Coloring in the Bubble:Perspectives from Black-Oriented Media on the (Latest) Economic Disaster
Historically, people of color have turned to alternative “ethnic” media to fill in gaps in the record presented by dominant media. However, it is necessary to assess whether these alternative media provide sufficient counternarratives. Such an assessment is even more important now, as media consolidation and multicultural marketing present new opportunities for and pressures on ethnic media, often under the sign of neoliberal and “postracial” progress. I investigate how three media platforms aimed at people of color responded to the mortgage lending crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. I explore whether each outlet provided readers with perspectives rarely found in dominant media reports on the crisis. This exploration yields insights about the production of resistant news narratives, as well as cautions about the limitations of critique found in ethnic media.
Part of our contemporary crisis is created by a lack of meaningful access to truth . . . [and] our capacity to face reality is severely diminished as is our will to intervene and change unjust circumstances.—bell hooks, "A Revolution of Values: The Promise of Multicultural Change"
The subprime crisis was caused by a cascade of factors that include radical deregulation of the financial markets; corruption within and across financial institutions; a mix of irresponsible and inaccurate reporting on the housing market boom; and plain old human vices like greed.1 Many have claimed since the bubble burst in 2007-8 that they saw it coming, but had insufficient influence or power to change the minds of the Wall Street titans and federal investigators who should have known better. While it is worthwhile for historians to chronicle exactly which signs were misread, why whistleblowers were dismissed, and who was responsible, the question we face now is how do we remedy the extreme losses and prosecute the now-proved illegal practices that led to the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression? More specifically for this essay, how do black media account and suggest remedies for the fact that disproportionate numbers of African American homebuyers and neighborhoods have suffered the worst effects of the subprime debacle?
The crisis is not just a matter of governmental financial regulation; the ways in which our watchdog press fell asleep on the job is indicative of a broader, problematic cultural shift to neoliberal, postracial discourses. These ideologies have become normalized and entrenched in many parts of the mediated public sphere, as well as government-sponsored discourses of economic and social policy.2 None of the dominant media outlets—whether broadcast, cable, print, or online—waved sufficient red flags about the burgeoning bubble. As hooks's quote suggests, we continue to be in dire need of intellectual, critical, and popular spaces where quality information about the economy and racial [End Page 543] inequality can engage wider publics. Traditionally, the black public sphere has supported such spaces, fostering oppositional economic thought in critiques of racial capitalism, imperialism, and antilabor practices. This history suggests that existing black media outlets should provide more alternatives to the neoliberal depictions of the crisis found in most mainstream news and financial media.
Given the depth of the corruption and the near complete lack of oversight and prosecution exercised during the Bush era, it is unclear whether one could have reasonably expected newspapers and magazines with fewer investigative resources, personnel, and financial support than players like CNBC or the New York Times to break the stories that would have fostered more skepticism of Alan Greenspan or SEC practices. What we could reasonably expect, given the black press's legacy of critiques of capitalist excesses and racial discrimination in the marketplace, is that some significant proportion of black-oriented media would be on the front lines offering alternative, progressive responses to the crisis and its related racial disparities once the bubble burst. That is, for those publications that promote themselves as serving underserved black audiences, we need to ask to what extent their discussions of the impact of the subprime crisis on black communities and the prescribed means to recover from it focus on neoliberal and postracial strategies, or race-aware, progressive understandings of community action and the continuing operation of racist practices in the marketplace.
This essay explores how assorted black-oriented media responded to the subprime crisis. First, I summarize discussions of the ways postracial and neoliberal discourses are intertwined, promoting a view of empowered, multicultural individuals now unhindered by racism, free to maximize their choices to reap consumer comforts. Second, I discuss the historical role of the black press in producing and circulating a range of counterdiscourses of capitalism and consumer identities in black public spheres. In that section, I also outline the changing landscape of black-oriented news media and lay out questions about the impact of new technologies and altered economic configurations on black media. Third, I analyze how three black-oriented news outlets—Black Enterprise, TheRoot.com, and Colorlines—framed the subprime crisis and relevant actions readers should take in its wake. These media outlets were chosen to explore if and how different models of economic and institutional support result in varying approaches to describing the subprime crisis and its disproportionate impact on black home owners. Looking across a set of different types of informational media that emerged in the post-civil rights era may provide some coordinates for where neoliberal logics have been incorporated into black media vehicles set up ostensibly to provide information and opinions [End Page 544] not widely circulated in dominant media and public spheres. Finally, I reflect on the comparison of the three outlets and suggest other lines of inquiry.
Postracial, Neoliberal Media: People of Color "Choosing" to Fail
A growing group of scholars have described the emergence of "postracial" discourses in American media. Mainstream media serve up visions of a society that has already reaped sufficient benefits from the civil rights movements of the mid-twentieth century and needs no more government or social activism to achieve equal opportunity.3 This vision of an already achieved multicultural nation draws on neoliberal assumptions of market individualism, where race/ ethnicity presents us with specific kinds of choices to be negotiated: whether to display or not display racial affinities, whether to consume or not consume the cultural products of other groups.4 I concur with those scholars and political commentators who have argued that postracial is a naive term at best and a product of cynical strategizing at worst. Postracial popular discourses emerged at a time when the human genome project "proved" that there are not "different races"; that we humans are more alike than different; that race is a social construct, not a constituent element of humanity. However, as Eric K. Watts summarizes, "Treating 'race' as merely a social construction misses a crucial facet of its nature; the power of tropes of race . . . [that are] coded into the institutions we inhabit and the social relations regulated by them. . . . Saying that 'race' is a 'fiction' does very little to disable its vigorous affects."5
Postracial discourse obfuscates the continued oppressiveness of institutional racism by highlighting individual-level identity choices, thereby dovetailing with neoliberal discourses that place the blame for continuing racial and economic inequalities on individuals who, ostensibly, just made the wrong choices for themselves and/or their families.
Helene Shugart demonstrates how the synergies of neoliberal and postracial logics are on display in television shows such as Judge Joe Brown. The failures and foibles of the largely African American, Latina/o, and poor white litigants are contrasted with the bootstrapping life story and harsh advice of Judge Brown, an African American who exhorts personal responsibility as the route out of their troubles. Brown and his reality TV judge counterparts consistently employ racist and sexist stereotypes as they viciously impugn the morals and life paths of the participants in the trials. Poverty, unemployment, single parenthood, and lack of connections with economic means are explained as the result of poor choice making and failure to educate oneself.6 Similarly, when reports of sky-high foreclosures in black and Latino neighborhoods filled the [End Page 545] headlines, many commentators in the news framed the issue in terms of the failure of black and Latina/o homebuyers to educate themselves on "the fine print" or to choose the best mortgage deal. The evidence of fraudulent loan practices, redlining, and discriminatory rate-setting was swept aside in favor of a neoliberal, postracial view of a marketplace that faltered only because of inexperienced or greedy individuals. Whereas the banks were "too big to fail," the disproportionate number of people of color with mortgage woes seemed doomed to failure in these accounts.
In an earlier analysis of mainstream coverage of the crisis, I found that many dominant news articles framed the subprime crisis as the result of bad decisions by ignorant borrowers and shady lenders. For example, in early 2008, the Los Angeles Times printed a masthead editorial titled "How to Spell Solvency." After acknowledging that redlining had denied housing opportunities to "people solely based on race, sex, surname, or address" in the "not-so-distant past," the editors proclaimed that the subprime crisis was a function of a new pathology: financial illiteracy. "This time around, we're limited by too many choices rather than too few . . . financial illiteracy is the new redlining."7 Other stories that focused on statistical reports, lawsuits, and proposed legislation ping-ponged between quotes from mortgage bankers and their allies and statements made by fair housing activists and victims. But striving for "balance" does not necessarily result in an accurate picture of what the data show and what the realities on the ground mean. For example, the New York Times printed two articles about studies by the Center for Responsible Lending.8 In these stories, journalists "balanced" hard data from the reports with denials and opinions from mortgage lenders and conservative think-tanks, who argued subprime lenders were only guilty of "expanding homeownership by going into neighborhoods not served by others."9 None of the comments from business people or their conservative allies utilized data to refute the studies.
Other commentators insisted that too much regulation—specifically the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which requires banks to invest in minority neighborhoods that were subjected to redlining—was the real cause of the crisis. One New York Times op-ed piece stated: "One cannot say with any certainty whether the more important cause . . . was affordable housing mandates or the actions of investment banks and investment agencies."10 It concluded that the nation "can't afford" aspects of the CRA and that the modern system of credit scores allow banks and other lenders to evaluate "the merits of individual households" in a colorblind fashion, so they will not need any government agencies "to push lenders to make loans just to please regulators." These samples from mainstream news not only deny racial discrimination in [End Page 546] the current housing and mortgage markets, they place blame on consumers of color, who are financially illiterate, and color-aware policies that try to remedy racism. Although there were some editorials and comments in news articles that suggested institutional causes and remedies, for the most part mainstream news responses hewed to neoliberal frames.
Black Public Spheres and Counterdiscourses
As I have argued elsewhere, the question is not whether there is a black public sphere—there exist multiple black publics in the diaspora; rather, the question is, under current conditions, are the institutions of any particular black public sphere providing discursive and other resources that foster counterpublic consciousness that precedes coordinated political activism?11 In the face of the subprime crisis, then, we might ask, are black-oriented media institutions—those set up to serve black publics—providing sufficient discursive resources to deconstruct and resist the neoliberal, postracial framing of the crisis that dominated mainstream media? Moreover, in deconstructing those discourses, are black-oriented media providing black publics with alternative understandings of the origins of the crisis and suggestions for community-based responses or strategies to remedy the economic hardships that disproportionately harm and undermine black and Latino communities?
Perhaps one could argue that, in the era of strict legal and social segregation, the "counter" of the black public sphere was easier to constitute, as people of African descent could readily agree on the evils and absurdities of de jure racism. Although black publics have always contained multiple approaches to the question of gaining freedom, the nadir of the 1950s-1960s civil rights struggles brought momentous accomplishments and highly visible differences on how to go forward. As Amin Ghaziani writes, social movement theorists have focused mostly on how oppositional groups assert their differences in the process of fighting for redistributive justice; but in the era of the proliferating "posts" (postfeminist, -racial, -gay), there has been more emphasis—reinforced by radical visions of individualism and backlash against freedom movements—on sameness rather than difference.12 But appeals to "we're more alike than different" and "working within the system" resonate with the conclusion that the legal gains won in the 1960s provided the necessary and sufficient conditions for all individuals to compete in the marketplace on equal footing without need for state intervention. Moreover, any attention to racial/ethnic/ gender/sexual difference should be the result of individual choice making, not collective action. [End Page 547]
From this perspective, any discomfort or discrimination experienced by people of color, gays and lesbians, or heterosexual women of any color are the result of bad choice making, not institutional practices. Asserting that discrimination has occurred usually results in accusations that the victim is "playing the race card" or taking things too seriously, not having a sense of humor. Thus, as black publics debate when, how, and to what degree racial identity still matters, we need to discern when and where discussions of racial inequalities in black publics resonate with neoliberal and postracial discourses that dominate public discussions of race. That is, how are dominant neoliberal and postracial discourses affecting what Houston Baker refers to as "the active working imagination" of a black public sphere?13 It is in the imagination where visions of resistance emerge, where tactics and strategies are crafted, where different subjectivities and futures are designed. What options are imagined in black media and presented to black audiences, then, is a pertinent question, and we cannot assume that the answers will contain the same range of counterdiscourses over time and across intragroup differences.
From the Great Society to the Ownership Society
Many historians and sociologists have recounted the uneven impact of the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy on black and Latino workers and communities.14 The shift from production to service/consumption was accompanied by the resurgence of right-wing political gains and economic policies that worsened the already fragile position of those in the black middle class and decimated working-class communities. From Richard Nixon's 1970s lip-service to black capitalism to Ronald Reagan's 1980s demonization of the "welfare queen" to Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it," successive administrations undercut the fledgling programs of the Great Society. Democrats like Clinton often couched their "reforms" of public programs as necessary compromises to regain "independent" white voters; Republicans framed their policies in the name of reinstilling "American values" of thrift, entrepreneurialism, and hard work. Discourses of "modern racism," or what some called "cultural racism," replaced biological reasoning for the economic subordination of African Americans with the argument that "black culture" was "pathological" and not securely assimilated to "American" bootstrapping values.15 Exceptional black people who retrained themselves to dissociate from that pathology might succeed, but government intervention was not necessary because it was doomed to fail given the black cultural morass.
In the 2000s President George W. Bush, under the tutelage of strategists who realized the demographic changes in the United States required, at the [End Page 548] very least, a less rabid discourse on race and ethnicity, introduced the ideas of "compassionate conservatism" and the "ownership society" as vehicles to bring more people of color into the middle class (and hopefully, the GOP).16 Bush articulated a vision of citizenship through property and stock ownership. As Robert Asen writes, Bush's formulation of citizenship as ownership positions the owner-citizen as someone who "keeps an eye on Washington" but does not participate in governance herself. "In this way, President Bush circumscribed the agency of participants, construing a passive mode of citizenship . . . a separation of seeing from knowing and doing."17 In the ownership society, the most important thing an American citizen can do is invest in the marketplace in order to demonstrate and "see" her "stake" in the country, but what she should do if she sees malpractice in the marketplace or government is unclear. Here the problem with people of color is that they have not been part of the owner class, and so public policies should support their entry into it. Not only does this approach dovetail with neoliberal scorn for the commons, but also it suggests that "ownership is a necessary condition of political participation," and attempts by nonowners to be part of political debate are illegitimate.18 Moreover, Bush's proposals neither addressed nor redressed the stark realities of wealth disparities, employment discrimination, and financial redlining that keep so many people of color out of the ownership class, let alone the fact that many of the financial products being sold required access to complex mathematical and statistical skills.19 Pretending that all "average Americans" could easily navigate and master Wall Street or the mortgage markets without regulatory or educational support, the "compassionate conservative" approach requires significant amnesia about the realities of race and class in the United States.
The Black Press and Capitalism's Excesses
The black press has often promoted counternarratives to laissez-faire capitalism, from antislavery arguments about the corruptness of making humans commodities to socialist warnings about unfair labor conditions and imperialism. Many writers in the black press have crafted insightful, fierce critiques of how racism plays a role in the exploitative aspects of capitalism and the dangers of too little oversight.20 Columnists during both World Wars accused the United States and its European allies of speaking double-talk about democracy while oppressing people of color worldwide via colonial domination.21 Daily and weekly black papers in labor strongholds such as Detroit supplied regular critiques of capitalist excesses and stood for workers' rights in the 1930s and 1940s.22 The editor and activist Charlotta Bass's California Eagle provided consistent support for socialism and labor actions.23 In the 1960s, periodicals [End Page 549] such as Freedomways and, most famously, the Black Panther Party's paper issued scathing critiques of racist capitalism and imperialism.24
Aside from a few specialty periodicals, such as the Messenger, most of the daily and monthly black publications contained a mix of economic ideologies and advice. At the same time that papers trumpeted the rights of everyday laborers, they also lavished attention on the material successes of black athletes and actors, and schooled their readers in the ways of bourgeois norms and tastes. The Chicago Defender, Ebony, and other widely circulated periodicals celebrated the exploits and consumptive choices of the small but growing black bourgeoisie in the postwar era, prompting E. Franklin Frazier to dismiss the press as an engine of wish fulfillment and magical thinking.25 Along with the focus on consumption, many papers advocated self-reliance, whether drawing from ideas popularized by Booker T. Washington after Reconstruction or pursuing separatist strategies like Marcus Garvey's Black World and the Nation of Islam's Final Call (or a mix of both). Many black periodicals contained regular admonitions to create a class of black entrepreneurs, "buy black," and win the game of capitalism in order to foster self-sufficiency in black communities. These trends continue in publications such as Essence, which fields column after column on self-help style articles, and local weeklies like N'Digo, which focuses on the up-and-coming business owners, fund-raisers, and trendsetters in black Chicago.
While the emphases on consumption and self-help may be lopsided, especially in larger commercial entities such as the Johnson family's magazine empire, others have pointed out that there are other ways to read the focus on fashion and celebrity in the black press. Maren Stange argues that Ebony magazine's focus on what its editors referred to as "the happy side of Negro life" provided different points of identification for black readers who were not used to seeing respectful visions of their faces, bodies, and homes in newspapers. The photos of middle- and upper-class black life in its pages provided an important alternative to the usual visual representations of black people as "spectacular and/or degraded Others." In its focus on consumption and entertainment, its photos "naturalized and sanctioned [black images] of respectability, achievement, and American national identity."26 Roopali Mukherjee summarizes work that asserts a political dimension to black conspicuous consumption. For example, scholars have argued that whites' violent reactions to black property ownership and ability to buy a wider range of consumer goods demonstrate that many whites viewed black material gain as a threat to what was once an unambiguous marker of white superiority: the ability to consume rather than to be an object of consumption.27 Others emphasize that as the black middle [End Page 550] class grew in the postwar era, performing consumption signified its claims to equal citizenship in American society.
Discourses and images of wealth and consumption are multivalent and incorporated in different, unpredictable ways by audiences. Whether considering different images of black selves or contemplating the ability to be equal via consumption choices, these practices constitute part of the "imaginary" work Baker describes, albeit it is not always as explicitly political as boycotts or sit-ins as some might want to see. I would, however, like to suggest that we must pay particular attention to how black consumption choices are presented to other publics. Mukherjee describes how hypervisible black wealth has been used to argue against the need for social justice programs. Here black wealth is offered as "proof of the democratizing power of consumerism [and is] a ready shorthand for cultural transformations toward the post-racial."28 Simultaneously, the same displays of consumption are framed as excessive and/or tacky, repathologizing black choice-making abilities by reviving "age-old scripts that black Americans are, at base, ill-equipped to manage wealth and are deserving of racist ridicule" and white consumer avoidance.29 Indeed, some advertising firms and high-end brands have expressed the fear that too many black clients will scare away white patrons or devalue the brand.30
Given the continued racialized understandings of consumer behavior, it is imperative that we interrogate the types of discourse that result when a major financial meltdown disproportionately affects black people. If it is so easy for dominant voices to delegitimate the choices of rich blacks who can afford "bling," it's reasonable to predict that those same voices will be quick to demonize those who lost their homes after the bubble burst. The question then becomes, how do media institutions that address a black public respond to the crisis and dominant discourses of the crisis? We should ask, what responses do they imagine will best serve those who have been hit hardest, and what do their communities and the nation need to do—if anything—to make it right? In short, do black-oriented media offer collective or individualistic means for understanding the crisis and what it will take to prevent another?
Black-Oriented Media: Continued Relevance and Negotiations in the Multicultural Marketplace
I argue that the public should have access to black-oriented publications that feel an obligation to provide counterdiscourses to audiences. Importantly, many black citizens continue to seek and expect alternative information and opinions from black media, and express greater trust in black media.31 Research on black [End Page 551] audiences continues to suggest that many black people hold reservations about how "mainstream" media depict black individuals and communities.32 Media economists also note that black audiences are underserved in the marketplace (particularly broadcast) and are undervalued by advertisers. Black-oriented media, therefore, continue to fill a need, addressing the continued reluctance of dominant media firms to expand their offerings for audiences that desire more black-focused cultural or information content. This does not mean, however, that the traditional black press has not been affected by either the economic or sociocultural changes that occurred since the end of de jure segregation. As Armistead Pride and Clint Wilson III document, from the 1960s to the 1980s scores of black newspapers went out of business because of changes in opportunities for black writers and editors as well as competition from television news.33 Likewise, deregulation of broadcasting in the 1990s led to decreases in the small gains in black television and radio ownership that occurred in the 1970s. This is not to romanticize how segregation created a larger "natural" market for black-owned and -oriented news products; rather, it illustrates how the shifting of media habits and the unpredictable structures of new opportunities for consumers and producers of black news led to radical changes in the fortunes of the black media, but not the elimination of black-owned or -oriented media. As evidenced in the explosion of Web sites and success of new glossy monthlies, black-oriented media continue to draw significantly large and diverse audiences.
As Anna Everett writes, "It is not difficult to regard the black press's new guard as the proverbial Phoenix arisen from the ashes" of its predecessors.34 Some of the "new guard" imagine themselves reshaping the black media to fit the aesthetic expectations of black people (what Neal would call the "post-soul" generation) raised on "integrated" media.35 For example, Everett quotes Black Enterprise's 1989 explanation that "'the end of civil rights and the advent of integration have spawned a generation of young black adults who are unimpressed with black papers that don't display the spit and polish of mainstream newspapers.'"36 The Internet, with its lower cost of production and ever-changing modes of advertising and fund-raising methods, provides a more-level playing field than the glossy magazines, full-color newsprint operations, or television studios. Simultaneously, many media firms are pursuing "multicultural" audiences, reading the tea leaves of demographic projections and repositioning themselves to provide content to different slices of the audience. Thus, as traditional black news media find footholds online, Everett argues that the "new guard" of black-oriented digital media makes clear "the fact that new conditions of digital production have radically altered the nature [End Page 552] and status of black publication."37 I would add that we must recognize that the new guard is made up of those who seek to continue old traditions and make new ones, as well as entrepreneurs whose drive to get into black media markets is connected not to traditions of protest and solidarity with black people but to visions of fragmented ethnic audiences with varying levels of disposable income to be delivered to advertisers.
Everett focuses on the online publications that explicitly devote themselves to carrying on the advocacy traditions as a way to delimit "an otherwise endless and unreliable slide of racial signification" by sampling "websites established by legitimate and prominent" black-owned presses.38 This essay follows her caution that it is not possible to glean a set of "authentic" black press institutions online, given the exponential number of search terms and results one might get from a search for "black news." However, instead of turning only to well-established, black-owned and -oriented publications that have migrated online, this essay looks to sample from black-oriented publications that represent different configurations of ownership and financial support while still avowing service to black communities and allies of black communities.
Today, trends in multicultural marketing encourage this embrace of capitalism as racial uplift. Ebony founder John H. Johnson is considered a pioneer for creating black upscale publications to convince advertisers that black consumers were worth their attention. Today, multiculturalism in advertising is "common sense" and produces often contradictory partnerships in black-oriented media. Affirmative action reforms in hiring have led to internal and external diversity specialists, navigating community relations as well as watching trends to stay ahead of the market.39 Firms develop specific appeals for different demographic groups, hiring specialty "diversity marketing" consultants or subcontractors to focus attention on black consumers and to translate "ethnic" cultures across racial, ethnic, and national lines. Some think these efforts reek of tokenism; others see true efforts at diversifying a field that continues to face lawsuits and protests over discrimination in hiring, as well as continued dismay at the often stereotypical representations in advertising.40
Much of the critical scholarship on diversity marketing and African Americans is focused on how the entertainment and fashion industries have appropriated and resold black popular culture to global audiences. Paul Gilroy aptly reminds us that this development is not a result of a "pure" oppositional culture being exploited by cynical corporations. Certainly, many of these transactions are suspect; however, black individuals and institutions have profited from these developments and often articulate their success with rubrics of black self-determination. Gilroy suggests Spike Lee's partnership with advertising [End Page 553] behemoth DDB Needham exemplifies how black cultural producers serve as a "hip cultural vanguard in the business of difference" in an era when "the appeal of black faces and styles need no longer be restricted to black consumers."41 Thus Spike Lee's articulation of his work (40Acres+AMule) with reparations and black social activism provides the street credibility that corporations need to develop and sell products to the multicultural, youth-oriented marketplace. Lee helps Needham translate black culture into a "marketable 'reading'" for audiences outside black communities.42
Lee's elite position reflects some of the multifaceted ways in which "diversity" has changed corporate media tactics for selling goods and establishing brands. Activists have long called for more aggressive integration in the media industries to rectify decades of discrimination and misrepresentations; hiring Lee and other black executives is part of the "diversity work" response to protest movements. It also achieves public relations benefits: firms trumpet their efforts to diversify their workforce, to reach out to and serve marginalized communities of color. One way to communicate business commitments to diversity is through advertisements in "ethnic" and alternative media. This has the potential to amplify contradictions in the black press, traditionally a watchdog for African Americans against racism and exploitation, much of which has been perpetrated by corporations. Where the neoliberalism and postracial multiculturalism combine to provide opportunities for black publications, it may result in pitfalls for their audiences.
Even as black culture is appropriated to sell goods and services to multiple demographic segments, media economists have shown that advertisers continue to undervalue black-oriented media and their audiences.43 Whereas the elite-focused financial media discussed earlier have lucrative advertising opportunities given the income level and status of their core audience, black-oriented media have to work harder to gain and maintain advertising revenues, often depending on down-market items to make ends meet.44 Hence there is an overrepresentation of unhealthy products and dubious services advertised in black media; from hard liquor to cigarettes and fast food, many activists have argued that firms are targeting vulnerable communities with toxic products, contributing to skyrocketing rates of cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other public health nightmares.45
The lack of consistent or lucrative advertising revenue means that black papers are less able than their mainstream news counterparts to pay for the kind of investigative and in-depth reporting needed to cover complex issues.46 As such, overtures from large corporations to place "diversity" ads are often welcome, even if the products or services are not beneficial to black communities. [End Page 554] From McDonald's ads that celebrate Black History Month to Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac ads touting black home ownership, various firms buy ad space in black media to promote their identities as equal opportunity employers and friendly to black consumers. Dependence on toxic ads and corporate PR results in contradictory messages: articles on obesity or asthma rates among black children reside a few pages away from ads for a McDonald's training camp for aspiring black franchisers or Kool cigarettes.
One might imagine, then, that interaction with and dependence on the advertising industry could result in neoliberal explanations for the housing bubble in the black press. However, these news media derive some, if not all, of their legitimacy from the tradition of speaking to and for the interests of black publics. While some editors may translate those interests through the lens of neoliberalism, not all do or will. Being close to the experiences and political interests of their communities and articulating those interests when mainstream media do not are the two main advantages that media serving black people might retain. So some outlets will interpret neoliberalism as a bane, others as a boon, depending on their assessment of audience opinions and desires. Moreover, as all news media rethink business models in the Internet era, some people of color-oriented media have gravitated toward different partnerships and funding streams in response to the economic realities and opportunities brought by the Web. While many of these outlets have been affected by the same social and market forces that encourage neoliberal framing, that does not guarantee those frameworks will dominate reporting to black publics.
Although collective and historical experiences with racism in the market are not a sufficient buffer to neoliberalism, they suggest a space for resistance exists in at least some media outlets serving black publics. The next section of this essay provides examples of how black-oriented news outlets have responded to the subprime crisis, highlighting places where neoliberal discourses mesh with black capitalist yearnings and places where critiques emerged of neoliberalism and its collusion with race-based target marketing. As with my earlier analysis of op-ed pages, both of these approaches exist in the pages of the black news; however, the different news vehicles described here illustrate how different models for producing black-oriented news may correlate with the range of critiques available to readers.
Responses to the Subprime Crisis in Black-Oriented News
I analyzed articles in three publications: Black Enterprise (BE), TheRoot.com, and Colorlines. These three publications represent different approaches to [End Page 555] survival in the news business. BE is a monthly, glossy magazine that targets a specialty market: upper-middle-class African Americans and aspirants, drawing revenue from a mix of subscription fees and advertising. In contrast, TheRoot. com is a Web-only publication and is not black-owned. It is a division of the Washington Post, one of the leading mainstream newspapers in the nation, and derives revenue from its parent corporation and advertising; there are no subscriptions. Colorlines, a paper and online magazine, is published by the Applied Research Center (ARC), a nonprofit research center that focuses on social and economic justice issues, as well as cultural trends, that affect communities of color. Colorlines is supported by the ARC and collects some moneys from newsstand sales of and subscriptions to the print version of the magazine. There are some advertisements in the pages of the print magazine, mainly from social justice organizations, independent presses, and other nonprofit institutions.
All three of these publications explicitly state commitments to black and other communities of color. BE pledges to connect with "African Americans who are serious about success" and, through its multiple media vehicles, to offer "a detailed, perceptive look at social forces and trends shaping modern African American life."47 TheRoot.com highlights the "leadership of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr" in its founding and promises to "raise the profile of black voices in mainstream media."48 Although Colorlines is not meant for only black readers, its spirit of advocacy for communities of color and the preponderance of articles about African Americans situate it in the tradition of the black press. Its tagline, "The National Magazine on Race and Politics," situates it as a go-to place for people interested in engaging with race issues.
Black Enterprise: Neoliberalism with a Black Twist
In January 2009 Black Enterprise proudly dispatched the "mantra" of its CEO, Earl "Butch" Graves Jr.: "Wealth building, from investing to entrepreneurship, is the key to the progression of African American professionals and entrepreneurs." With this mantra, the magazine describes its target readership: affluent and aspirant black Americans. And, in the next statement about the CEO's philosophies, BE declares wealth building is the key to ameliorating racial inequalities as well: "The ills that plague the African American community—whether they involve education, health, or technology—can largely be fixed by closing the wealth gap."49 This conclusion provides the backdrop for BE 's announcement of a redesign and reboot of its "Black Wealth Initiative" to guide readers to "take the appropriate action to place you on to achieving your goals" in a sputtering economy. And with this flourish, BE energizes its African American spin on neoliberal faith in the market to always provide [End Page 556] to those who work hard enough: black communities will make gains when individuals maximize opportunities to build wealth.
This is not to say that the wealth gap between whites and people of color is not troubling but that, as is made clear by BE 's other articles and editorials, the problem of the wealth gap is communicated mainly as a problem to be solved by individual effort, despite the fact that the gap was created by institutionally structured and sanctioned racism against individuals and communities. Some of the articles even emphasize how black individuals might even profit from the crisis.50 It may be of little surprise that BE presents its readers with a black-oriented spin on neoliberalism, given its title and focus on the business world. What is shocking is the extent to which the magazine's editor and publisher discount and dismiss the role of financial institutions, as well as the lack of civil rights enforcement, in creating the crisis.
BE 's publisher and CEO, in their regular letters to the readers, did acknowledge some residues of racism made the financial crisis hit black people harder than whites. They included statistics about disparities in subprime loans in their remarks, the magazine also featured one lengthy story about the credit crisis in the pages of the January 2009 edition that criticized conservative pundits' attempts to pin the blame on minorities. Publisher Earl Graves Sr. drew on visions of black fortitude and sacrifice to rally his readers' spirits. He noted that record layoffs and unemployment hit blacks harder, since they "often remain the last hired, first fired, or . . . are employed in dying industries." But he quickly turned away from these residues of structural racism to discuss individual efforts to survive financial meltdown. Graves compared his Depression-era childhood to the current time. He recounts how he witnessed his parents and their neighbors as they "maintained their households and advanced their families by scaling back on expenditures. . . . These times require you to demonstrate the same level of sacrifice. . . . It may mean forgoing the family vacation, carpooling, or devising a plan to generate new streams of income."51
Nowhere in his sentimental celebration of Depression-hardy black families is any inkling of the collective struggles for better livelihoods that blacks participated in during the 1930s and 1940s. Graves does not recognize that many black families survived the Depression because of labor agitation by the likes of A. Philip Randolph, which led to expanded job opportunities for African Americans during World War II. Reforms such as food aid programs, public housing, and Social Security are not named in Graves's reminiscence either. For Graves, the only lesson to be learned from that time of intensive black agitation is self-sufficiency. Nor are there any lessons about the deregulation of banking reforms set in place after the Depression to guard against the kind [End Page 557] of financial disaster that has harmed the "disproportionate number of Black families in danger of losing their homes" he invoked in an earlier paragraph.
The absence of any references to structural factors that contributed to the crisis hitting African American communities continues in subsequent editorials by Graves Sr. and "Butch" Graves Jr. Indeed, in his December letter to readers, Graves Sr. lamented that Lehman Brothers might have to retract a $10 million gift to Spelman College to build a Center for Global Finance and Economic Development because of the meltdown, but without any sense that the financial giant was brought low by the corruption of its own and other banks' schemes that ensnared black home buyers.52 Instead, he exhorted readers to stop paying attention to discussions of what the government might do to alleviate the burdens on citizen-consumers who lost so much in the crisis in favor of bootstrapping actions. "While the debate remains over what we can expect from our government in the way of bailouts and economic stimuli . . . our most immediate source of economic relief lies not in what might be done for us, but in what we are willing to do for each other." And what might that be? Giving donations to charities and shopping at black businesses. Generating support for progressive economic policies and petitioning Congress to reinstate bank reforms demolished by neocons, apparently, is not something we can do for each other.
Butch Graves likewise brushed aside questions of the government's responsibilities in the financial crisis with ease—and with venom toward individual home owners. Citing "public resentment" toward home owners who "purchased properties they couldn't afford," Graves Jr. went on to "unequivocally stress that taxpayers should not subsidize irresponsible behavior. Even though he admitted that the crisis was severe enough that some government intervention was necessary, in his editorial he named no alternative policies to those put forth by the outgoing Bush administration or those of the Obama team. Instead, he chastised a "segment of the American public—including some readers of this magazine—" who, apparently, believe that Obama's election "means that their debts will be absolved." Those folks, he continues, are facing foreclosure because they wanted to "keep up with the Joneses" and used "credit cards to finance a posh lifestyle."53
Graves Jr.'s defamation of the character of "some readers" of BE is all the more galling—and ironic—because in the same issue, the magazine printed a letter from a reader who praised BE for its January 2009 news feature on the credit crisis. The writer congratulated BE journalists for exposing the faults in the conservative pundits' accusations that blacks and Latinos were irresponsible borrowers. She concluded, "Now more than ever, 'our' print media must keep [End Page 558] us informed and educated."54 Her feedback, though, and the content of the earlier exposé were continually undermined and contradicted by the advice given to readers by the magazine's leaders and columnists. Graves Jr. continued the drumbeat of blame the victims in another "Executive Memo," where he lambasted black home owners for not taking "serious action to correct their finances or sell their homes due to an emotional attachment . . . or a false idea of what it's worth." He advised underwater home owners to be like his family: "My parents' generation believed when you bought a home, you didn't try to time the real estate market. . . . It may seem old school, but we all need to embrace the basics of homeownership."55 That the housing market—regardless of pricing of individual homes—was at its lowest ebb in decades was irrelevant and went unmentioned. Rather, the bad choices and irrational behavior of home owners were to blame for houses languishing on the market.
While wrapped in the rhetoric of doing the right thing for black families and communities, these missives from the editors of BE replicated and reinforced the worst of the neoconservative blame games that circulated in the mainstream press. The sprinkling of references to black fortitude in the face of hardship and championing of black entrepreneurship merely recycled the faulty assumptions of an earlier black capitalist advocate who put the burden of effort on the shoulders of blacks individuals: Booker T. Washington. From one Gilded Age to another, we find believers in the market who are fond of telling black people that if they only strive hard enough, they will prosper in America and insulate themselves from any racial problems that may exist. Any deviation from the path of hard work and self-improvement is folly. Pursuing politics is a sign that one is looking for a handout or wants to be dependent on others for well-being. When contrasted with writings in TheRoot.com and Colorlines, BE 's advice rings quite hollow, and its diagnoses and advice look ridiculous.
The Root.com writers were much more concerned about the racial disparities in lending than their BE colleagues. They provided evidence from studies and investigations that showed redlining and steering, as well as the use of repugnant racial stereotypes by mortgage bankers themselves.
First, mortgage industry defenders have repeatedly asserted that the wave of subprime and other exotic loans that flowed over black neighborhoods did plenty of good, too. It drove up the black home ownership rate to an historic high of nearly 50 percent (alongside a rapid increase in home ownership across the racial spectrum). As we now see, however, that gain was illusory. It was based upon predatory, unsustainable loans. . . . [End Page 559]
Fewer than half of blacks and just 53 percent of Latinos owned homes. Subprime brokers preyed upon this disparity—which was created through generations of publicly financed discrimination in the lending market—and gave everyone the impression that housing equality was on its way. Well, it wasn't.56
Some writers at TheRoot.com, as with BE 's investigative piece, accused mainstream media for recirculating neoconservative talking points and racial resentment.
The offensive new vogue in cable TV talking points goes something like this: Wall Street is melting down because the government forced banks to make loans to poor people—especially poor minorities. . . .
The fake story line reintroduces the trope of the irresponsible welfare queen who was given a house but who was so stupid and unthankful as to lose it all in an entrepreneurial misadventure. . . .
The campaign to racialize a global financial meltdown operates in a fact-free zone. A national study of the performance of banks covered by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) shows that these government-backed banks were much less likely than other lenders to make the kinds of risky, high-cost home purchase loans that helped fuel the foreclosure crisis.57
Beyond demonstrating the dishonesty of the pundits, other writers took government regulators to task for being, at best, ignorant of what seems plain as day in hindsight: rampant racial bias and other corruption in mortgage lending.
It's not only low-income borrowers: A new mortgage study shows that wealthy blacks and Hispanics pay higher interest rates than wealthy whites and Asians. . . .
Why aren't federal investigators looking into how badly some banks have conducted their affairs? Indeed, if racial discrimination in mortgage lending is illegal and immoral, why do these banks seemingly display an even-handed level of racial and ethnic discrimination?
The simple reason is that nobody has demanded that they do better. There's no powerful lobby for minority banking customers. As outlined in a July report by the Center for Responsible Lending . . . "Consumer protection often went neglected, if anything, an afterthought or a box to check," the report said. "Federal regulators' failure to restrain abuses that led to today's credit crisis demonstrates the need for a single agency focused on protecting consumers to ensure financial institutions flourish in a sustainable way."58
Though the emphasis in most articles was on institutional wrongdoing and fingerpointing, a few articles on TheRoot.com focused on individual stories and financial advice in ways that resonated with BE 's conclusions about the subprime crisis: black people need to take care of it themselves. In an interview with Iyanla Vanzant, the Q&A began to take on a new-age spin on neoliberalism as they discussed how even a best-selling author could get caught in the crisis. [End Page 560]
TheRoot: You are a best-selling author, TV personality and attorney. What else was going on financially that prevented you from saving your home? Vanzant: I'm self-employed, and my income is tied to what I do on a daily basis. My daughter had been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer, and I had gone through a very painful divorce. . . .
The Root: You, Michelle Singletary and others on the panel implied that this crisis is not only a financial awakening in our country but a spiritual awakening. Vanzant: I think it's more of a spiritual awakening than anything else. For me it was very challenging, very painful, very difficult for having lost my daughter, my husband and my home. But that house was a thing. It was just a thing. And so some of us are fighting and struggling to hold on to things when we need to look at the other blessings that we have. . . . When I grew up, anytime family got in trouble, they came to our house. And they slept on the sofa, in the basement or we bunked up. Now you got four siblings, everybody has a townhouse and everybody's struggling. I say get one house; everybody bunk up together like we used to.59
Like the Graves, Vanzant draws on sentimental memories of resilient families scrimping and sacrificing to make things work. TheRoot.com's financial advice columnist, Stacey Tisdale, also mirrored BE 's advice-givers, telling readers that they had themselves to blame for not being "financially literate."
It's not just Wall Street; we have to stop being stupid about money.
It will be interesting to see how people reflect on this economic crisis in years to come. Will it be remembered for the trillions of dollars the government will likely throw at the problem before it's over? Will it be remembered for the failures of financial industry giants like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers? Will it be remembered as the era in which millions of people lost their homes due to the predatory practices of some unscrupulous lenders? Will it be the defining issue for a president past or future?
. . . Quite frankly, it's what I'm not hearing that is making me nervous. . . . At its heart, this financial crisis is a story of financial illiteracy: People signed up for mortgages they did not understand.60
In another column, Tisdale insisted that black consumers could get the right information to become "financially literate" from mainstream news sources—the same sources indicted by scholars and progressive media for facilitating the mortgage bubble. Like BE's editors and writers, she insisted that thinking about what the feds might do was beside the point—it is all about self-education.
Struggling financially? It's up to you to get a clear picture of how to make ends meet. . . .
While we hopefully wait for our leaders in Washington to bring financial education into the mainstream by requiring it at schools, Congresswoman Lee said, "financial education should be part of employee benefits at companies." But we can empower ourselves. [End Page 561]
There has never been an easier time to find the financial information you need. Web sites such as Market Watch, CNN Money and Smart Money have beefed up their sites with more emphasis on personal finance. Simple searches on the Internet, "minorities and mortgages," for example, can help get you information on how lenders are likely to treat you as well as fair market rates. There has never been more information on TV about financial issues, and newspapers are also overloaded with great info.61
This advice—to consult mainstream media for financial guidance—is incredibly suspect given the evidence that these same outlets initially served as cheerleaders for the unsustainable practices of the mortgage industry and have returned to largely uncritical acceptance of the market's logic.62
Clearly TheRoot.com does a better job undermining the main arguments of conservatives in mainstream news, and more consistently offered data and analysis from reports on the crisis than BE. However, even as it did so, it rarely strayed far from the types of sources that dominate the parent company's pages: business and government officials. Moreover, other than calling for additional consumer protections or enforcement of existing laws, writers did not promote progressive voices and ideas that went beyond the Beltway remedies. And, as will be clear in the comparison to Colorlines, TheRoot.com writers did not question the premise that home ownership is (usually) a win-win for individuals and society.
Colorlines: Community Focus and Action
Like TheRoot.com, Colorlines writers countered neoliberal discourses that blamed individual blacks and Latinos for their plight and the burst mortgage bubble. The magazine also spoke to the history of deregulation of the financial industry and how failures to pursue or prosecute civil rights violations during the Bush administration contributed to the crisis. The articles made heavy use of ARC reports and research by other progressive think tanks, as well as government sources, to back up their assertions that more than individual consumers have to be involved "before bad mortgage loans take down an economy."63 Much of their data overlapped with studies cited by TheRoot.com.
What made the analytic and editorial contributions of Colorlines different from its counterparts was how writers articulated the need for a paradigm shift in housing policy, not just reforms of the mortgage system. Colorlines was the only magazine that asked the question, why should everyone strive to be home owners, and asked its readers to remember the days when the phrase "affordable housing" was in wider circulation. In an editor's letter titled "Remember Affordable Housing," Managing Editor Daisy Hernandez reminded readers that a lot of effort has gone into convincing "people that they want home ownership [End Page 562] instead of affordable housing. And before that you have to sell them on notions of personal responsibility and the free market. . . . These families were okay and making it with Section 8, but when convinced to do home loans, got sucked in and now can't afford shelter—which they had access to before."64
By making a connection between neglect of affordable housing policies and misguided policies for expanding home ownership, Hernandez and other writers directly challenged the paradigm of home ownership as the cornerstone of the American Dream. Describing how families who were stable before predatory lenders descended on their communities, they debunk the myth that only home owners have an ability to save money, support their families, and take pride in their neighborhoods. Although some writers at TheRoot.com made brief mentions of HUD's role in the crisis, none of them questioned the premise that increasing home ownership is an absolute social good. Colorlines, in contrast, called for a paradigm shift from the assumptions of the "ownership society" to concerns about keeping communities on solid footing through housing policies that support neighborhoods no matter if they are inhabited by renters or owners.
Kai Wright pursued this by linking the subprime crisis to the overwhelming increases in poverty in the United States compared with the United Nations' campaign to decrease poverty. The statistics—nearly 44 million people in poverty since the crisis began—were so stark, Wright questioned how American leaders could continue to act as if recovery and progress were a sure thing. The idea that the "American Dream" would again be attainable by a majority of Americans was bankrupt, unless major changes in public policy were implemented to reverse these trends:
Stop and try to digest this data: More than a third of all black and Latino kids are growing up destitute. With numbers like that, how can we talk meaningfully about a future of any kind, let alone a better one?65
This question asks the reader to rethink the grand narrative of progress and prosperity that anchors American exceptionalist discourse. Wright follows up by reminding readers that many of the 44 million were "most vulnerable to the housing market predation that pushed the country's economy off the cliff. We now know that banks wrote bad loans deliberately, and that regulators ignored ample real-time signs."66 America did not present a level playing field to these aspiring home owners: what was exceptional about the crisis was how predatory and callous the institutions of the market and government were as the most vulnerable people tried to achieve the Dream. [End Page 563]
As they called into question the underpinning assumptions of the American Dream, Colorlines writers often wove in a "miner's canary" approach to the subprime crisis that was completely absent in BE and rarely available in The-Root.com. In The Miner's Canary, Lani Guinier and Rodolfo Torres illustrate how racial inequalities are indicative of broader social problems that, in fact, all Americans pay for and suffer from.67 The fact that whites and people of color share these problems can be seen best when one imagines our society as a coal mine, with racial minorities as the canaries, and dominant white groups as the miners. The canary, whose extrasensitivity to noxious gases informs all occupants of the mine that the environment has gone bad, always suffers from the problem first. Once the miners and others see the canary suffering, the best course of action is to heed the warning and figure out how to fix or change the environment.
For example, in an article that returned to check in on a family who lost their Detroit home, Seth Freed Wessler drew on the ARC's "Race and Recession" report to convey the connection between the nation's economic health and the health of marginalized communities of color. "The report finds that the economic crisis is not only impacting communities of color at disproportionate rates, but that the country's long failure to address systematic racial inequity through public policy threw the whole economy into free-fall."68 The advantage of Colorlines' connection to ARC is clear: data and analysis are at the ready for writers, whose online and printed discussions and translations of research on race provides readers with evidence to counter neoconservative and postracial claims about the market and public policy.
Finally, Colorlines was better at attaching its critiques and recommendations for policy reform to activism and organization on the ground. Some writers at TheRoot.com called for expressions of outrage; BE instructed readers to "create your own economic stimulus plan," Colorlines was unique in reporting on community organizations that worked for (or against) specific policy initiatives. Thus, where TheRoot.com sprinkled some stories with heart-wrenching accounts from individuals who lost their houses after their ARMs blew up, Colorlines followed on these narratives with descriptions of what some foreclosure victims were doing to solve their housing problems—solutions that were derived from interactions with grassroots organizations, nonprofits, and, sometimes, government bureaus.
Compare the profile of Vanzant, for example, with the words of Sam Jackson, featured in Colorlines magazine as he continued his fight to get back into housing after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina five years earlier: "'We had nowhere to stay when we got back, and I said, 'we should go and make [End Page 564] some noise even though we had only a few residents here to protest,' Jackson recalls." The double whammy of the hurricane and the subprime crisis made it nearly impossible to find affordable housing when his family and friends returned home. Jackson and others organized a press conference and other protest events. Since then he has "traveled to Indonesia and Thailand as part of an international delegation to . . . share rebuilding strategies."69 Thus Colorlines' article made the issue of housing about human rights and connected U.S. failures to a worldwide crisis in affordable, safe housing, a crisis made visible by humanmade and natural disasters.
Other stories featured the protests of the National People's Action and Maine People's Alliance outside banker meetings in Washington, D.C. Pictures like that of a multiracial group of home owners, marching with signs indicting the Wells Fargo "Stagecoach from Hell," were also published regularly in the online and print versions of the magazine.70 By showcasing organized protests and a variety of policy demands, Colorlines was the only publication that provided readers with a sense of resistance and awareness of organizations and individuals who were working to change the system—or at least hold it accountable.
The three media outlets compared here represent different responses to the changing marketplace of "ethnic" segmentation, deregulation, and post-civil rights opportunities to address black audiences still underserved by "integrated, mainstream" media. The trends found here are troubling, especially for those who remain invested in the power of counterpublics and counterdiscourses to foster social action. Counterframing the subprime crisis is part of creating the means for promoting alternative policy solutions and opposing the neoliberal dogma that continues to be represented—often unchallenged—as economic common sense.
Certainly, Colorlines is not the only publication that gives readers access to more progressive policy debates and activism tools. However, given the pride of place and trust that publications oriented toward communities of color often enjoy, it is imperative for us to ask that they do more to foster innovative and imaginative alternatives to those easily accessed in dominant media. As BE and TheRoot.com suggest, the synergies between mainstream advertising, news, and "multicultural" publications provide opportunities to broaden access to voices of people of color, but this does not mean that the most progressive voices or counterframes will occupy those spaces opened up by desires to gain market share in communities long-neglected by corporate media. However, as [End Page 565] I have argued elsewhere, progressive scholars should take these For-Us-By-Us publications—whether they are run by corporations or nonprofits—up on their stated commitment to supporting communities of color. Contributing essays, analysis, and quotations to media that serve communities of color is one way to participate in wider counterpublic discussions, discussions that sorely need more explicit challenges to neoliberal and postracial discourses.
Reflecting on these findings, one thing that comes to mind is how they reveal different strategies for rearticulating goals and success for black publics in the post-civil rights era. In the long buildup to the movements of the 1950s and 1960s, black public success was articulated with visions of communal uplift, collective action, antiracist expression, and reconstruction of cultural images of blackness. For thinkers like bell hooks, one of the most corrosive effects of the neoconservative backlash and ideological turn of the past forty years is the emphasis on individualism and materialism as vehicles to equality. "After the slaughter of radical black men, the emotional devastation of soul murder and actual murder, many black people became cynical about freedom. They wanted something more tangible, a goal that could be attained."71 In hooks's reckoning, too few black leaders continued to mine the habit of being critical of capitalism and its part in exploiting black labor. Instead, too many turned toward "black capitalism" and material success as a benchmark for liberation. Messages touting dignity via money and power circulated with much more ease than messages of gaining dignity via shared struggle and caring, whether in black-oriented or mainstream media. She identifies some of the problem in the fact that most successful black-oriented media outlets—print, electronic, or otherwise—have not given adequate space to counterhegemonic voices that might encourage new ways of seeing and defining dignity, success, and the good life.72 Thus it is not only that, as Gandy observed, the devaluation of black audiences leads to fewer and lower-quality news or information media but also that the frameworks for explaining socioeconomic and political phenomena are constrained.
Online media resources, Cathy Cohen suggests, allow folks to "network" and through those connections invite people to take on specific political subjectivities.73 The three publications evaluated here suggest particular ways of responding (or not responding) to the crisis hooks describes and invite readers to respond in particular ways to the individual material route to salvation offered by so many media outlets and cultural messages.74 Black Enterprise deepens the channels running to the neoliberal positioning of black individuals, urging trust in the marketplace and counseling personal financial literacy. Financed by multinational corporate sponsors, it amplifies the message that [End Page 566] the system works for everyone who is willing to be entrepreneurial enough. TheRoot.com's commentary and criticism gestures toward counterhegemonic discourse and action, but stops short of suggesting frameworks for collective action. Each of these news products leaves a vacuum in terms of programs for rethinking the economic situation and one's relation to it. Colorlines, in contrast, realizes a different type of networking via discussions of public protest and mobilization along with the critiques of the systemic failure and racial unfairness of the subprime market. This approach encourages audiences to imagine themselves not as individual players in the market but as people who share common experiences, outrage, and, most importantly, opportunities to join others to challenge the system.
Building up and sustaining oppositional consciousness is a long-term process of struggle, experimentation, frustrations, and incremental victories. In a multimedia system dominated by multinational firms, even the Internet is not a guarantee to the fostering and sustenance of opposition to neoliberal, postracial frameworks for understanding socioeconomic patterns and crises. Clearly the emergence of outlets such as Colorlines—as well as Web-born sites such as Colorofchange.org and the Adbusters-sponsored, new-media-realized Occupy Wall Street (OWS) phenomenon—showcases the incredible potential for publics to exchange and network via counterpublicity. Moreover, the rapid swell of support for OWS and popularity of "the 99%" as a clarion call for a return to fairness and regulation suggests an opportune moment for black (and all) media to reconsider how bold they can be in not only providing critiques of laissez-faire, neoliberal policies but also advocating alternatives and public action against the status quo. Scholars and activists should continue to examine media outlets that purport to serve black publics for evidence that these producers innovate in ways that reimagine black audience information needs and political desires. As OWS evolves, perhaps other black-oriented publications will reconsider the elements of capitalist critique that were more evident in the past. Articulating black standpoints on the fate of the 99% would, I gather, be welcome in many quarters of black public spheres.
Catherine R. Squires is the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity, and Equality at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Dispatches from the Color Line (State University Press of New York, 2007) and African Americans and the Media (Polity, 2009). She has published work on media and identity in many outlets, including Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Critical Rhetorics of Race (New York University Press, 2011).
1. Simon Johnson and James Kwak, Thirteen Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010); "Where Credit Is Due: A Timeline of the Mortgage Crisis," Mother Jones, July-August 2008, www.MotherJones.com. [End Page 567]
2. An impressive number of scholars have been describing and unpacking the ways neoliberalism works in mainstream media. See Paula Chakravartty and Dan Schiller, "Neoliberal Newspeak and Digital Capitalism in Crisis," International Journal of Communication 4 (2010): 670-92; Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2008); Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, "Makeover Television, Governmentality, and the Good Citizen," Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 22.4 (2008): 471-84; Aimee Carrillo Rowe, Sheena Malhotra, and Kimberly Perez, "The Rhythm of Ambition: Power Temporalities and the Production of the Call Center Agent in Documentary Film and Reality Television," in Critical Rhetorics of Race, ed. Kent Ono and Michael Lacey (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 197-213.
3. Roopali Mukherjee, "'Bling-Fling': Commodity Consumption and the Politics of the 'Post-Racial,'" in Ono and Lacey, Critical Rhetorics of Race, 178-96; Catherine Squires, Dispatches from the Color Line: Multiracial Identity in the News (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007); Ralina Joseph, "'Hope Is Finally Making a Comeback': First Lady Reframed," Communication, Culture, and Critique 4.1 (2011): 56-77.
4. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End, 1992); Mary Thompson, "'Learn Something from This!': The Problem of Optional Ethnicity on America's Next Top Model," Feminist Media Studies 10.3 (2010): 335-52; Traise Yamamoto, "Millennial Bodies," Signs 25.4 (2000): 1243-46.
5. Eric K. Watts, "The Nearly Apocalyptic Politics of Post-Racial America: Or, 'This Is Now the United States of Zombieland,'" Journal of Communication Inquiry 34 (2010): 216.
6. Helene Shugart, "Ruling Class: Disciplining Class, Race, and Ethnicity in Television Reality Court Shows," Howard Journal of Communications 17 (2006): 79-100.
7. Catherine Squires, "Bursting the Bubble: A Case Study of Counter-Framing in the Editorial Pages," Critical Studies in Media Communication 28.1 (2011): 28-47.
8. Erik Eckholm, "Black and Hispanic Homebuyers Pay Higher Interest on Mortgages, Study Finds," New York Times, June 1, 2006; Manny Fernandez, "Racial Disparity Found among New Yorkers with High-Rate Mortgages," New York Times, October 15, 2007.
9. Eckholm, "Black and Hispanic Homebuyers Pay Higher Interest."
10. Squires, "Bursting the Bubble."
11. Catherine R. Squires, "Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres," Communication Theory 12.4 (2002): 446-68.
12. Amin Ghaziani, "Post-gay Collective Identity Construction," Social Problems 58.1 (2011): 99-125.
13. Houston Baker Jr., "Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere," in The Black Public Sphere, ed. Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 5-38.
14. Michael Dawson, "A Black Counterpublic? Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agendas, and Black Politics," in The Black Public Sphere, 199-227; Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002); William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Knopf, 1996); Melvin Oliver and Tom Shapiro, Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1997).
15. Robert Entman, "Manufacturing Discord: Media in the Affirmative Action Debate," Press/Politics 2 (1997): 32-51; Wahneema Lubiano, "Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor: Multiculturalism and State Narratives," in Mapping Multiculturalism, ed. Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 74-75; Michael K. Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Colorblind Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Patricia H. Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2004).
16. Steven Teles, "The Eternal Return of Compassionate Conservatism," National Affairs, Fall 2009, 107-26.
17. Robert Asen, "The Ownership Society, or Bourgeois Publicity Revisited," in Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media, and the Shape of Public Life, ed. Daniel C. Brouwer and Robert Asen (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 122-23.
18. Ibid., 125.
19. Ibid., 123.
20. Theodore Vincent, ed., Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism during the Harlem Renaissance (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990); Cary Wintz, ed., African American Political Thought, 1890-1930 (New York: Sharpe, 1996); Todd Vogel, "The New Face of Black Labor," in The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Todd Vogel (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press), 37-54. [End Page 568]
21. Penny Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-Colonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).
22. Henry Louis Suggs, ed., The Black Press in the Middle West, 1865-1985 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996).
23. Charlotta Bass, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper (Los Angeles: Charlotta Bass, 1960); The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (dir. Stanley Nelson; California Newsreel, 1998).
24. Jane Rhodes, Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon (New York: New Press, 2007); Esther Cooper Jackson, ed., The Freedomways Reader: Prophets in Their Own Country (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000).
25. E. Franklin Frazier, The Black Bourgeoisie (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press,1957).
26. Maren Stange, "Photos Taken in Everyday Life": Ebony's Photojournalistic Discourse," in Vogel, Black Press, 208.
27. Mukherjee, "'Bling Fling,'" 184.
28. Ibid., 180-81.
29. Ibid., 186.
30. Leonard Baynes, "White Out: The Absence and Stereotyping of People of Color by the Broadcast Networks in Prime Time Entertainment Programming," in Media Diversity and Localism: Meaning and Metrics, ed. Philip Napoli (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2007).
31. Catherine Squires, "Black Talk Radio: Community Needs and Identity," Harvard International Journal of Press/ Politics 5.2 (2010): 73-95; Squires, "Black Audiences, Past and Present: Common Sense Media Critics," in Say It Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity, ed. Robin R. Means Coleman (New York: Routledge), 45-76; Timothy Vercellotti and Paul R. Brewer, "'To Plead Our Own Cause': Public Opinion toward Black and Mainstream News Media among African Americans," Journal of Black Studies 37.2 (2006): 231-50.
32. Means Coleman, Say It Loud!; Squires, "Black Talk Radio."
33. Armistead Pride and Clint Wilson III, A History of the Black Press (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997).
34. Anna Everett, "The Black Press in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Two Exemplars," in Vogel, Black Press, 246.
35. Mark Anthony Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-soul Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 2002).
36. Everett, "Black Press," 246.
37. Ibid., 248.
39. Alfred Schreiber, Multicultural Marketing: Selling to the New America (Chicago: NTC Business Books, 2006).
40. Leon Wynter, American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002); Baynes, "White Out."
41. Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 242.
43. Philip Napoli, "Audience Valuation and Minority Media: An Analysis of the Determinants of the Value of Radio Audiences," Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 46.2 (2002): 169-84.
44. Oscar Gandy Jr., "Privatization and Identity: The Formation of a Racial Class," in Media in the Age of Marketization, ed. Janet Wasko and Graham Murdock (Creskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2007), 109-30.
45. D. Kirk Davidson, Selling Sin: The Marketing of Socially Unacceptable Products (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.)
46. Gandy, "Privatization and Identity."
49. "A New Era," Black Enterprise, January 2009.
50. See, for example, "The Giant Slayers," Blackenterprise.com, October 15, 2010, which congratulated the owner of a black financial firm for expanding its business by hiring people from failing financial firms.
51. Earl Graves Sr., "Publisher's Page: Your Trusted Resource in a Tough Economy," Black Enterprise, September 2008. [End Page 569]
52. Graves, "Publisher's Page: Let Our Economic Recovery Begin with Us," Black Enterprise, December 2008.
53. Earl Graves Jr., "Executive Memo: Create Your Own Economic Stimulus Plan," Black Enterprise, April 2009.
54. Pamela Kirkland, "Letters: We're Not to Blame," Black Enterprise, April 2009.
55. Earl Graves Jr., "Executive Memo: Your House Is Not an ATM," Black Enterprise, June 2010.
56. Kai Wright, "More Proof Blacks Are Losing the Most Homes," TheRoot.com, May 13, 2009.
57. Emma Coleman Jordan, "Wall Street in Black and White," TheRoot.com, October 6, 2008.
58. Sam Fulwood III, "More Money, More Problems," TheRoot.com, September 15, 2009.
59. Jeneé Darden, "Starting Over: How Iyanla Lost Her Home," The Root.com, March 16, 2009.
60. Stacey Tisdale, "Market Crash Course," TheRoot.com, October 28, 2008.
61. Stacey Tisdale, "Talking the Talk about Money," TheRoot.com, May 11, 2009.
62. Chakravartty and Schiller, "Neoliberal Newspeak," 670-71, 683-84.
63. Daisy Hernandez, "Editor's Letter: Remember Affordable Housing?" Colorlines, May-June 2009.
65. Kai Wright, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Apart on UN Poverty Goals," Colorlines.com, September 17, 2009.
67. Lani Guinier and Rodolfo Torres, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
68. Seth Freed Wessler, "Race and Recession: Foreclosure Losses Still Mounting," Colorlines.com, July 8, 2009.
69. Tram Ngyuen, "Pushed Out and Pushing Back in New Orleans," Colorlines.com, April 7, 2010.
70. See, for example, Shani O. Hilton, "Foreclosed Families Descend on Capitol to Make Wall Street Pay," Colorlines.com, March 8, 2011; Jamilah King, "Wells Fargo 'Stagecoach from Hell' Loses Wheels," Colorlines.com, July 8, 2010.
71. bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15.
72. Ibid., xvii.
73. Cathy Cohen, "Politics, New Media, and Inequality: From the Occupy Movement to the 2012 Elections," address to the Gender, Sexuality, Power, and Politics Colloquium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, January 12, 2012.
74. In addition to the kinds of media referenced earlier in this article, commentators have begun to intensify scrutiny of discourses of wealth-as-salvation in black churches as another source of neoliberalism. See, for example, comments by Fredrick C. Harris, "'Prosperity Gospel' vs. the King Legacy," New York Times, February 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/02/02/. [End Page 570]