When the ‘Silent Majority’ Isn’t White

While focus is on the USA, fundamental point regarding political diversity within minorities also applies in Canada:

In her 1990 book “Fear of Falling,”Barbara Ehrenreich detailed how the widely broadcast violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to an immediate, dramatic paradigm shift in media coverage. In the month before the event, Mayor Richard Daley had denounced the various anti-Vietnam War protest groups who were planning to converge outside the city’s International Amphitheater. When those protesters arrived, Daley fought back with his police force who, on Aug. 28, attacked protesters in Grant Park.

In scenes that would be echoed a half-century later during the George Floyd protests, the police beat, detained and intimidated everyone from the Yippies to the Young Lords to Dan Rather. In both 1968 and 2020, the press heightened its critique against the police and the mayor once they saw their own being attacked in the streets.

Then came the reckoning. Ehrenreich writes:

Polls taken immediately after the convention showed that the majority of Americans — 56 percent — sympathized with the police, not with the bloodied demonstrators or the press. Indeed, what one could see of the action on television did not resemble dignified protest but the anarchic breakdown of a great city (if only because, once the police began to rampage, dignity was out of the question). Overnight the press abandoned its protest. The collapse was abrupt and craven. As bumper stickers began to appear saying “We support Mayor Daley and his Chicago police,” the national media awoke to the disturbing possibility that they had grown estranged from a sizable segment of the public.

Media leaders moved quickly to correct what they now came to see as their “bias.” They now felt they had been too sympathetic to militant minorities (a judgment the minorities might well have contested). Henceforth they would focus on the enigmatic — and in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase — silent majority.

The following months would provide even more evidence that the media had misjudged the moment. A New York Timespoll conducted a day after showed an “overwhelming” majority supported the police in Chicago. CBS reported that 10 times as many people had written to them disapproving of their coverage of the events as had written in approval.

In response, the media class spent the next few years, in Ehrenreich’s words, examining “fearfully and almost reverently, that curious segment of America: the majority.” The problem, of course, was that the same people who had just believed the world ended at the Hudson were the same people who now would be tasked with discovering everything beyond its banks. As a result, the media’s coverage of “the silent majority” was abstract and almost mythic, which allowed it to be shaped into whatever was most convenient.

There are a couple of obvious questions here: A year after the nationwide George Floyd protests, has mass media, which I’ll define here as the major news outlets and TV networks, undergone a similar paradigm shift? And if there is a new “silent majority” whose voices must be heard, who, exactly, is it?

Are we seeing a media backlash to the summer of 2020?

A quick caveat before we go much further into this: I am generally skeptical of the types of historical matching games that have become popular these days, especially on social media, where false symmetries can be expressed through heavily excerpted screenshots or video. Just because something looks vaguely like something that happened in the past doesn’t mean that the two events are actually analogous. More important, I do not see the need to take every current injustice by the hand and shop it around to a line of older suitors — if nothing else, the act of constant comparison can take away from the immediacy of today’s problem.

But regardless of whether the comparison between 1968 and 2020 is apt, plenty of people made it. Most notably, Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who, after what was seen as a disappointing result in a handful of House races, compared the slogan “defund the police” to “burn, baby, burn” from the 1965 Watts riots and said such talk was “cutting the throats of the party.” Omar Wasow’s work on voting patterns during the civil rights movement and how the public and media responded to different images of violence also became a central part of opinion discourse.

As was true in 1968, we’ve also seen a shift in public opinion polls, perhaps confirming Wasow’s claim that while images of law enforcement committing violence against protesters will generate a significant upsurge in sympathy, images of looting and rioting will have the opposite effect. A Washington Post-Shar School poll conducted in early June of 2020 found that 74 percent of respondents supported the protests, including 53 percent of Republicans­­ — stunning results that suggested a radical shift in public opinion had taken place — and the media followed suit with an enormous amount of coverage.

Writing in The Washington Post,Michael Heaney, a University of Glasgow lecturer, wrote, “Not since the Kent State killings, in which National Guard troops shot and killed four student protesters in May 1970, has there been so much media attention to protest.” Heaney also pointed out that the coverage had been “generally favorable.” But as of this summer, polling of white Americans on support for Black Lives Matter and policing reform had reverted to pre-2020 levels. Has media coverage followed suit?

We might look at coverage of the recent New York City mayoral race as a kind of case study. The campaign of Eric Adams, a former N.Y.P.D. officer who largely positioned himself against his more progressive opponents on public safety and school issues, was cast as a referendum on last summer. The media attributed Adams’s victory in the Democratic primary almost entirely to his pro-police platform. In June, a Reuters headline read, “Defying ‘Defund Police’ Calls, Democrat Adams Leads NYC Mayor’s Race.” In July, The Associated Press wrote that Adams’s win was part of a “surge for moderate Democrats” and said the centerpiece of his campaign was a rejection of activists’ calls to defund the police.

This echoed the coverage of Clyburn’s declarations after the election and fell in with a spate of media coverage about the shift in opinions on policing. So, some regression of media sympathy toward the summer of 2020 does seem underway — although we shouldn’t believe the media underwent some fundamental change during the summer of 2020, or, for that matter, in the months leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Those moments should be seen, instead, as flare-ups that subsequently shamed the media into seeking out “the real America” or whatever.

Who is the silent majority in 2021?

In 1968, the turn in opinion came mostly at the expense of Black radicals and young protesters in favor of what was largely then assumed to be white working-class voters.

Today’s silent majority certainly does include white voters, but this time, recent coverage suggests that the media is reproaching itself for a somewhat different failing: neglecting the perspective of more-moderate voters of color.

The post-mortem of the 2020 election — in which more immigrants than anticipated, whether Latinos in Florida and Texas or Asian Americans in California, voted for Donald Trump — coincided with the need to make some sense of what had happened to public opinion after last summer. Connections were made. By the time Adams gave his victory speech, a narrative about the diverse silent majority had taken hold: People of color supported the police, hated rioting and wanted more funding for law enforcement. They did not agree with the radical demands of the Floyd protests — in fact, such talk turned them off.

There’s a lot of truth to the concerns about how much the mass media actually knows about minority voters. When the Latino vote swings from Texas and Florida came to light on election night, Chuck Rocha, a political strategist who specializes in Latino engagement, went on a media tour and placed the blame on “woke white consultants” who believed that a broad message of antiracism would work for “people of color.” As I wrote in a guest essay, a similar pattern held in Asian American communities — it turns out that Vietnamese refugees who reside in Orange County, Calif., might have different opinions on Black Lives Matter, capitalism or abortion rights than, say, second-generation Indian Americans at elite universities.

These mistakes came from a grouping error: Liberal white Americans in power, including members of the media, tended to think of immigrants as huddled masses who all shook under the xenophobic rhetoric of the Republican Party and prayed for any deliverance from Donald Trump. They did not see them as distinct populations who have their own set of political priorities, mostly because they took their votes for granted.

So, if the media is actually overlooking an entire population and sometimes misrepresenting them, what’s the big deal if it’s now correcting for this?

A few things can be true at once: Yes, the media overwhelmingly misconstrued the actual beliefs of minority voters, particularly in Latino and Asian American communities. Yes, those voters tend to have more moderate view on policing.

The problem isn’t one of description, but rather of translation. The media took a normal regression in polling numbers, mixed it with some common sense about how minority populations actually vote and created a new, diverse “silent majority.” This is a powerful tool. These unheard, moderate minorities carry an almost unassailable authority in liberal politics because of the very simple fact that liberals tend to frame their policies in terms of race. If those same objects of your concern turn around and tell you to please stop what you’re doing, what you’ve created is perhaps the most powerful rebuttal in liberal politics. Over the next few years, I imagine we will see an increasing number of moderate politicians and pundits hitch their own hobbyhorses to this diverse silent majority. The nice thing about a vaguely defined, still mysterious group is that you can turn it into anything you want it to be.

Some version of this opinion engineering, I believe, is happening with the police and public safety. There’s not a lot of evidence that Latino and Asian voters care all that much either way about systemic racism or funding or defunding the police. (Black voters, on the other hand, listed racism and policing as their top two priorities leading up to the 2020 election.) Polls of Asian American voters, for example, show that they prioritize health care, education and the economy. Latino voters listed the economy, health care and the pandemic as their top three priorities. (“Violent crime” ranked about as high as Supreme Court appointments.) If asked, a large number of people in both of these groups might respond that they support the police, but that’s very different from saying they base their political identity on the rejection of, say, police abolition. If they’re purposefully voting against the left wing of the Democratic Party, it’s more likely they are responding to economic or education policy rather than policing.

And so it may be correct to say that within the new, diverse “silent majority,” attitudes about the police and protest might be much less uniform than what many in the mass media led you to believe in the summer of 2020. It may also be worth pointing out that reporters, pundits and television networks should probably adjust their coverage to accurately assess these dynamics, just as I’m sure there were legitimate concerns with media bubbles in 1968. But it also seems worth separating that assessment from the conclusion that the media should now see the summer of 2020 as political kryptonite and cast the millions of people who protested in the streets as confused revolutionaries who had no real support.

After 1968, the mass media’s turn away from the counterculture of the ’60s and its indifference to the dismantling of Black radical groups narrowed the scope of political action. This constriction would be aided over the next decade by lurid, violent events that all got thrown at the feet of anyone who looked like a radical. When Joan Didion wrote of the Manson murders, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled,” she was saying that all the fears of the so-called silent majority had come to pass.

We are living through some version of that today. But what seems particularly telling about this moment is that the retreat no longer requires Charles Manson, the fearmongering over Watts or the police riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Those images hover above the public’s consciousness as evergreen cautionary tales; the paranoia they fulfilled will do just fine.

The question at the outset of this post, then, has a split answer: Yes, we seem to be reliving a moment of media revanchism in the name of the (diverse) silent majority, but it is also a replay of a replay, akin to filming a television screen with your phone’s camera, with all of its inherent losses in resolution, clarity and immediacy.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/30/opinion/silent-majority-white-media.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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