Little Rock community members discuss race, ethnicity, and popular culture

Community members speak at a panel at the Racial Attitudes Conference April 17 in the Jack Stephens Center. The panelists include, from left to right, Stephen Koch, Miguel Lopez, Kara Wilkins, and Jimmy Cunningham Jr. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

When Jimmy Cunningham Jr. once visited Hawaii, a group of Hawaiian children surprised him with their ideas on how black people act. 

“Native Hawaiian children, who had seen popular videos on television and social media, told me what it meant to be black,” Cunningham told an audience of more than 70 people at the Racial Attitudes Conference April 17 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“They said, ‘You got to have attitude; you have to be angry; and you have to be able to tear something up,’” Cunningham said. “I asked the kids, ‘Have you ever seen Oprah tear anything up?’ They said, ‘Well, she doesn’t count.’”

Cunningham, executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, described the encounter during a community panel about the survey results that focused on attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and popular culture in Little Rock.

According to the survey results, a majority of blacks and half of whites say the way blacks are portrayed in television and movies hurts day-to-day public perceptions about racial and ethnic stereotypes. This encounter, Cunningham argued, is proof that the way blacks are portrayed in popular culture influences how black people are perceived by others.

“When you talk about media portrayals, the representation of what it means to be black is impacted profoundly by people who only see what comes across in popular media,” he said. “This was a very eye-opening experience.”

During the survey, the Survey Research Center in the School of Public Affairs interviewed more than 400 white and 400 black people in Little Rock by telephone along with 115 Hispanic respondents. This year’s survey covers a wide range of themes related to popular culture including social relationships, social media, television news, media representations of race and ethnicity, music, residence, and sport protests.

“The survey reveals the very different ways in which Hispanics, blacks, and whites consume and relate to popular culture, as well as demonstrating some common understandings and similarities,” said Dr. John Kirk, director of the UA Little Rock Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity. “Notably, and strikingly, for example, there seems to be a good understanding of and significant support for the NFL ‘take a knee’ protests across racial and ethnic lines.”

In the race, ethnicity, sport, and protest section of the survey, a majority of blacks, Hispanics, and whites believe that the football players’ protests are trying to call attention to racism and unfair police tactics and are not trying to disrespect the military or veterans. A majority of all three groups also think that a professional athlete or team who protests an issue by not standing for the national anthem is demonstrating the freedom the anthem represents.

Another section of the survey the panel discussed was the results on race, ethnicity, and music. Panel member Stephen Koch, writer/host of “Arkansongs,” a weekly radio program examining and celebrating Arkansas music and musicians, was disappointed with the results that showed people in Little Rock often listened to music along ethnic lines.

“We’ve always been told music is a place where our ethnicities don’t matter,” Koch said. “If we are supposed to be sharing culture, we should be sharing our music. Maybe thinking music is a place we can come together is another fallacy.”

The survey results found that whites listen to rock, country, and rhythm and blues music often or sometimes, while blacks listen to gospel, religious music, jazz, rap, and hip hop. Hispanics, meanwhile, listened to gospel, religious music, and salsa or Spanish rock often or sometimes.

“Who are these white people who aren’t listening to jazz, and I know everybody is listening to hip hop!” Koch said. “We can still come together, but we need to start listening to each other’s music.”

Miguel Lopez, Hispanic resource officer for First Community Bank, identified music as one of the avenues that can bring divided communities together.

“We tend to say Little Rock is a very divided city, but where we’re not divided is how we interact,” Lopez said. “It’s music or food or sports that can bring us together. We have those avenues where people can come together and realize that we have a lot more in common than we are different. I think the best way to combat racism and bigotry is to interact together.”

He was also interested in the survey results that showed Hispanics were the most likely of the three ethnic groups to use social networking sites.

“Most Hispanics in Little Rock are first-generation immigrants, so social media is a great avenue for us to stay in touch with loved ones,” Lopez said. “Hispanics are also very entrepreneurially minded, and social media is a great place to boost small businesses.”

In a follow-up remark, panel member Kara Wilkins, communications and community engagement strategist, felt that social media offers black and Hispanic people a community space where they can connect.

“These individuals see a space for themselves on social media that they may not see in their everyday lives,” Wilkins said. “Social media allows minority groups to discuss things among themselves. People feel like they have a community for themselves.”

For more information on the Racial Attitudes Survey, contact the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at 501-569-8932 or race-ethnicity@ualr.edu.

In the upper right photo, community members speak at a panel at the Racial Attitudes Conference April 17 in the Jack Stephens Center. The panelists include, from left to right, Stephen Koch, Miguel Lopez, Kara Wilkins, and Jimmy Cunningham Jr. Photo by Benjamin Krain. 

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