(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.
The thing that both that show and Revolution are saying is that we are really at a point where the race issue is over. The impact of that is that it distracts us and keeps us away from realizing that we still have racial issues to deal with in this country.
And Revolution is a show about a post-apocalyptic world, 15 years after some devastating event like a nuclear bomb or something. Giancarlo Esposito is in the starring role, and while he is kind of an angry black man, he is a very smart one, and he basically goes around slapping white guys, in a position of authority, not an outlaw, but just a tough taskmaster. It really says, "We're in a postracial period." By and large, that representation is natural, or slightly positive. That makes it the best thing I've seen thus far this season.
TR: Better than Scandal?
TB: I've got major problems with Scandal. It comes dressed up and masqueraded as something new, but Scandal is basically a continuing perpetuation of the stereotype of a black woman whose libido and sexual urges are so pronounced that even with an education and a great job, and all these other things, she can't control herself. So, she's basically a reincarnation of Bess from Porgy and Bess; she's the female in Monster's Ball; she's the sexual predator and aggressor. It basically plays into the whole sexual stereotype of black women that's been around from the very beginning, and that basically gives permission for them to be sexually exploited.
TR: So, on balance, when it comes to the images of black women on the show, you believe the negative sexual stereotypes outweigh the positive things — like her intelligence, power and professionalism?
TB: Yes. The intelligence and professionalism let us go in under this pretext. But the message that is really being delivered is that no matter how much education you get and how much power you get, you've still got that "around the way girl" in you. It's basically saying that black women are innately, inherently, hot to trot. He doesn't seduce her. She seduces him.
TR: Aren't most people on television these days — regardless of race or gender — kind of "hot to trot," though?
TB: Black people are not dark-skinned white people. We are not in the same position as white people. We don't have the luxury of doing what they do. When they do something, they get a pass. When we do something, we are reinforcing stereotypes and we are keeping people in their place, which is not an equal place. Until that deficit is made up, we have to overcompensate. You know, in the old days, when you put black people on television, it was to increase your black audience … now I think they're putting black people in these roles to entertain white people, as opposed to drawing a larger black audience.
TR: There's a lot of buzz around the new Issa Rae series that Shonda Rhimes has sold to ABC. Are you hopeful about a refreshing depiction of black women by the creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl?
TB: I hadn't heard that, but it seems [based on Scandal] that Shonda Rhimes is on the exploitation boat right now. Sometimes you get into this thing to do good, but then you just do well. And you drop your mission along the way.
TR: What about OWN's recently announced partnership with Tyler Perry?
TB: I am optimistic and hopeful that this powerful, talented tandem will produce work that will contribute to moving us out of our place (last, in all too many cases) and tell us stories that not only make us feel better, but do better. We all should be given the opportunity to change, evolve, expand and grow. In them, I see signs of hope — signs that they have a new level of consciousness, sensitivity and true appreciation and respect for their power to positively shape how we feel, think and behave.
TR: Is it possible that scripted TV is just the wrong place to look for images of and messages that help rather than harm black people? What if we look at other formats?
TB: Melissa Harris-Perry's show is wonderful. Absolutely the best. MSNBC is doing an excellent job with the way they are casting their shows and their panelists. And she injects a lot of humanity into the education. She's entertaining while she is putting out really solid, deep education and information. I think it comes from her being an educator and being a good one. If we could have a few more of those, and if we could get them past cable, then those kinds of things would really help to balance out the stuff that's not doing us any good.
When you do communications programming that distracts and anesthetizes people, you're taking them out of the game. You don't have to do any direct harm to them. So anybody who sits around and watches this mindless stuff, as many of us do — the data shows that we [African Americans] watch way more television than anyone else — it's just taking us out. It doesn't do anything for constructive critical thinking. So, we need more Melissas.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.