Segregation Does Not End at the Lunch Counter

In the Southwest, justice has always been front and center. Justice denied for the theft of thousands of square miles of native lands during the process of genocide or for families who were living here when the U.S. border passed over them. Justice denied for immigrant populations by politicians and vigilantes alike. Economic justice denied for the majority of all New Mexicans who live in the state that is 49th in per capita income but contains the weapons labs of Los Alamos County, with the highest per capita income in the United States.
These situations create the context in which my nonprofit community media organization, Quote…Unquote—which is dedicated to the exercise of First Amendment rights and to providing media education to the youth of our community—operates. They also keep our diverse community under pressure.
Not the Target Demographic
In the spring of 2006, the lid blew off. The aspirations and expectations of immigrants for better laws were colliding with the anti-immigrant policies of the Bush administration. The largest street demonstrations ever in New Mexico were overflowing spontaneously throughout downtown and barrios like Barelas, the South Valley, “the war zone,” the West Side and high schools with large populations of Latino students. Students left school, marching through the Latino neighborhoods while moving towards the center of the City.
As the marchers passed, motorists honked their horns in support. Others closed their shops and joined in, headed for the Civic Plaza in the heart of downtown. Flags waved, paleteros sold their popsicles, Norteño music ruled and a sense of euphoria from the swelling recognition of power in unity swept over the crowds.
I looked around for signs of media to document this important event. In attendance were local Spanish language radio stations, the local public access station, a few reporters from print media, and a small representation from Univision; however, network TV affiliates were nowhere to be found.
A couple of us community media veterans decided to call the network stations to check if they had not heard of the event. The answer I received from the News Director of one TV station threw cold water on my optimistic day.
“We are aware of the marches, of course,” he said. “But that isn’t our audience. We are an English language channel. This story needs to be covered by the Spanish language channels. Have you spoken with Univision?”
All of the Latino youth in the streets of Albuquerque being joined by their parents, their siblings and their abuelitas meant nothing to this man or to any other news director. Essentially, we weren’t their advertising demographic. Network leaders didn’t see us as grounds for making any money for the local car dealerships or insurance companies that advertise on their channels. As a result, commercial media dismissed the voices of tens of thousands of New Mexicans.
We didn’t count.
It struck me that when most people think of the practices of segregation they first envision physical segregation. They picture images in black and white film of civil rights workers being dragged out of southern diners. Fewer people recognize the effects of segregation in the content and distribution of textbooks or the marketing of media to our youth.
Understanding Niche Marketing
The modern marketing machine spends vast amounts of time and money to identify every possible market niche. The trend over the last thirty-plus years has been to intensify niche marketing to more specific audiences and create media just for them. A media outlet decides in advance who they want to reach and starts the planning of content from there. On that spring day in Albuquerque, niche marketing wasn’t benefiting immigrants or anyone else who wished to understand the issues at hand.
In the delivery of entertainment or news media, youth are segregated by age, class, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and immigration status. Marketing agencies do know that youth learn from the media. But the news media does not value the ways that young people learn or how media negatively affects their self-esteem, socialization and ability to navigate through life in a diversely populated society.
Here are a few suggestions to educators that want to help young people understand the manipulative cycle of marketing to use media to both tell their stories and break the system of segregation.
First, let’s not kid ourselves that marketing agencies will stop these practices just because we tell them that it would be better for the mental health of children. We need to approach the teaching of youth and media as if we are delivering a self-defense class to kids.
Second, educators must emphasize the teaching of critical thinking first and foremost. Their ability to analyze the messages they receive is their best vaccine. Critical thinking rather than memorization to obtain better test scores for No Child Left Behind criteria is a major front in this battle. We must work on the monumental task of overhauling education in this country.
And, we must teach storytelling to youth. The United States is a nation where many people live vicariously off the accomplishments and stories of others. That characteristic is why media is so profitable. Media-arts storytelling, whether done with digital cameras or on the walls of caves, empowers people to find their own voices. The result is usually self-esteem.
We must specifically show youth in our media literacy presentations how the practice of distinct media messages and news for each youth demographic reinforces their separation and division from each other. This directly affects youth in their relationships with people who are “not like them.”
Media Justice
Let’s also confront the reality that media in the United States is a key part of the battleground between justice and injustice in this society. Media is not an isolated topic on its own. The injustice of Albuquerque media not covering the events and issues of the Spanish speaking populations and other people of color shouldn’t really surprise us.
Without media justice, solving these problems in New Mexico and elsewhere will be impossible. The social segregation that niche marketing and commercial media reinforce can be combated. Media justice equals empowerment to organize and educate. We must have control of our own means to create and distribute our messages in New Mexico and anywhere else. The job of those of us who work with youth is to impart this sense of purpose and indignation to the next generations.
Steve Ranieri works for the non-profit media organization Quote…Unquote and is a founder of the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School. Quote…Unquote provides two access stations to the Albuquerque area and has trained, during 28 years, many thousands of people in how to have their own voices heard. Recently more and more of these voices are those of the youth. Quote…Unquote’s programming confronts injustice each day. Its channels are recognized for carrying the voices of protest, often to the displeasure of the local authorities. Quote…Unquote is a member of the Media Action Grassroots Network.