Currently reading: Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur with Forewords by Angela Davis and Lennox S. Hinds.
We are an image-driven society. Day after day we are bombarded by smartphone notifications, memes, advertisements, etc. These images are used to manipulate the masses toward compulsively checking social media pages, buying products, consuming food and beverages, molding our reactions to current events, and other subtle forms of manipulation. When it comes to race, image is utilized to steer the masses against minorities. We see this in the way the image of the savage is used against Black people. This kind of image manipulation is prevalent today when the Trump administration uses the Latino gangbanger stereotype to stoke anti-immigration sentiment. These images share the common element of being rooted in ignorance.
The image of the savage was utilized by the United States to justify enslaving Black people. In Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Middle Passage. Cudjo’s account details the various false stereotypes white people held about Africans. In the case of the savage stereotype, one of the characteristics is nakedness.
The sweeping generalization of African nakedness does not match the reality Lewis knows. He explains, “We come in de ‘Merica soil naked and de people say we naked savage. Dey say we doan wear no clothes. Dey doan know de Many-costs (Kroo boys) snatch our clothes ‘way from us.” (55). This description unravels the image of the savage for the nonsense that it is when analyzed against the facts. Africans had clothing until they were stripped away by the slavers and their coconspirators. Nakedness is not the only characteristic that the image of the savage tries to push. Another false idea is the notion that Africans were cannibals.
When discussing how his children were treated, Cudjo describes how they were teased and called cannibals: “All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks they picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.” (73) This image proves absurd because Cudjo and his family are far from partakers in human flesh. He had a garden he tended to and grew food which he shared with his family and continued to share with Hurston when she visited him. Cudjo is living proof that the savage stereotype is just that: a stereotype. It is rooted in ignorance and paranoia. This dehumanization of Africans by representing them as cannibals served the purpose of turning white people against Black people in order to justify enslaving and brutalizing them.
The use of false image to create a false perception persists to this day in the United States. Even in the 21st century, our government creates a boogieman in order to instill fear and turn the country against certain groups of people. We see this use of image manipulation in the Trump administration and how they create a false perception with regard to migrant families.
President Donald Trump relies on the image of the Latino gangbanger to stoke the flames of anti-immigration within the United States. When discussing the issue of border security, Trump conjures up MS-13, a gang originating within Los Angeles whose members are mostly of Central American origin. Trump claims that we need to protect our borders from the gang. By constantly mentioning MS-13 in connection to illegal immigration, and conveniently omitting the families that are seeking asylum in the United States from countries racked by violence, Trump creates this false perception that most of our illegal immigrants are gangbangers. Trump takes the anti-immigration rhetoric further by dehumanizing them: “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”  This dehumanization sets the foundation for legitimizing his harsh zero tolerance policy which consisted of separating families and placing illegal immigrants in camps (see also: internment camps). Centuries since the Middle Passage, our country still tries to create a boogieman to instill fear and turn the population against minorities. Before, it was Black people. Now we are experiencing this fear mongering with the specter of MS-13.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies concluded MS-13 does not pose a significant threat to the United States. When discussing the threat level of the gang, Tom Manger, the police chief in Montgomery county, explains, “MS-13 is certainly a threat, just not the one the president is making it out to be.”  This is coming from a police chief working in an area “where the gang has one of its largest concentrations”.  The purpose of inflating the threat is to create a false threat for the country to turn against and legitimize our severe anti-immigration policy. The aftermath of the zero tolerance policy unraveled the MS-13 threat for the bullshit that it was. The recent migrant family separation crisis demonstrates that the people coming in are people just like us, not ruthless gang members intent on harming us.
In order to combat these false images, we need to embrace the practice of Right Thinking. When confronted with an image put forward by the media, ask yourself: “Are you sure?” Is this image rooted in reality? Or is it rooted in ignorance and paranoia? If we do not engage in this practice, we risk being taken for a ride by politicians bent on deception in order to achieve insidious ends.