The media plays an important role in society, both in how we view ourselves and each other. Those most prone to the media are children, who in this time of working parents, will be left to be raised by television shows such as Sesame Street, Saturday morning cartoons, and MTV. These early stages of child development are important because they determine an individual’s capacity for critical thinking, brain development, and many constraints on how their world is perceived. This is held in highest importance by the Urban Ecology theory, in which a person’s success is determined solely by their intelligence and drive to succeed. However, according to the Political Economy theory, the success of someone is not always based on their direct talent, strength, and perseverance, but more on factors such as the networks they travel in, and the environment they grow up in. As Dr. Leland Saito commented on the investment in Whiteness, “the connection between Whiteness and the construction of identities among racial minorities—and how such identities are used in politics—is largely overlooked.” (pg. 4) What if that environment is a poorly run school system which reinforces media stereotypes?
At Washington Prep High School in South Central Los Angeles, I was fortunate enough to join a program that would bring USC mentors in throughout the week, and teach the students about film. What I found was surprising, and in some cases shocking.
The faculty was very distant from the students, often times reinforcing stereotypes onto them. At the beginning of the semester, the heads of the program sat down with us and one commented that we shouldn’t expect much from these kids. Another said that they weren’t intelligent enough to understand film and the computer editing systems.
The state of the school was under funded and poorly run. The school nurse only worked every other day, and the student body had to be put on lockdown once when there was a gang shooting one block from the school. However, within these violent and discouraging surroundings remained a student body filled with enthusiasm and energy, always optimistic about the future, and much more aware of their surroundings than the faculty seemed to admit. One student had been in four foster homes in the past two years, but rather than turning to gangs, he became the class clown. Another student, who was singled out by the main instructor of the class because he perceived her to be a troublemaker, turned out to be one of the leaders of the band, and constantly applying for scholarships.
While the common vision of a south central high school is of metal detectors at the front doors, armed police guards patrolling the halls, and gang members plotting and dealing in the bathrooms, none of that actually existed, physically. However, the psychological culture of fear was in place, and some students felt they had to live up to a reputation of the tough gang banger or easy chick. While talking with one female student about pop culture, she said, “Being a pimp is a good thing.” In fact, many students considered derogatory comments about women and each other, and school violence the norm although incident reports were no worse than the common high school, barring the one shooting event which happened outside school. Surrounded by an environment where the children were psychologically reinforced day after day that they weren’t good enough, or that violence was the norm, some had given in to the idea that the media presented about them. Those that did would give up on their projects, or withdraw from class, and some turned antagonistic towards the teachers. The Urban Ecology theory would dictate that those who give up deserve to fall by the wayside, because they lack the drive or skill to accomplish, but these are children, easily influenced, self-conscience, and a bit temperamental. To give up on them now and let them coast by or flunk them would have serious repercussions on them for the rest of their lives, and would only confirm media stereotypes about them. While one might be tempted to give in to the belief that they really weren’t up to the challenge, one should examine the Political Economy theory. Realizing the discouraging environment the students are in, the Political Economy theory shows that the children were naturally upset and frustrated, and they should be worked with and encouraged.
Those who promote urban ecology claim that although a child may grow up in such a discouraging environment, their success depends on how hard they work towards their goals. A student may grow up in a poor high school, but can still go on to aspire to lofty ambitions, but how will they know that they can aspire to such ambitions if they don’t know those options are achievable? The Urban Ecology theory does not take into account a flawed school system, but simply throws them into the world without proper preparation. To attempt and compensate for these conditions, they founded the film program. However, we often wondered if the program was really helping the students. We did as much as possible to teach them the knowledge, but seemed to have no affect on their attitudes or environments. Noted sociologist William Ryan said, “As a result, there is a terrifying sameness in the programs that arise from this kind of analysis. In education, we have programs of ‘compensatory education’ to build up the skills and attitudes of the ghetto child, rather than structural changes in the schools.” (pg. 8) So, we had to determine how else the program could benefit the students. The program was also conceived as part of a plan to help establish positive role models for the students, and so we as mentors tried to shift more towards that position, always encouraging the students. We tried to relate to them and give them advice about applying to college. As William Julius Wilson said in The Truly Disadvantaged:
Thus a perceptive ghetto youngster in a neighborhood that includes a good number of working and professional families may observe increasing joblessness and idleness but he will also witness many individuals regularly going to and from work; he may sense an increase in school dropouts but he can also see a connection between education and meaningful employment (pg. 56)
Similarly, it was in simple actions that we were able to support the children the most, by: coming to class regularly and on time; telling the children we liked their work; asking them how their day was, etc. Also, following the guidelines of political economy theory, we tried to make them aware of as many opportunities in the film industry as possible, internships, short documentaries, etc.
However, a greater question must be asked of Washington Prep High School, why is it in the condition it’s in? According to the urban ecology theory, the school is lacking because its faculty and staff aren’t doing as good a job as they could be doing. The political economy theory might chalk it up to the inability for the school’s leaders to move freely and comfortably in settings and groups that would be responsible for the city giving them more funding. However, there are other theories, some larger and more sinister in nature. Michael Moore in his film, Bowling For Columbine interviewed Dick Hurlin, the Producer of COPS, and asked, ‘Don’t you think that by showing angry black man after angry black man on COPS, that white America is going to say, ‘I don’t want to help that person now, because I’m afraid of that person, because he wants to hurt me.’ [PARAPHRASED] Perhaps the same can be said for the perception of inner city schools: people don’t want to help them because of the fear that young minority teenagers are violent gang members. They see images of violent African-American teens in various movies and television shows, and they absorb it into their psyche. They come to accept those images as reality, overlooking the truth, and what they see right in front of them. Unfortunately, these two worlds of white and black are kept separate, and those who have the power to help change the course of the school or its students’ lives are far from south central in their peaceful suburbs.
As Chief Justice Warren wrote in the famous school-integration case, “To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Whether this separation is done physically by the hands of the government, or psychologically by the hands of the media, it is destructive and harsh. A child’s life can be torn apart by a negative self-image, and will encourage them to violence and a life of crime. When media images fill the airwaves of criminals, pimps, and hos, the audience believes it as reality, including some of the teachers responsible for the well-being of these children. That, coupled with the constant bombardment of these images will hurt a student’s self-respect, and their ability to succeed in a job once they graduate. Urban ecology theory may say a child’s success is based on their drive and determination, but political economy recognizes the truth, that these students are hindered from the beginning because of what the media portrays them as.
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