Ahhh young love. Some are lucky to learn early that true love can be a mutual experience of passion, respect, and commitment. But, in the abusive relationship between young people of color and the telecommunications industry, big companies hold all the power.

AT&T, Comcast and others dole out affection in the form of advertising as it benefits and allows them to maintain control. When young people resist, set a boundary, or say no, threat of price-gouging goes up and the hammer comes down.

Verizon ran an ad campaign to make young people fall in love with them, but didn’t mention that at the same time they were lobbying to deny wireless users the rights and protections they deserved. The Media Literacy Project fought back with a compelling counter-ad. Still, without a movement to engage and empower them, the rapidly growing consumer base of young people of color finds themselves in a manipulative, abusive relationship with U.S. corporate media. Especially those whose only access to the Internet is through a wireless device.

A New Study Sharpens The Picture
On June 8th, Northwestern University released findings of a study on Children, Media, and Race: Media Use Among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Children. This is the first national study to focus exclusively on children’s media use by race and ethnicity. It may help illuminate why young people of color are so vulnerable to the whims of the telecom industry, and open up opportunities for change.

According to the executive summary of the report “minority” youth aged 8 to 18 consume an average of 13 hours of media content a day — about 4-1/2 hours more than their white counterparts.

The real question is, what does it all mean? In a Colorlines article by Stokley Baksh published today, the question of what these findings imply about the health and education of young people of color was raised. It’s a good question, and it was an excellent article with terrific info-graphics for your use. My two-cents is this:

It’s not a surprise.
Many studies have found that African Americans experience more stress than the general population, and we all know entertainment media can feel like an excellent stress reliever. Actually, endless hours spent watching Law and Order marathons have, for me, a dissociative effect. I definitely don’t feel relieved. You know what does make me feel relieved? Access to land rights, food equity, and physical recreation. Being empowered with the right and resources to organize. The implications of our disproportionate use of media on childhood obesity, risk of heart attack and stroke in communities of color as we lose the public and legal infrastructure to fight against these conditions is not lost on me. Nor should it be lost on the brilliant organizers who work on health equity as a core issue.

Another reason these findings don’t surprise me is that the trend of disproportionate media use by young people of color matches that of their adult counterparts of color. This is more true than ever when it comes to mobile devices. According to the report youth of color are especially avid adopters of new media, spending about an hour and a half more each day than White youth using their cell phones, iPods and other mobile devices to watch TV and videos, play games, and listen to music. Nearly two-thirds of African Americans (64% ) and Latinos (63%) overall are wireless Internet users, and a disproportionate number of these users access the Internet from their mobile phone only. People of color use the hell out of mobile technology, in place of real access.

Educational Access vs. Educational Disparities
This study found that traditional TV viewing remains the most popular of all media — with black and Hispanic youth consuming an average of more than three hours of live TV daily (3:23 for blacks, 3:08 for Hispanics, 2:28 for Asians and 2:14 for whites). It also found that Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to have TV sets in their bedrooms that have cable and premium channels available, and that all youth of color ate eat more meals in front of the TV, with these trends starting very young.

While Black and Latino youth were more likely to have a television in their home and in their bedroom, Asian American youth were more likely to have a computer in their home and in their bedroom. This simply reflects what we already knew- there are significant educational disparities that track youth of color differently into certain industries and positions in the economy. More importantly, it raises the question why millions of students have substandard access to the digital technology that is fast becoming the nation’s economic backbone? Can you spell s-t-r-u-c-t-u-r-a-l r-a-c-i-s-m?

Misrepresented and Dehumanized
if someone did a study of the subject matter of prime time television shows, I guarantee that the crime drama would come out on top. If young people of color are, as the study suggests, disproportionately watching television over dinner, they are probably watching a crime show. In shows about crime, courts, and the law- I wonder what races most of the criminals are? I wonder how it impacts children to watch police be the hero over and over again? I wonder… alas, I have seen no such recent study, so I can only speak from my experience. I am a “crime time” junkie, and I see are Black and Latinos over-represented as criminals in this so-called “post-racial” environment. Also, most crime dramas are rendered from the perspective of the police, narrowing the frame further. The over-arching message is that over-incarceration is the result of crime not inequity, and that crime is a fact of life that requires the brutal intervention of well-meaning police.

But TV isn’t the only problem. According to the study, young people of color spend more time than white kids listening to music too. Given the corporate takeover of the music industry over the last 30 years, the messages of crime time dramas are echoed in mainstream hip hop. Add to that the decline of journalism in general, and specifically the elimination of news on music stations resulting from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and the inference is clear.

Young people of color are bombarded with images of their inhumanity, denied basic access to information, and excluded from the educational opportunity computer and Internet access brings. I think this lowers self esteem and raises their tolerance for inhuman conditions. But we also have power. Did you know that “ethnic consumers” (what telecommunications companies call people of color who buy their products) are the major buying power in the telecom market? By 2009, 1 out of every 3 dollars spent on telecommunications services came from U.S. “ethnic” communities. It’s up to us all, not just the few media justice groups among us- to fight back.

The Bottom Line is, Organize
Get an umbrella, cause it’s about to rain some cold, hard truth up in here. This disproportionate exposure to harmful and inaccurate media content not only makes young people of color -especially girls- extremely vulnerable to telecommunications companies, but makes it harder to organize them for action.

So what is to be done? Different groups have taken different approaches. Some advocate to limit and punish content. I don’t know about you, but I kinda like my 1st amendment rights. Some, particularly in the DC beltway, want to capitalize to get the most access money can buy. This makes sense if you think freedom is for sale. I’m kind of with Frederick Douglass on this: power concedes nothing without a demand. He didn’t say- power concedes nothing unless you partner with it. Others, like the members of the Media Action Grassroots Network, seek to transform the regulatory environment and hold companies accountable to win the most rights power can buy. Now that’s the kind of buying power I love.

Here’s the truth: If you want to win on social justice issues, we must consider the media environment in which we are organizing. That means media policy change. I know- you have neither the time, nor the resources, and you just think someone else should secure the media environment you deserve. Okay, let’s take a simple step together and acknowledge that to win, because we love our babies, we actually have to change the rules. You can start by saying no to the AT&T takeover of tmobile, and saying yes to affordable phone calls from prison. The right to communicate, and therefore imagine and fight for a better future, should belong to us all- especially our children.


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