How Racism Harms White Americans. Directed by Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013. 52 minutes.

City of Trees. Directed by Brandon Kramer. Brooklyn: Cinema Guild, 2015. 76 minutes.

Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class. Directed by Loretta Alper. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2005. 62 minutes.

Reviewed by Loretta Lees

It has been really helpful for me to have spent the last three months in the United States before writing this review, as every time I come here I spend time comparing British and American society (of course neither is perfect by any stretch of the imagination). One thing that struck me this time round is the feeling that everything here is so dictated by a “past-its-sell-by-date (still quite Fordist) capitalist system,” from the way that sports (the lifeline to a college scholarship) are the only things asked about at my daughter's middle school (she has completed a term here and there was no mention of anything academic), to the unhealthy (hormone- and sugar-pumped) food on offer, to the push to go to university at a time when there are fewer and fewer jobs for graduates, to a hanging on to “being middle class” where folk are just getting by and are really working class. The three films I have been asked to review sit in this Trumpian landscape of decline, class/race/gender conflict/despair, and uncertainty, to different degrees.

I will certainly be using How TV Frames the Working Class for teaching as it fits really well in my advanced undergraduate course, “Cultural Landscapes in North America,” in which I discuss the role of television in constructing the American dream and American identity. This film demonstrates clearly and concisely (connecting subtly to social theory) the class war that has long been enacted in the United States, the complexities of race, class, and gender in both the industrial (Fordist) and post-industrial economy that has long represented the working classes as useless, cultural outcasts, lazy, or stupid. I especially appreciate that these representations explain the way class is shown as a lifestyle choice rather than an economic condition, choosing to eat Wonder Bread over a $5 granary (or wheat) loaf. It also shows the working classes as the scapegoats for economic problems (also called “loser TV”; e.g., shows like The Simpsons and Married with Children). Outing the political and cultural ideologies that frame these TV representations of class is done very effectively, especially in relation to the American dream (i.e., anyone can make it and, if you don’t, there is something wrong with you!).

The discussion of the nexus of class and race is effective too, but I would have liked a deeper critique. The film justifies the use of race as a substitute to talk about class—even though the majority of poor people are white—by citing the fact that most people in the American prison system are black. But I needed to hear more analysis of the multiracial trailer trash depicted on Jerry Springer, and other ethnic groups—Latino, Asian, etc.—were rather tagged-on the end of the program. The fact that many of the characters on these TV shows know what is going on but cannot do anything about it, I find depressing, but clearly this is the impact of the dominance of “the system.”

I will also be using How Racism Harms White Americans because it does something that my lectures do not: it shows how racism has harmed and continues to harm white Americans. What I love about this lecture by John Bracey is how it looks at the treatment of black (and low-income white) people over time, revealing the damage caused by racism. Even better, it links earlier patterns of racism to contemporary right-wing Christianity in the United States viz. the twin pillars of white supremacy and patriarchy. This is a must-see for all college students in these Trumpian times. The talk makes clear that the advances in race and gender that have been made since the 1960s and 1970s are being undermined as we speak, anticipating an analysis in the New York Times about Hulu’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale being a fundamentalist regime—in which women are the property of men and the state, similar to contemporary trends in the United States.1 The talk also makes some important points about the message, “if you see something you don’t like, kill it,” and how such a mind-set cannot continue in this post-empire world. Like in How TV Frames the Working Class, the construction of the dangerous black body is shown to be racist to its core. Connecting back to earlier critics of slavery and black segregation (Alexis de Tocqueville, W. E. B. DuBois, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin), Bracey underlines his arguments well.

Whilst not all white folk may see how racism affects them, black folk do, and City of Trees shows this in interesting ways. The documentary set in Washington, DC’s, Ward 8 shows white liberals helping poor inner-city black people (including ex-offenders) through a tree-planting program that involves paid “green” training. The paternalism of the white director and his lack of knowledge about how he might offend a long-standing black community on the ground by starting to plant trees in their neighborhood without asking them is painful to watch. The white woman who chastises the black “green trainees” for not calling the police when a man pulls a gun on them as they are about to plant trees forgets the history of the police with respect to black communities and the intricacies of survivability in black neighborhoods where violence may be an everyday issue. And equally disturbing is the fact that discussion about how to follow up after planting the trees does not consider the well-being of the people themselves or the black graduates of the program (underlining the disposability of low-income black people). Surely liberal white Americans can do better than that? I will use City of Trees to teach my master’s students about “working with, not on, communities” and to forge discussion about survivability under conditions of daily poverty and economic uncertainty, where “keeping it together” for yourself and your family is practically impossible.

1 Clyde Haberman, “With a Groundbreaking Handbook and a Dystopian Tale, Women Gain a Voice,” New York Times, September 12, 2017.

Loretta Lees is a professor of human geography at the University of Leicester, UK. She is an urban geographer who is internationally known for her research on gentrification/urban regeneration, global urbanism, urban policy, urban public space, architecture, and urban social theory. She has co-organized The Urban Salon: A London Forum for Architecture, Cities and International Urbanism since 2009 and the Leicester Urban Observatory since 2016. She is also a scholar-activist who works with low-income groups fighting social cleansing in London where she lives. Her partner and two daughters are US citizens, and as a family they spend time each year in the United States.