The First Amendment; Joseph Boscon
The First Amendment and a free people call weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world. The program has produced cooperatively by WGBH Boston and the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University the host of the program is the institute's director Dr. Bernard Reuben. What are the connections between dark skins prejudice and conceptions of living in the inner city or conceptions of living in cities at all. To help me with that question I'm delighted to have Professor Joseph Boskin of Boston University. He has taught at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. He won an Emmy in 1968 I mean award for a series of 20 shows on the National Broadcasting Company facilities on black Americans. He's edited and written a number of books including him an urban racial violence and the 20th century and his last book was. Humor and social change in 20th century America which as I say the last book what is
this year nine hundred seventy nine. He's currently professor of history and Afro-American Studies at Boston University. Joe what is the connection between what you call denials and images of the city. Well I think one of the basic issues in contemporary American society involves a very long denial of the city as the prime way in which American should lead their lives. That is there's been an anti urban bias in American society for the past 200 years and this anti urban bias has connected with a negative view towards ethnics. Minority groups are both who are black and white or black brown and white. And when you put both of these two forces together that is racism in American society and one hand in an anti urban bias on the other hand you basically get cities with enormous problems. So my basic argument is that the problems of American cities do not relate to financial
difficulties or to squeeze as financial exuberance you know the fact that cities are decaying. All of these things rest upon certain presumptions and attitudes. I would argue almost if you change your attitude you will therefore change city life considerably. So if you do change the attitudes then the city inversion becomes from your thinking a place in which we want to live the inner city becomes the most convenient place for transportation rather than having our cities more and more ghettoized in the inner city is just the reverse what hope do you have for changing this image pattern how you get to the core very quick don't you. Right right at the not a yes. Well as you know I start my two tours life in a very skeptical manner. So if you're asking about hope you're asking the wrong person at this point. My desire would be for there to be a national discussion about the nature and relationship of Americans to their cities. That way the first you know national concern and then related to that would be whether or not cities
are rightful places in which to bring up children. Because it's not just you see how adults view children view of the city. In fact what they say consciously or unconsciously the city has no place to bring up a child. Children should be brought up in the countryside as close to nature as possible or wait for away from the enervating influences of the city. As long as you have this attitude and the what's called white flight will continue. Now we have had I think was this the census of 1920 was first marked the majority of Americans living in urban areas rather than in rural areas. But I believe it is true that only one president in this century has come from an urban background. All of our presidents are small town boys. This is again an impediment is it not to to getting this reconsideration of the city that you are asking for. Yes well you know that's one of my main concerns that it's very significant that despite the fact we're probably the most
urban ois nation in the world or perhaps proportionately we share that with with Great Britain. I would assume this by the fact that we are an urbanized society our presidents all come from small towns or all areas with very little relationship to the cities in their development years. But when they come president they really don't have much empathy with cities even though they proclaim otherwise rhetorically. The battle over funding or not or whether to fund or not. New York City a few years ago when Mayor Beame was the mayor after a period of economic decline that lasted some years he tried to get some federal help. And at that time in the Congress and in other states there was a vicious not only anti New York commentary but it was really an anti minority group commentary in a way because what they whenever they use the words New York it was a good symbol for a lot of things that could not be said out in the open about the people who were living in the inner cities.
You know I think that New York City certainly has financial problems and there's a new book out on this particular issue. But apart from the hard core financial difficulties it's quite clear that New York City's problems stem from an anti-gay New York City sentiment across the country. If you take a look at the media view of New York City it's the most violent city in the United States was in point of fact the statistics clearly indicate that that's not true at all that most cities are you're far in advance of privately than New York City. But New York City a city of jobs a great deal of hatred. So that when the funding for New York City came up as a major consideration within the federal government taking the executive branch it's quite clear there was not much sympathy for it. But the mood that is expressed toward I think New York City gets the brunt of it because it was the the gate through which all the immigrants came. It is perhaps one of the major places where the welfare system was used to begin with a new deal to make it life a little bit more bearable for millions who fled. It became the place
where one of the great black ghettos by happenstance just just began to build build build. But what they said about New York City also refers to Cleveland and Los Angeles and Chicago and most other great cities in the country. Well it's found by the media is not these. That's true. The sentiments that we explore the situation in York City My itself. There were two forces in operation. There was New York's attitude towards the rest of the United States which is what. Well overall you know it's hard to generalize but New York City had a rather haughty attitude towards the rest of the country. It reviewed itself as the major cultural center of the world which as a matter of fact it probably was. But it like the rest of the United States you know know this there was a marvelous knap of the world in The New Yorker magazine where about 20 30 years ago a New York's view of the United States and the map
showed of course that you New York's view of America ended with the East River approximately everything west of there was very very tiny and very small until you got to California and I was a little bit larger There's a similar map showing a Bostonian view of the United States. I hate to think what it is you know the the New York City was and it is the communication center of the country. Now if communications is the center of the problem of the failure to communicate the needs of the poor the urban poor to communicate the needs of the city whether people are rich or poor to to try to make the city a more decent place to live. How do you put these two things together there. New York City was. Looked at let's say askance and also that New York City was the center not only of culture but of that important factor of cultural communication. It would but your question presumes that those who operate and quote own the media were willing to present a minority view on on on its
airwaves. They did present a view of the wholesomeness did they not I presume it came from them more than from any other group what they portrayed basically was an upper middle middle and upper middle and upper class view rather than a minority or lower class are you. So if you take a look at let's say the movies for example made in New York City and one hundred twenty six thirties and forties you'll notice they were basically Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tapping their way across Central Park was a very blithely and lovely place in which to live at that particular time and the minority groups were very rarely presented in movies. So what do they mean. What do the minorities group. What are the minority groups doing now. If these are facts where do we go from here there are denials of millions of people because of their skin and because of where they live. Where do we where do we make a move how do we make a constructive move especially as regards the media. OK well if you allow me a few minutes just just to talk around it for a while about it. I would say that several things are operative here or should be operative in the first place the anti
urban animus in American society touches all levels of the media from print media to visual media. One can hear it in folk expressions you know. It's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. Two songs in the popular culture two novels two cartoons to comic strips to television shows and movies we're talking about a problem that's quite extensive media wise. Now how would you change Americans view of the city. It's more as media is concerned involves I think a political process. There have to be groups which monitor TV shows and cartoons and comic strips and songs and so on. And somehow pressure for a more diversified view of wayward city life is really like. For example when a group of women were concerned worth of the degree and nature of violence on television they formed act. Perhaps the most powerful community based organization in the United States Action for Children's Television. Right. And they are the ones that had a
tremendous impact in revising violence you know on American television shows particular Saturday mornings system is going to have to be similar groups particularly urban groups between minority groups saying it just ain't so. City life is not violent the way in which it portrayed there's a lot of drama that goes on there's tremendous diversification there's not a lot of positive aspect to living in the city. And this has to be done I think by minority groups who are concerned with the way in which they are presented and by minority groups you know not just referring to racial minority groups but local groups as well. Now what about the violence that is pandemic in the city. Yeah especially as regards the the violence that is directed by ghetto people against ghetto people because of the conditions of life. Well that's another problem isn't it namely that the media portrays the cities as violent places. But if you try to make some analysis between American cities 100 years ago to American cities today in point of fact them much more much less violent today than they ever were before. Do you my first. That would be like my my first rejoinder to
that and my second rejoinder would be that it is overly dramatize and overly played that in point of fact most people do not come into any contact with violent actions in the cities. Most people just do not. But they are terribly frightened by the amount of violence which they see in mass and media so that the fear of far outweighs the statistics. Joy I'd like to comment on that phrase that you use or pick up on that phrase that you use most people do not make contact. Most people do not make contact with the ghetto whether it's Hispanic or black or any other ghetto. If they are in the in the white majority middle class they just don't make any contact they don't even go through there by car anymore to look through those places. This seems to me to be not just paradoxical in terms of a democratic society but it's almost a physical barrier to change. We have to do something more than have people monitoring the radio and television. There has to be an
active campaign perhaps to rid the cities of the ghetto so it has to be a campaign to democratize the whole political structure as well as regards minorities. Well I think you're not just read like I think you have an important point. But first I would argue that the word ghetto has often been used pejoratively but it need not be at all a ghetto can be a very positive experience. If we can look at that way which I think and I think it should be. But your basic question is how we get interchange between groups I think is really crucial. At one time even though it was in a limited nature and bases certainly whites traveled into black communities you know a lot of them did so it's true in many to listen to jazz groups or to you know to attend to certain kinds of entertainment spots let's say and that's a New York City that was it was Harlem but there were also Chicago and San Francisco. Why didn't the travel to black community like the Cotton Club. Yeah. Now
that was much less true blacks namely did not venture into white communities too often because there was often there was it was a racist society was very dangerous to do. But in point of fact now America's more segregated than ever before and whites do not travel into black communities and blacks were traveling to white communities except in some senses of which there are mixed marriages or where there's a student population or where there are lower class communities in which whites and blacks or browns do indeed mix in various ways. But by and large you talking about the rest of American society upper middle class and middle middle and upper class there's very little contact and communication. And that's a very serious situation. How do you correct that and change it. I really don't know. Mass media could be used to show that there could be great benefits for interchange between the two. Joe basket I know you have many many illustrations from your research of how the how the songs of America and the lyricist portray the current city or portray the city would you give us a few examples of that.
You mean you want me to sing. Well I think you can read or sing as you choose. Well there are two types of songs that one can delineate. One would be the the pro rural approach country song that continually inundates the airwaves particularly country western songs and so on. For example one of the most popular of all country western songs of the 1970s was thank God I'm a country boy. Which extols the virtues of rural and farm life which I think can be extolled but it's always been at the expense of the city. And if you listen to the words it's automatically contracted with the city so some of the lyrics go like this. Well life on a farm is kind of laid back ain't much an old country boy like me can't hack it's early to rise early in the sack. Thank God I'm a country boy. And then it goes on to say a simpler kind of life never did me no harm raisin me a family and working on a farm.
My days are all filled with an easy country charm Thank God I have a country boy. Writing like the lyrics of on the town that show the early 50s was it no where is it and then you know there are the songs of take me back country roads which are stars of course shine in the valley and there are the songs a very famous singer who keeps talking about Denver and the Rocky Mountain high. So you know I think I love the country and I love the mountains. But you see the cities don't have similar kind of songs. There are some now for example like I love New York which is an attempt to right offset these kind of songs most urban songs deal with the harshness particularly of New York City that seems to be the focal point. A few years ago there was a song called Manhattan towers which was one of the most popular and seemed to evoke in the listeners
thoughts of how great it was to to make a success in the city and to be able to look out upon all the lights. And I don't know how many movies had a scene the required scene which somebody looks out of the window out of a skyscraper in say and says one day all of that town is going to be at my feet. That's right. All the other folk expression someday my son this will be yours. Actually the only movie in recent years that extols the city is Woody Allen's current movie Manhattan. There's the first pro urban movie I've seen in recent decades. Well I saw the same movie and I don't know whether I can agree with you I guess it's in the eye of the beholder. I think I think you expose the city if you say there's the Greenwich Village I love but it's an evocation of the city. I mean the sounds romantic sounds of George Gershwin's music floats through the first How deep is exquisite. If you notice a lot of the background shots you like example the Hayden Planetarium right. I believe it was made and I was sort of the planetarium where marvelous and as he goes to the park even as they pass through the streets there's a lot of beautiful
things going on. You know I think that you have a very strong point I was watching Woody Allen so strongly that I missed the evocation of the city as a positive force that got lost in the story. But indeed you are true on that point. But most of the films show the dirt and the garbage and the landlords imposing and the collapsing rules and most of the newspapers are full of that and yet no none of the newspapers have investigative reporters coming out as they as they might and say how can we get rid of these slums and ghettos within a decade how can we house all of America brilliantly. No president has really come forth with that kind of a grand Manhattan project since you talked about Manhattan similar to the atomic project Europeans it is especially in Western Europe have large eliminated their slums and ghettos. But we have the most thriving growing vibrant ghettos in the world. Is that a fair statement. I think that's a relatively fair statement. I think the basic problem I think is a combination between anti-European and racist that is in effect was
saying that the that the lower class folks who also happen to be nonwhite are getting what they deserve. And so we create a situation to fulfill our expectations on our images. Do you from your experience on both coasts. Now you worked in California and you know the East Coast do you see any distinctive differences between this system of denials will say toward the Hispanics in Los Angeles and or to other blacks in New York. That's a good question and that's a hard one to answer. No there are actually similar problems on the East Coast and the West Coast I think they may be harsher here in the northeast. It's an older section of the country it's more locked institutionally certain it's more bureaucratically oriented here in the Northeast compared to the southwest. It's only a matter of time before it happens there too. But the same race's problems that exist here exist there. I don't think it's very much difference as indicated by the fact that they're in the 1960s when blacks and browns are rebuilding American cities.
One of the largest and most surprising to everybody was the Watts Riots in 1965 in the garden city in America which in one place was not supposed to happen. What's being and ghetto are two story houses rather than a ghetto of pre 903 New York slums. You know Watts basically is a you know it's just a quick name for the South Central District of L.A. which is which is very very large and expensive watches actually very small community. But the media took the name wants and apply to the entire action. But you're right I mean there are long lines filled with flowers and greenery and and you know homes of various type and it does not look like an Eastern ghetto you know with a large tenements and burned out. Of buildings you know the refuse scattered all over but the same race's problems exist there as exist here and they were exemplified by construction projects which created a new city. For example the highways I'm told around Watts made a great
deal more difficult for the people in the community to get to their jobs in the center city than it did then it was for the suburbanites to go racing in through Watts on these. It was a highway exactly right. It was a matter of fact one can almost all you have subliminally or subconsciously or consciously or whatever you want to put up the freeways totally bypassed the minority areas so that it was possible for someone in L.A. to get into his or her car within two or three miles from there. From a freeway it traversed the city without ever coming into contact with minority group areas. Get off with a model to have their work travel back again to their homes and be totally oblivious to the people who live in between. That's very difficult to do in places like Boston Philadelphia or New York City Washington and so on. Although in Washington when I worked in Washington D.C. It was extremely difficult to go from the Capitol district the center near the White House for black people in Southeast Washington had jobs in northwest Washington. It was very costly before the subway was
built for them to go to their job and it took one hour and a half two hours for them to make a bus trip with several changes. Well in keeping with that are you know in L.A. yes you know which is most peculiar of all American cities. The bus system is virtually nonexistent. So if minority Go figure to get into a bus and travel let's say to where the width to where the jobs are would take them up at sometimes two hours and was fairly costly as well which there were a lot of changes that had to be made. So yeah it was difficult there. Joe when we see these various problems and we've given illustrations only of these problems we would expect the mass media. As a force in our culture to be an educative device to explain things to us but actually they have tended despite I know that any good reporter can tell me 14 stories that his newspaper did last year alone. But on the whole they have tended to question the middle class to make the middle class rather oblivious to what is going
on. That is one of the most important in our lives is it not. Well you know this marks the difference between you and I because that's such an optimistic statement. 30 that I find if I thought a very pessimistic statement. Well I was trying to be facetious in a way that you know we all would we would all like the media to be to serve as an educated device to use your expression and I say in the broadest sense it does serve as an educated device. But it's not the kind of lies you and I would approve of I suspect it's a device of social conformity. Yes and social control and social control particularly rather representing the diversity of the options that might exist for human beings it does just the opposite with Luxor said. So I'm always very concerned about media is not only does that is it's a form of cultural glue in a way. But it's also obviously commercially oriented and you put these two things together the people who suffer most are the victims of society. Some of our American history is also involved. Is it not in that the Puritan ethic would
hold that since these people are at the bottom of the heap they have earned their way down and therefore the media which represent commercial success should not dwell on people who cannot climb on their own. I'm afraid that's true talents and that will remain so you are saying there's no hope for. Again we are going to Optimistic pessimistic there's no hope for for trying to. To invade to persuade the media managers themselves of these obvious truths. I see no great trend by media owners and managers to say well we have done this but let's now let's take a more constructive. Well I think media folks who are those who control the media are paralysed fairly susceptible to various kinds of pressure. In that sense I'm fairly optimistic that perhaps we can do some changes. By and large they're run by conglomerates and they have tremendous power. So I find that I think a level I'm not particularly hopeful about. If a member of an academic you really have a great deal of trouble
selecting the cover of a book that's going to come out which represents me and has my name on it and I have trouble doing that. Lord those who have even less power than I want you must be but it is easier to note the statistic I saw the other day that in recent years the last decade or so only two or three books by blacks have had a national audience and book publishers of course just characterizing blacks as being in a certain category and will not accept their work for a general audience. So no one is trained to read the work of a new right. It's training of all new Angelou. Yeah it's training and they've also made the assumption that the public no longer desires books about minority problems minority issues and so on. They've made a decision. And they do so every 20 years. Make that same decision and and perpetually make it in favor of the people who have the two car garages are you saying. Well I'm saying that they make certain basic assumption of what will sell or what will not sell so they create the
environment in which things sell and don't sell as a matter of when they make decisions which stories will go on a newspaper which novels of which textbooks will go. They've made tremendous decisions about how we're going to tackle social problems and social issues. What we have been talking about is a little bit more difficult than would be the conversation around editorial board meeting in a major newspaper where they say make sure we have that story about the blacks the Hispanics the Chinese to make sure we cover the outstanding events. But life is not made up of outstanding events is it. It's made up of little bits of things that happen to us and if they happen to us every day in the inner city by and large it's difficult for those people to ever get out. When I was sort of you want to get that's basically true. Well Joe Baskin we have been using two words here one is press in Mystic and one is optimistic do you think that we have been realistic. Right. Yes I think we have been very realistic where this will carry us I really don't know. Brother I would hope that there is enough interest among young people that cut
across the classes and cut across racial groups that could be organized attempts to change things. But one thing I'm sure is that you are always cheerful as again I would remind our audience your latest book is humor and social change in 20th century America which is coming out which has just come out 1979 unless some ber critique of what is going on then and what we have gone through. But I think perhaps no less constructive for that purpose I want to thank you Joe Baskin It's been a delight for this edition. Bernard Reuben. The First Amendment and a free people. A weekly examination of civil liberties and the media in the United States and around the world. The engineer for this broadcast was Margo Garrison and the program is produced by Greg Fitzgerald. This broadcast has produced cooperatively by WGBH Boston and the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University which are solely responsible for its content.
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