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Book Review: Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority

In an African-American-run school system, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by advertising pioneer Tom Burrell, would be required reading with elements starting in the 6th grade and increasingly deeper analysis through high school.
The results would be young people who shop less, think more and don’t aspire to be studs or sluts and be far less fertile ground for marketers. These would be children that would begin to reshape the economy of New York by creating and shopping at African-American-owned businesses, circulating their dollars in the African-American community. They would be interested in forming trade relationships with African nations.  Comedians who make their living laughing at dysfunction would fall victim to a dwindling audience for humor found in the result of slavery trauma.
These young people would look at the gyrations and lyrics of current music videos and recognize the lineage is from a time of shackles and whips and find their amusement elsewhere.
These young people would not kill each other or practice other forms of slow suicide by neglect of mind, body or spirit.  These would be young people who would know the value of building strong families and they would understand  and overcome the obstacles to building and maintaining families.
These would be young people who would turn away from mass media and tune into and create Internet programming that informs and builds African people worldwide.
But this is not a school system that will be put in place by Chancellor Joel Klein or Mayor Michael Bloomberg.   Were we in an unbrainwashed state of mind, Bill Thompson would be Mayor; Charles Barron, City Council Speaker and a Chancellor Lester Young would have like-minded parents to work with and the world around us would begin to reflect that consciousness.
But we are still saddled with the cause of Harriet Tubman’s lament: “I could have freed more if only they knew they were slaves.”  But after reading Mr. Burrell’s book, you can’t say “I didn’t know.”
Mr. Burrell was not someone who sat by the door in the advertising industry.  A member of the Advertising Hall of Fame, he built his award-winning agency by “revolutionizing the image of African-Americans on television and changing the face of American advertising.”
During his 45 years in the industry, it was his job to understand the down-to-the-bone cues that cause people to do what they do.   Armed with that understanding, he then created marketing campaigns that play on inner emotions, causing buyers to make what they thought of as their own “decision” when actually they were doing as they had been told to do by a group of people who had sat in an office months before.
Mr. Burrell’s part of the business was the African-American market, which is a lucky thing for us because too much of it has fallen into the wrong hands.  Seeing how these techniques worked, Burrell was able to see that an earlier campaign had been waged, planting the myth in the society so that a people could be subjugated and a profit could be made.
In his book, Burrell shows the connecting links between slavery-induced trauma and current spending patterns, sexual self-image, relationships, health and the myth of black inferiority.
Speaking of the reasons people buy, he writes, “For too many of us, our minds are on long-term disability while our emotions are pulling double shifts.”   An example can be found in the humor of what Burrell calls the “Neo-Coons”,  comedians such as Katt Williams, D. L. Hughley, Bernie Mac and the like.  “Humor has become our way of coping with our sense of degradation.  And nothing is off the table-we laugh about slavery, we joke about lynching, and chuckle about police brutality or the shooting of unarmed black men.
“Can you visualize any other oppressed group joking about its own oppression?  Imagine if Jewish comedians incessantly used the work kike  or told concentration camp jokes.  Why, there would be  a crisis alert among Jews.  Public and behind-the-scenes pressure would be mobilized immediately to call out the offensive Jewish comedians’ material or swiftly end their careers.”
After telling us how we became brainwashed, he says that this belief of Black Inferiority was instilled by a process that “used every institution of American society, including media, education, law, religion and science to seed and promote its propaganda.  The major difference between the past and now is that the campaign is more sophisticated, insidious and pervasive than ever.  Most critically, its major perpetrators are black, not whites.”
Showing the steps leading out of this morass, Mr. Burrell uses as his “springboard” the four-step mandate of historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke: “Question, Analyze, Rethink and Unplug.”  He says that “Clarke didn’t need any media literacy training when he called for a plan to counteract white corporate media’s brainwashing campaign.”
With awareness being the first step, Burrell says in order to interpret the daily barrage of media messages, we have to ask three basic questions: “Does it hurt black self-esteem?”  “Does it help black self-esteem?”  “Does it have no effect on black self-esteem?”
He offers 10 antidotes to End Mental Slavery Today, the first of which is “recognize and acknowledge that you have been brainwashed.”  And then moves on to develop a Campaign to Change Black Minds.
Mr. Burrell names his campaign the “New B’s”, although personally I think “New G’s would have better street cred, and then outlines the plan to “examine positive propaganda as the means to replace the myth of our inferiority with the reality of our greatness.”     David Mark Greaves
Our 3-part interview with Mr. Burrell begins in this issue.

Thomas J. Burrell Speaks

Our Time Press: To begin I thought you’ve given us an important filter through which to look at the culture.
What relationship does brainwashing have to problems we have here in Brooklyn such as escalating violence among young people, being the epicenter of health problems such as diabetes, AIDS, obesity, a 50% high school graduation rate and Depression-era unemployment rates?
Burrell: Well, I think what you’re talking about is the cause-and-effect relationship between these problems and the brainwashing we’ve been a part of. In Brooklyn, Chicago and everywhere else there is pretty much the same thing: that we have generations of untreated trauma and the result of a continuation of propaganda selling us on the myth of black inferiority, that it is continuously propagated through the media and reinforced.  We have allowed that to go on and we ignore the role that media and propaganda plays in keeping us at the bottom of just about every good list and at the top of just about every bad list.
We put a lot of emphasis on the symptoms, put a lot  of emphasis on indirect surface solutions to deep-seated problems that we dare not go near.  The real source of the problem has to do with race-based self-esteem deficiency that is caused by centuries of getting the message that we are less than- not as good as- less than human.
This country, in its formation as a democracy, determined that they needed slavery, which is a real contradiction if there ever was one. Slavery in order to have a democracy.   So the question came up, what are we going to do about this? Well, someone had a brilliant solution; that solution was “let’s just say that these people aren’t human, that they are less than human beings”; and someone said, “Well, if we are going to say that, we better sell it.” And thus began the most important and powerful marketing communication campaign in our history, the selling of the myth of black inferiority.
So when you talk about what’s happening in Brooklyn, you’re talking about what’s happening in America.   You may have spikes in Brooklyn, you may have spikes in Chicago, where we are having a tremendous problem with that struggle, black-on-black crime.  Right now, black homicide is rampant and as you say when you talk about the 50% dropout rate you’re not talking about Brooklyn, you’re talking about the United States, you’re talking about cities all over the country. I think New Jersey is interestingly above 50% and I think they’re graduating 65%.  But by and large, 50% is a norm.  Black men in particular are suffering here.  There are those who do not finish high school, at least not on time, and there is something to be said for the quality of the education for those who do finish and there is something to be said for those who finish and don’t go any further.
The high school graduation level is now becoming the equivalent of grammar school 8th grade education.

OTP: Speaking of education, we’ve had a lot of community control issues here in New York and right now the education system is controlled by well-meaning white males. Based on your analysis, does it matter who’s in control of the education of African-Americans?
Burrell: What matters is that given the fact that we have learned white superiority and black inferiority, as whites have learned the concept of white superiority and white privilege, it’s symbolically important that black people, particularly black kids, see black role models. If you constantly see nothing but white people in charge, what you are learning is that white people are in charge. Thus, by implication, black people are incapable of being in charge.
So it is very important that black people in positions step up and be present in the development of young black people and I don’t blame the white people who basically wind up being in those positions. I blame black people for abdicating.   For handing it over and we do that in so many ways.  If we’ve got a problem, we’re constantly looking at what we (in media marketing) call “the external locus of control” as opposed to the “internal locus of control”; I mean the external locus of control says that we need somebody other than ourselves to help us. The internal locus of control says that we can solve our own issues and work on our own problems.  And with 41 million people who are African-Americans in this country with almost a trillion dollars in spending power, it is true that we can do it, if we could ever believe we could do it.  It’s like Harriet Tubman said about runaway slaves: “I’d have been able to free more if they knew they were slaves.”  We’re in the same situation, we don’t know the extent in which we’ve been brainwashed.

You spoke earlier of black inferiority being used to reinforce and justify slavery, done informally if you will, and now with the work of Edward Bernays (author of Propaganda and called the father of public relations) and the whole understanding of marketing, are we now subjected to a scientific brainwashing?
Burrell: Well, I don’t know how scientific it has to be any more.  It was so systematically embedded in our psyches, both black and white, that we took it on and passed it down institutionally and we basically are well-trained, on both sides, to keep it going.  We learn things from previous generations and we’re not talking about ancient history with American chattel slavery. We had slave narratives since as late as 1933.   So it’s fresh and it’s new and the Slave Codes that were developed in the 1600’s are basically still being followed out. We still abide by so many of the learnings that we had, that our ancestors had, that was passed down to us.  If you don’t treat an illness, you can’t expect it to just go away.   We have a deep-seated malignancy that was put in us and we are just hoping, on both sides, that it would just go away.  Because between the shame on one side and the guilt on the other, nobody wants to really talk about it.  All we really want to do is talk about talking about it and we play this game, doing this dance, dancing around the subject because it’s too painful to go at directly.

OTP: In terms of going at it directly, it sounds almost like performing brain surgery on yourself. How you do it is based on who you are.   What are the mechanisms to help us with this unbrainwashing?
Burrell:  As I’ve said in some of my writings on the blog (, we have to stop talking about talking to each other in racial groups because talking to each other is like asking two paranoid schizophrenics to sit down and talk about solving problems for their mental illness.   What we have to do is we have to have the least damaged of us, on either side, talk to the most damaged of us, on both sides.   That means that for those of us who have been fortunate enough to see the light, and I immodestly put myself in that position at the age of 71 after 45 years of working in the area of propaganda as an African-American, we have to reach out and speak to these issues and educate.
The least attended-to means, the reason for this helplessness and the myth of black inferiority, is media and media propaganda. We talk about we have to clean up the streets, we have to get more police and we’ve got to have more parental involvement, and we’ve got to have the church more involved and we’ve got to have the teachers and the schools more involved, and mentors and community centers. All of that pales by comparison to the power of the bombardment of negative media messages.
We have to understand that images and words are the most powerful means by which to influence and control attitudes and behaviors, so it is not what your parents tell you, it is not what your minister tells you, it is what you are bombarded with twenty-four/seven through the media.
Your parents aren’t determining what you buy, what you want as a child. Television and major corporations are raising our children.
You come to mother and say, “Hey, I got to get this kind of pair of shoes.” Where’d you get that from? You didn’t get it from your parents. They’re the responders. They’re listening, “What do my kids want?” We (in the media) are telling them what they want and what to look at and how to behave and how to act.   We, the media, are doing that and we do it in everyway with every demographic and psychographic pocket of the African- American community and the non-African-American community.

OTP: Knowing how that operation works,  what were the day-to-day experiences in the 45 years that made you say, “I should write a book about this”?
Burrell: Well, you know I spent that
time learning about African-Americans and what made us buy what we buy and how we were motivated to buy, and that’s where I got my education. It started with learning why we spend all of our money.  And why we spend our money on the things that we spend our money on.  Which, basically, is just about one hundred percent constituted by meaningless goods that are conspicuous. And we conspicuously work to say that in a materialistic society, since we have all this material that we wear and are adorned with and that we drive, we must be somebody. We are somebody.  This is our attempt to buy our somebody-ness in America.  We learn that in the process of trying to figure out how to sell things to African-Americans.   Why we spend our money while other groups invest money, save money, make things to sell to us and we become the scavengers of this society.   What we do is we make less and we spend it all.  And that is our role.
So after learning that, I started to look at other aspects and say why are we stuck at the bottom of the good list and on top of the bad list. I didn’t get a chance to really delve deeply into it until after I left the company about 5-6 years ago.  That’s when I decided I was going to really try to get to what is it that is keeping us in this subjugated position. Having us languish at the bottom of the good list and at the top of the bad list and that’s why I started to look at all the areas where we lag behind, and was able to link all the issues that we have back to slavery and back to how we were brainwashed initially by the myth of black inferiority and that is reflected in every chapter.
Next week Part Two: “It’s time to try something new, because what we have been doing is not working.”

Mr. Burrell will be at a book-signing at Le Grand Dakar Restaurant, September 25th. At Grand Avenue between Lafayette and Clifton Pl., Brooklyn.

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