Why the NAACP Image Awards Matter for Economic Justice

Recently, I attended the 43rd Annual NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles, California. The Image Awards celebrate the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice. You may be wondering why I, the Program Specialist for the Economic Department, attended the Image Awards, but the connection between media representations of black Americans and the black experience is closer linked to economic justice than you might realize. Images in television and film inform our ideas, reinforce stereotypes, establish norms and shape our thinking- in other words our public consciousness. And our public consciousness dictates our individual and societal actions. Consequentially, it should come as no surprise that these same images influence political discourse and public policy, and conversely, these images can undermine progressive policies necessary for improving the economic security and viability of the African American community.

One of the most powerful and pervasive mischaracterizations of black life is the “welfare queen.” President Reagan is often credited with cementing this image into social and political discourse as he consistently referenced “the welfare queen” while promoting his agenda to eliminate wasteful government spending. Representations of black women as lazy mothers of multiple children who abuse government resources gained traction because it reinforced public opinion. Reagan successfully scaled back many social and economic programs, some which were created by President Johnson to protect the poor and minority groups, because many people were convinced that these programs’ recipients were undeserving and lazy.  Decades later, in 2012, many presidential contenders continue to make similar references whether it is calling President Obama “The Food Stamp President” or suggesting that African Americans should demand jobs instead of welfare. The racial narrative around the economic struggles of African Americans continues to be linked to individual pathology. Without better representations of our realities in the media, those racial narratives will continue.

Ultimately, it’s the fight for better representation that makes the NAACP Image Awards so important and incredibly relevant for economic justice. The Image Awards not only recognizes entertainers of color, who are often neglected in the mainstream, but also highlights work that showcases our diverse experiences. African Americans are humanized as people with struggles but also solutions, hardships but also triumphs. African Americans may face challenges; but given the opportunity we are resilient. However, as long as we continue to wrestle with images and norms that place us at the bottom of the hierarchies of race and wealth, it makes it easier for policymakers, and the nation as a whole, to absolve themselves of any sense of responsibility for national crises such as high foreclosures and unemployment rates in our communities. The fight to increase diversity in media is an ongoing but necessary battle. Significant advances have been made; but much more must be accomplished so that in the future, if our community faces challenging economic hardships, those challenges are not deemed inherently pathological. And negative media images do not misappropriate our experiences nor preclude us from being considered just as deserving of equal treatment and justice in difficult times.

Check out singer Jill Scott talk at the Image Awards about the importance of exercising our right to vote to affect change in our communities.