(The Root) — A 45-year veteran of the advertising industry, Tom Burrell is no stranger to the power of media messaging to “distract, anesthetize and exploit.” He’s especially concerned when that takes place at the expense of African-American people — which, he’d argue, is just about all the time.
In his book Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Burrell asserts that “one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of all time was the masterful marketing of the myth of black inferiority to justify slavery within a democracy.” Since then, he says he’s seen few bright spots in images of blacks on television (think The Cosby Show and Melissa Harris-Perry).
We spoke to Burrell, who founded Burrell Communications Group in 1971 and has worked ever since to promote positive and realistic images of African Americans (including through his Resolution Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes intra-racial dialogue and community-based new media “stop the brainwash” campaigns), about his take on this season’s television lineup.
Think Olivia Pope, the powerful protagonist of ABC’s Scandal, is a victory for black women? Think again, says this media insider, who sees only a “hot-to-trot” sexually aggressive trope as old as the institution of slavery itself in the character, played by Kerry Washington. He also weighed in on Revolution, offered his predictions about new projects by Issa Rae and Tyler Perry and slammed programs that try to “move us toward a postracial place” in a way that defies reality.
The Root: You’ve dedicated much of your career to looking at the connections between the perpetuation of stereotypes in the media and race-based self-esteem. Why is it important for African-Americans to understand that relationship?
Tom Burrell: It goes back to [W.E.B.] Du Bois, who said that all art is propaganda … What that speaks to is the idea that as long as we are climbing out of a deficit situation, trying to get ahead, we need to be sure that the entertainment that we produce and consume is moving ahead, instead of keeping us in place or moving us backward. Of course, that’s not the role television has, to any great degree, except for a couple of instances of Frank’s Place and The Cosby Show and things like that. The basic role of television is to distract, anesthetize and exploit so that the people who are running things can continue to do their business without being distracted.
TR: How is that happening this season?
TB: If you look at that in the context of this new season, I would say it’s anywhere from neutral to negative, depending on how you look at it. It’s not moving us ahead. The most substantive program I’ve been able to find is Revolution. It’s interesting that the two shows that are screaming to try to move us toward a postracial place are Revolution and Happy Endings, in which Damon Wayans Jr. plays the role of this very dweebish guy who looks like he’s had a soul-ectomy. He’s part of this community that is very much white suburban, middle class, and he has no heart, no soul left.