By: Luke Wiley
Even throughout our country’s comparatively short lifespan, there have been significant developments in the nation’s political and social viewpoints. Within the one hundred-year span between the 1890’s and the 1990’s, one would typically expect there to be a shift in focus of the social sentiment that pervaded the United States. While this is most certainly the case between the two decades, the underlying themes of the citizenry have remained constant. When analyzing the two decades, one notices the similarities that exist between the time periods in terms of feeling towards marginalized groups. While the targeted minorities may have changed from one scapegoat to another over the course of the hundred-year period we have examined, the tendency of the national spotlight to center on groups that are different than the white majority has not faded from view. During the 1890’s, immigration laws and the burgeoning American empire allowed the fear of immigrants entering the country and America’s duty as civilizer of imperially acquired colonies to enter the sphere of social consciousness. During the 1990’s, mass incarceration and the AIDS epidemic coupled with the murder of Matthew Shepard forced the disadvantaged and impoverished black and Latino communities and the socially marginalized gay community into the public eye. The American majoritarian need to “other” ostracized communities has become second nature, shifting the focus from group to group over the course of the hundred years we have examined.
1898 proved to be an extremely significant year when looking at the topic of American empire. It was in this year that Spain ceded many of their holdings in the Caribbean and the Pacific to the United States, with specific news coverage being focused on the bloody conflict for independence in the Philippines. A news article from the Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune on October 18th, 1898 attempted to frame the war in the Philippines not as one of “conquest” but of “liberation and order,” for the purposes of protecting “humanity and civilization.” As suggested by Kristin Hoganson, regardless of the United States veils their attempts at empire building as beneficent, America simply replaced the Spanish colonial masters (Hoganson, 14). The use of the struggle of the native against a colonial oppressor made for excellent reading in the late 19th century, allowing people a look into the lives of exotic communities, inherently “othering” their cultural experience. By crafting the colonial native as someone who needs to be saved, the oppressed can never attain a level of equal status as the American majority.
(“Something Lacking,” 30 July 1898, from John J. Johnson)
(This photo depicts the Philippines as an underdeveloped part of the United States Imperial System. The small nation wonders “where do I come in on this,” referring to his place in the folds of American society and empire. This cartoon visually portrays media “othering”)
The 1990’s presented a much similar problem with a much different demographic. As the decade wore on, an upswing in both crime and mass incarceration occurred throughout the United States. Set up by the Nixon and Regan administration’s War on Drugs, the American prison industrial complex grew at an alarming speed. These disadvantaged communities suffered at the hands of federally funded, brutal police forces that jailed black and Latino bodies at astronomical rates when compared to their white counterparts. However, as reportedon in an article from the Los Angeles Times on October 18th, 1998, the violence enacted on minority populations continued at incomparable degrees in California prisons. The article states that California’s cases of deadly force used to stop prison fights outnumber the entirety of the nation by a ratio 2:1. The article’s focus on minority populations in prisons suggests that these communities have higher rates of incarceration in states like California. The association of marginalized minority to t criminal becomes a pervasive notion throughout the media in the 1990’s, as suggested by the examination of news coverage of the LA Disturbances in Burn Motherfucker, Burn.
The examination of marginalized communities in American media is telling when attempting to create a narrative on the experiences of minorities. When looking at Filipinos (or other colonially acquired nations) in the 1890’s or blacks (and Latinos) in the 1990’s, the prominence of “othering” becomes apparent; crafting an image of the minority as lesser to be used to justify violent or otherwise “civilizing” actions towards them by the majority. The use of this tactic is as old as the Republic itself; the specific group’s focus is what changes as time passes.
As the 19th century wore on, an increasing number of European and Asian immigrants entered the United States, both through legal and illegal means. The national sentiment towards immigrants turned increasingly sour over the course of the latter half of the century with many rigid immigration laws being passed regularly by the United States Congress. With the increase in immigration to the United States, an insidious fear crept into the minds of the white, majority citizens of the nation. With the growing levels of trepidation about what these newly inherited immigrants would do to the country, the national focus shifted towards raising awareness of the invading menace. As witnessed in an article by the North American on October 18th, 1898, there was resentment towards the loose law enforcement regarding immigration. The idea that America was allowing more “undesirables” into the country worried the majority populace. As aresult, the majority population created an “Us vs. Them” mentality, effectively “othering” immigrant communities, pitting themselves against each other. While the immigrant’s attempts at naturalization were oftentimes benevolent, as suggested by members of the Chinese Equal Rights League in their appeal, the white majority saw it as a threat to the American way of life.
The latter half of the 20th century saw an increase in the visibility of the homosexual community on the national stage in the United States. After the events at the Stonewall Inn, the gay liberation movement became much more present and vocal in the media. However, the AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century deepened the fear of homosexuality in the United States, equating the preference to a disease. In this national climate, two men posing as homosexuals lured a young man named Matt Shepard to his death in Laramie, Wyoming. As suggested by David Leavitt, writing for the New York Times, the “hate-mongerers” are taking the place of the declining AIDS virus, killing men that partake in homosexual activity. Leavitt’s piece tries to examine the “hate epidemic” in an effort to make sense of the senseless killing of Matt Shepard and countless other gay men and women in the United States. Leavitt’s article gives a firsthand look at hate towards homosexuals in America, how he cannot hold the hand of his partner in public without fear of death being thrust upon him. Sadly, Matthew Shepard had to die for the nation to look at the way we collectively view homosexuality as an unnatural disease.
(No title, 21 Mar. 2014, from Paul Berge)
(This cartoon portrays one of the most recognizable hate groups in America, the Westboro Baptist Church, searching for the funeral of Matt Shepard. Their protests and slogan “God Hates Fags” became infamous in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. They’re seen here emerging from the sewer, where they belong)
Each of these editorials provides a unique look at disadvantaged groups in their respective decades. Immigrants and homosexuals in America have very little in common when you look at them from a surface standpoint. However, when you examine how they were portrayed in the national spotlight, as unnatural, diseased, and dangerous to American values, the emergence of majority “othering” becomes clear once again.
Arax, Mark, Gladstone, Mark. “Only California Uses Deadly Force in Inmate Fights.”
Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) 18 Oct. 1998: n.p. Web. 17 Nov 2017.
“Investigation of Immigation.” North American (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18 Oct. 1898: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.
Leavitt, David. “The Hate Epidemic.” New York Times (New York City, New York) 18 Oct. 1998: n.p. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.
“Must Give up Philippines.” Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) 18 Oct. 1898: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.