I put scare quotes around the word) decide what to highlight and what to ignore. Case in point: two of my local online news sites have not yet featured any stories about NJ governor christie (a.k.a. "Big Chicken") and his thuggish revenge on the town of Fort Lee. Nothing. Nada. Now when I first noticed this, I thought, well, it's not local news, it's "downstate" news, and so the upstate NY folks won't care. But today they are both running a story about the Omaha toddler being placed in protective custody. So a black toddler in Omaha is more newsworthy to NY newspapers than the NY GW bridge backed up for a week? If the toddler hadn't cursed, but instead had been abducted, we would know nothing about him. My local news people are running the black toddler story to give upstate NY racists something to tsk tsk about. And believe me, upstate NY is as racist as any town in the deep south.

Miles_Ellison said...

The real issue here is that CNN could not have made a different decision. The choice they made is the one that they are hard wired to make. It's the choice that the media in general is hard wired to make. As I've said on numerous occasions, there isn't any reason for an intelligent person to be watching CNN outside of being stranded in an airport or waiting for their Dunkin Donuts coffee.

As for the Omaha Police Association, this video is just an excuse to justify the racist, trigger-happy policing that has taken the place of actual law enforcement in most cities where there are significant numbers of non-white people.

chauncey devega said...

That is some real talk there. A black kid who is in danger or kidnapped gets no news coverage. One who acts like a "thug" gets air time. Great catch.

chauncey devega said...

The media consistently misrepresents the nature of crime. If they were accurate white folks would be terrified of each other. America will not become majority minority that is a weak bit of social science spun for media consumption. Whiteness expands, adopts new groups, and by definition remains dominant. It is already inducting new members.

chauncey devega said...

World Star Hip hop has nothing to do with hip hop. In fact many of its biggest contributors and supporters are white supremacists doing a blackface routine. I kid you not. Great psyop on their part though.

Bryan Ortez said...

Colorlines picked this up. They posted on their facebook page and a black woman commented, "this is beyond what white people do or not do to their children." I'm like, you got to be kidding me. Some white people feed their children heroin. There was a story around here not long ago of a toddler actually being injected with heroin. People act like white people are perfect.

This was shared on another page, it's pretty appropriate.
Dr. Umar Johnson on propaganda and black people

Plantsmantx said...

You can do a search on YouTube and find numerous videos of swearing white toddlers. I wonder if CPS came and took them away. Needless to say, that's a rhetorical question.

Many people are thrilled and delighted by anything that seems to be evidence of their small child's precocity, even if it involves swearing. It's stupid, but it's not at all rare, and we all know it- even those of us (yes, I'm including some black people) who pretend that it only happens with black people.

Black Romulan said...


OldPolarBear said...

I had seen this linked to from somewhere -- Rawstory I think -- but hadn't realized it had been a CNN story. I have to completely agree with your assessment of their choice of "news" item. Sad to say it does not surprise me much that they would do it. I have to agree with Miles Ellison that there is not much reason to watch CNN, certainly if you want actual news or to be informed. I would probably (almost) watch Fox before I wasted time watching CNN -- the former does not really try very hard anymore to hide what it is, while CNN still tries to pretend they are doing journalism. CNN always had a right-of-center bias, but it would do actual coverage of events in the early days and was sort of worthwhile watching (they were amazing during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989). I guess when Ted Turner sold it is when it went downhill.

I also wonder about that kid being taken away, unless they found something else was going on. Teaching your toddler to be angry and swear like that is awful, but is it legally actionable? And would it be considered so if it were not a black child?

Anonymous said...

Je ne vois pas dans cela le sens.
ciaraMt bb4arg48

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As a former resident of Omaha I can certainly say that the local media and the police do their darndest to code crime and deviancy in that city "black," much more so than in other places that I've lived.

kscoyote said...

Thug Life?

Black Sci-Fi said...

I disagree with your 2nd point. I don't have a crystal ball but the rate of immigration, the birth rate of both the minority and (current) majority populations and the sharing of values across ethnic and racial lines would suggest that this melting pot thing is gaining momentum."Power cedes Nothing" is not my argument. My argument is what it means to be American will certainly evolve based on the values of the population that inhabits our shores. The evidence can be clearly demonstrated in the amending of our federal governing documents to reflect America's evolving progressive values and the, albeit slow, embrace of progressive change. It should also be noted that technology (social media) is hastening that day. The alternative is to give a larger voice to the symptoms (Tea Party, Duck Dynasty, Coulter and Palin) of a declining culture rather than to acknowledge the steady momentum that this country's evolving progressive accomplishments would suggest, despite the expected push-back from the powerful. Push-back is to be expected. IMHO, the particular type of in-your-face or institutional push-back only validates our progressive momentum. While I am still firmly a member of the Freedom Now camp and still carry my youthful disdain for gradualism, I cannot ignore the steady progress of human rights that has taken place around the world in my lifetime and the accelerating momentum of said progress. Now, what really pisses me off, on this the eve of my 60th birthday, is that I will not be around to enjoy warp drive, although I am grateful to bear witness to the discovery of exoplanets in my lifetime. In analogy, the gap between science and science fiction is closing. And again, thanks for maintaining a space to exchange ideas.

Frank said...

I saw this, but could not bring myself to watch it. I found the reportage disgusting, and I accuse that police department of pandering.

I'm a Southern boy. I know bigots (and panderers) when I see them.

Black Romulan said...

Hopefully you're not referring to the same model minorities white folks used to call "yellow monkeys" through World War II, "gooks" through the Vietnam conflict, and who many are now spoiling to start another nasty Cold War with, are you? You know, the ones they had locked up concentration camps when the majority culture deemed their American citizenship was momentarily incompatible with their war effort.
It seems real funny to me how quickly model minorities like Latinos or Jews can lose their model status or honorary whiteness when the mood strikes. Maybe that won't happen to whatever group you're crowing about - the Asia diaspora, probably - but considering how conditional model minority status tends to be I wouldn't bust my arm patting my tigerself on the back just yet.
And I consider myself an orangutan, not no mere porchmonkey, madame. I'm a thinking man's ape.

chauncey devega said...

We have many examples of heretofore non-white groups in America that are now considered white. There is no reason that this will not change. There is a great book called The Rise and Fall of the White Republican that gives some great history for this--you may have already read it, if not it is a classic you will appreciate.

The idea of American equaling values is one of our civic lies. By that rule black folks should be the most "American of all". Yet we have been used as the group against which to define Americanness as synonymous with whiteness.

chauncey devega said...

They are everywhere. Those cops were laughing their butts off at that poor child.

chauncey devega said...

What are the dynamics of the colorline out there in NE. Did you get to see the movie of the same name?

chauncey devega said...

Letter of the law, spirit of the law. Those are great questions. Being a bad parent isn't illegal per se. The state did take the kid and 3 others as I understand it.

skilletblonde said...

In Indiana, on December 7, 2013, a 3 year-old, with both parents in the home, pulled a gun off a counter, and shot himself to death. In Colorado, on December 3, 2011, a 3 year-old shot and killed a 5 year-old. These type of shootings are numerous in the white, gun loving culture. To the website Raw Story's credit, they are consistent in posting these type of shootings. But you'll never see this white pathology as a pattern in the MSM. As a matter of fact, if you look at the way the media handles mass shootings, they have accepted them as a reality of American culture. White males are not, whether they are the shooters, or the mouthpieces of the NRA, are not corralled, stereotyped and vilified for their behavior.

Furthermore, I don't think for a moment that these police officers would have propagated this video if the child were white. They would have turned it over to Child Protective Service, and that would have been the end of it. If they were truly concern, they would have sought a fellow black officer, or someone in a leadership position in the community. However, I'll never believe they were moved out of concern for this child. I daresay these same Police Officers have likely used the same terminology that this child is using against African Americans.

I'm in no way making excuses for what those awful parents have done. The child has been removed from the home. I hope permanently! But this video is just another cheap edition of reprehensible images of black people that is now a billion dollar industry.

As far as CNN is concern, it has become an acolyte of Fox News. Fox was also showing the video. Ismael Reed, who wrote "Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media" approached Al Sharpton early in President Obama's presidency. The purpose was to initiate a boycott of CNN News. Reverend Sharpton, at that time, most have been pursuing a job in political punditry, REFUSED!.

These degrading tropes of African American life are very, very dangerous.

skilletblonde said...

" Big Chicken" describes the bloated, bullying, coward excellently.

mbfromnm said...

Absolutely on the money. Both CNN and the OPA are pushing racism overtime. And, they will pay no price for this behavior.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Yes I saw the movie, and it was painfully accurate.

Omaha is set apart from the rural Nebraska depicted in the film, though. As a growing city of nearly half a million people, it is more dynamic that the places I come from.

It is a very segregated city, although for years it worked hard to integrate the public schools by allowing students to attend the high school of their choice, and making the schools magnets for particular subjects. Nowadays it has three districts: one predominately white, one mostly Latino, and one predominately black. I don't think that breakdown is a mistake.

Mostly black North Omaha has been redlined for decades, and most white folks act horrified and scared if I ever tell them I am planning to go there for one reason or another. For years North O was represented by Ernie Chambers, (a great man in my book) who for decades was the lone person of color in the Nebraska state legislature. Most of the rest of the state talked about him in demonic terms when I was growing up.

In a city that has boomed economically for the past three decades, North Omaha has seen little benefit. The majority of white Omahans look at it with fear and revulsion, and tend to want to blame any problems with the city's crime rate on the residents of North O, and on them alone.

Out in rural Nebraska there has been an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. In some places this has given rise to ugly nativism.

Frank said...

I am so tired of the hate.

I've known a lot of cops (I used to work for Amtrak and knew most of the Amtrak Police Department, and, when I was young, one of my Sunday School teachers was a Virginia State trooper). Most of them are decent people, difficult as it may be to believe. It is a brutalizing job, and too many of them are brutalized.

I resent the ones who stain the reputations of those who are not brutalized.

Christopher James said...

This is so weird. The first story I saw in my feed was about some group who's supposed to help African Americans and Latino's by telling them not to get abortions, and literally telling them poverty is better than taking a life. And I couldn't help but feel that white supremacy had to be behind that bullshit somehow, no matter how many black and latino faces they had. And then I see this, and i can't help but feel they're connected. It's actually upsetting, and disgusting. Thug baby's mother probably should have had an abortion and finished school, went to college, whatever. But that's not what they want, they want us to have babies before we're old enough. They want us to drop out. They want videos like this, so they can point they're fucking fingers. I think its been made quite clear. I wish you had taken a screenshot of those comments on the video at CNN because as you already know the video has "0 Comments" now.