The Power of Propaganda
From mammy caricatures and minstrel shows to Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” unpack how campaigns and visual art have always been weaponized to amplify misinformation.
We’ve examined how fear, enforcers, laws, and social norms converged to create an environment that protects violent oppression. The next ingredient is propaganda. When people are deemed to be property instead of human, it’s essential to hammer it into the public consciousness to discourage any divergent thinking.
The stereotypes and portrayals that began in the 1600s are still lurking in mainstream media today. This plays a role in why people consciously or subconsciously ignore police violence against Black people. The playbook hasn’t changed much in 400 years. Here’s how it works.
Language can be a vital weapon of influence when maintaining social order.
Here are three ways Black people were oppressed through language, starting with the beginning of slavery. All three set cultural erasure in motion.
- Aspects of African culture were declared inferior, including their native languages.
- Enslaved Africans were dehumanized within the English dictionary, which introduced words like n*****, coon, and other slurs.
- Slave owners forced the enslaved to speak in English, though not learn to read or write. (After the Nat Turner’s Rebellion, white people reinforced their ban—they believed Turner’s success was mainly due to his education.)
INFILTRATING ARTS, FILM, AND CULTURE
Visual art has the power to divide, unite, or persuade us. This made it an effective vehicle for anti-Black imagery and messaging. The more visually arresting or funny, the more successful the propaganda. This is a well-documented strategy also used by Nazis. Let's go over a few examples.
The Birth of a Nation
America’s first feature-length motion picture and simultaneously one of the most racist movies in the history of cinema. It was originally titled “The Clansman,” and was widely considered an exceptional piece of political propaganda that revived the KKK and made cross burning a thing. It depicted Black Americans as inhumane, lazy, subservient, and dangerous. It was banned in some cities and caused riots in others, but was ultimately quite popular with white audiences.
A mammy is a stereotype for a matronly dark-skinned enslaved woman who worked for white families and nursed their children. If you live in America chances are you’ve seen a version of this on a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s syrup. This caricature painted Black women as amiable, submissive, and overjoyed to be enslaved. A mammy represented complete deference to white authority.
Minstrel shows were popular stage entertainment that featured white people in blackface (usually with burnt cork or grease) disparaging African Americans. They began with the creation of Jim Crow, a popular minstrel character. The minstrel phenomenon has largely abated, but it still rears its head today from time to time. Companies like Gucci and Prada have come under fire for using minstrel-inspired imagery in their branding and products.Source: American Heritage
Kids were not exempt from indoctrination. Production companies like the Walt Disney Corporation and Warner Bros. created entertainment that ridiculed Black people and other non-white races. According to the CDC, experiences a child has with other people and how they see the world has a strong impact on how the brain grows.
A 2019 study at Northwestern showed that preschoolers already demonstrated unconscious gender and racial bias towards Black Americans. This is why projects like Sesame Street’s Racism Town Hall are a critical step in changing youth education.
A brute was a caricature created to illustrate Black men as savages that deserve violence. This justified lynching and played into the narrative of the animalistic Black man waiting to prey on the pure white woman. A countless number of lynchings and riots emerged from the Black brute stereotype, including the young Emmett Till.
Here’s how this affected Black men in death penalty cases:
“In hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, African Americans convicted of capital crimes were about four times more likely than whites convicted of capital crimes to be described with ape-relevant language, such as “barbaric,” “beast,” “brute,” “savage,” and “wild.”
Those who are implicitly portrayed as more ape-like in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not.”
The brute stereotype still exists today. It just goes by a different name: the thug.Source: The New York Times
THE MERGER OF POLITICAL PROPAGANDA AND BRUTALITY
While racist characters and minstrel shows mocked Black people for white entertainment, disinformation connected to criminal activities have had deadly impacts on Black people for generations. Disinformation became the primary fuel for political campaigns that pushed the use of excessive force in policing and imprisoned minorities at alarming rates.
The impact of the “War on 'Drugs'”
President Richard Nixon announced the “War on Drugs” campaign in 1971. Its goal was to eradicate illegal drug use in America. He referenced drugs as “public enemy number one.”Source: 13th
But “drugs” was code for something else:
Drug enforcement became the new justification for police brutality and deadly action against Black citizens. It was the perfect pretext for unchecked harassment—once the average person connected police violence to drug use, they automatically believed anything law enforcement did was justified.
Case Study: Los Angeles and Rodney King
In 1991, Rodney King, a Black construction worker, was brutalized by 15 police officers after he resisted arrest in a car chase. One of the police officers asserted he was fearful of King’s “superhuman strength from being high on PCP.” It was later confirmed King didn’t have the drug in his system.Source: Marshall Project
“Cracks in the system”
The “anti-drug” rhetoric didn’t stop with Nixon. Ronald Regan amped it up, as did George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. With the political messaging came increased funding for law enforcement and a surge in American prisons.
The war on drugs increased mandatory minimums, sentences which the court must give to a person convicted of a crime, no matter what the unique circumstances of the offender or the offense are. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 ensured sentencing was ruthless for anyone arrested with crack.
Although they are different versions of the same substance, crack (the cheaper option) was seen as a Black street drug while cocaine was accepted as a drug associated with white affluence.Sources: Vox, Sentencing Project, ACLU
In their Cracks in the System study, the ACLU reveals that there was 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity. (Remember, it’s the same substance.)
- 5 grams of crack = a minimum 5-year federal prison sentence.
- 500 grams of powder cocaine = 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Where did most of the drug busts happen? Poor Black neighborhoods.
Who was arrested most of the time? Black people.
But here’s the truth: research shows Black communities aren’t more likely to use or sell drugs—they’re just more likely to be arrested and go to jail for it. According to Drugpolicy.org, district attorneys were twice as likely to seek mandatory minimum sentencing for Black people as for white people for the same offense. Over time the impact of this multiplied.
When you look at the impact of mass incarceration on Black people today, you’ll see social effects similar to the days of slavery and sharecropping: a lack of access to education, jobs, homeownership, and voting rights for Black people.
Now you know why.Sources: Vox, Sentencing Project, ACLU
A moment of reflection
In this section, we explored some ways that films, news media, entertainment, and political campaigns can consciously and subconsciously shape our world view and what we believe about other races. A learning mindset allows us to reflect on the ideas and beliefs we've always held as truth and reexamine them when presented with new, contradictory information.
Think back to when you were a child. What are some of the ideas and beliefs that were shared in your home that you find yourself questioning now? Are there some perspectives you held then that you can't accept today? What do you wish you knew then that you understand now?
When you review these beliefs do you think friends, social media, magazines, news, film, or music played a role in reinforcing or challenging those views?
To learn more about how political misinformation has influenced bias in policing and pop culture, we recommend these two articles: