Although there are many troubling themes throughout Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, the mob mentality and the media’s contributions to incite racist behavior has been prevalent from the time of newspapers to our time today. This theme is touched upon in book two: “Flight” and more heavily acknowledged in the third book: “Fate”. Bigger is on the run in book two, hoping to stay ahead of the police and somewhat enjoying the “fame” that he is getting from the murder of Mary Dalton, he finds himself needing to see the articles written about him in the newspapers. Bigger steals a paper and it tells of the fiery indignation of the town as people learned about Mary’s killing, it also ends with “…they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind,” (Wright 245). Newspapers being the only source of information during this time had the power to print anything they wanted and also had the power to sway their audience, as do the media outlets of today. It is no surprise that newspapers were run by predominantly white men and women and would print what they deemed to be facts at the time, albeit racist. In the third book, after Bigger faints at the inquest, he reads a paper that quotes a young white girl calling him an “ape” and the writer calling him “a jungle beast,” (Wright 279). These names are then heard again in the mob as well as a call for his lynching and killing.
Wright does well to highlight the reality of news and widespread media within these articles as he drew inspiration from the case of Robert Nixon, who the media, despite his crimes, degraded to an animal using the exact phrase “jungle beast”, along with the degradation of the black race. They then called the woman who was killed a mother of two, posting photos of her children and using them for a news story. Although it is understandable in the Nixon case, in modern times we often see racist media posting mugshots of innocent black people and the smiling family photos of serial killer white men. These articles and deliberate choices to denigrate black people to the racist stereotypes uphold the mob mentality that white people have when black people are involved in a crime; innocent or not. As James Baldwin writes in “The Price of the Ticket” after saying that a mob of people is bound together by fears, “To destroy a nigger, a kike, a dyke, or a faggot by one’s own act alone is […] to have made a public confession more personal…” (Baldwin 840). But hiding behind a newspaper and a phone screen is the exception.
One thought on “Mob Mentality and the Media”
Faith, I think you have noticed astutely how important the media is in shaping the trial and public perception. One thing I find interesting about the way in which the media portrays the case, and how it evolves over the course of the novel, is how they expand one situation into a larger narrative or stereotype. For example, when reporters are talking to Bigger when Mary has just gone missing, they decide to construe the story in a very pointed way: “Say, I’m slanting this to the primitive Negro who doesn’t want to be disturbed by white civilization” (214). Without any real evidence, one reporter is already crafting the narrative to fit with a particular agenda, one in which black people and white people should remain segregated. The framing turns the singular crime into a universalizing message, with the underlying assumption that all black people and white people think exactly the same. I do wonder, though, to what extent it is fair to say that the media still acts in this racist way today? I agree fully that some outlets do, but there are many news outlets, like the Marshall project, that work actively against this stereotyping in journalism. It is important to highlight these sources as well.
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