Florida killing shines a harsh light on the power of images

Les Lester
Les Lester: If corporate America can target soft drinks and cigarettes successfully to consumer markets around the globe, why couldn't it cultivate a winning image that our youth can emulate?
Courtesy of Les Lester

Les Lester is the communications chair of the St. Paul NAACP and author of the novel "The Awakening of Khufu."

When I first heard about the Trayvon Martin homicide, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. We hear of the demise of young black men much too often. This incident points to the endemic institutional profiling of African-American men and boys that invariably manifests itself in American life.

Let's brace ourselves, though, because I suspect the more up-to-date photos of Trayvon won't have the social capital of the portraits we've seen. And that bugs me.

If I put on a skull cap and walk down the street, I'm not perceived as so friendly. It's not so much because I've changed, but because people's perceptions of me have changed.

Meanwhile, a photo of George Zimmerman that makes him look more like a businessman is beginning to make the rounds and will likely gain more prominence as the details of the case emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Whatever his image, Zimmerman should have followed the 911 dispatcher's advice and stayed put. This case is threatening to reach a boiling point reminiscent of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson. The far right will attempt to chop down the slain teenager's character at every turn. And the left will want a media narrative that fits neatly into its ideal.

The 911 audio seems to support the left — Zimmerman had a concealed weapon, and based on his responses to the operator he left his vehicle and accosted Trayvon Martin. For that he may pay dearly, but it won't be any worse than the treatment Trayvon has already received.

It wounded my pride as a teenager when elder women would clutch their purses when my friends and I approached on the street, but I understood. People perceive you first by what they see on the outside, via certain cultural cues such as clothing and speech. Imagine how much worse it must be for teens today.

Too often, young people are walking manifestations of Madison Avenue advertising campaigns. If they see and hear the messages enough, they'll unconsciously buy into them. The lifestyles and accompanying fashions go hand in hand. So who are the real culprits in putting our youth at risk? Are they really the susceptible young people themselves?

If corporate America can target soft drinks and cigarettes successfully to consumer markets around the globe, why couldn't it cultivate a winning image that our youth can emulate? It can be done if we have the will to do it. All too often, people from the advertising agencies and the corporate media don't seem to care. But the youth they meet in the streets are the products of the information flow they produce.

General Electric owns NBC and MSNBC; Westinghouse owns CBS; Time Warner commands CNN and AOL; and Sony heads Columbia Records and Epic Records. These lists shift and change, but ultimately these firms represent the image makers of the world. Corporations must begin to recognize their power as the true information conduits of society. When kids leave school, they're still being tutored by a corporate culture that must become more responsive to the needs of those they affect so powerfully.

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