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Cultural Fear

The 1 L.A. riots that devastated not only parts of the city, but many Americans who thought racial tensions had declined, were a manifestation of cultural fear. Cultural fear is inherent in every culture, and can be defined as a fear which that culture holds towards another. In the case of the riots, it was a black fear that a white dominated judicial system had again discriminated against them, and this fear led to the general uprising in protest. While this protest manifested itself rather violently, other forms of protest exist in all cultures in a more subdued manner. These quieter protests can be seen where tension exists between the cultures. Cultural fear manifests itself where one culture is given reason to fear another, and is often expressed verbally as a way of protesting the cause of the fear.

The protests do not serve just the function of a protest though. They also serve to act as a unifying form of expression around which the people in the culture can rally. They enumerate the fears of the people and help the culture define its fears. Sobek notes this when she explains several of the reasons that the Mexican immigrants write canciones and corridos. She claims the songs act as symbolic reflections of the struggles of the immigrants, in addition to being a platform via which they can express their concerns and fears. The songs are also motivational in their purpose, since they unify and try to convince the people to overcome the problem. Cultural fear is expressed in this protest, and is part of the motivation for the protest.

Patricia Turner remarks that during the Atlanta Child Murders many African -Americans felt a preoccupation with the unexplained murders. Her reason for this preoccupation is that the murders touched on a cultural fear within the black community, namely that of racism. The fact that many illustrious personages felt close connections to the events, though separated by in some cases thousands of miles, shows how the fear of the murders manifested itself throughout the African-American culture. This preoccupation with the murders, and the desperate attempts to discover their cause can be explained by the deep-seated fear with which many blacks viewed the whites involved in the case.

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This fear of racist forces at work during the case displayed itself through numerous rumors which appeared in the black community. Turner attributes the emergence and dissemination of the rumors to a desperate need for information within the community. While the primarily white news sources showed the progress or lack thereof in the case, at the community level rumors spread which gave non-official explanations of the murders. Turner believes the black communities mistrust of a predominantly white media helped give rise to the popularity of the rumors. These verbal rumors were not only explanations of the crisis, but served to express the fears of the black community.

Turner claims that it was the unofficial news which had the greatest impact among the African-Americans. In her view, once the community had confirmed the crimes against their population, speculation ran rampant and possible assailants and motives were created. The focus on anti-black groups expressed the preoccupying fear of the blacks towards these groups. Turner points out that the KKK was the primary suspect in the murders, and adds that the Klan has often been cited by the black community as a plausible source of conspiracy (7) This is an expression of cultural fear, where the rumor elucidates what many blacks feel to be a primary source of concern.

Was the black community in this situation given reason to fear that the white community, or white supremacist groups had anything to do with the murders? The answer is yes, and because they had a compelling reason they expressed their cultural fear of this. Turner points out that one of the prosecution witnesses involved in the trial of Wayne Williams, the only person incarcerated in connection with the murders, had both connections to the KKK and to one of the murder victims. Thus it makes sense for the black community to revive their traditional fear of the KKK in connection with the murders.

Turner cites several rumors which appeared in connection to the murders, all of which tend to focus on a group which at some point promoted anti-black activity. Since it is natural to fear groups which have at some point in the past participated in activities harmful to others within the culture, it is no surprise that the rumors included these groups. Other popular rumors implicated the FBI, CIA, or the American government, and Turner adds that these rumors often were connected to the bodies being used in medical experiments. She explains convincingly that the black perceptions of the FBI were integral in associating the enforcement agency with the murders. The FBI earned a negative image under Hoover, and retained it in the Atlanta Child Murders by playing often controversial rolls. Their image was tarnished by the fact that the officers sent to investigate were predominantly white. In addition Turner says the FBI made antagonistic comments, criticized the local law enforcement community, and publicly accused several of the victims own families, as well as pressed for the arrest of a black suspect. This brought about the reemergence of the FBI as an anti-black institution, which culminated in their inclusion in the oral rumors.

The black communities use of rumors to express their fears and concerns about the Atlanta Child Murders is part of a larger, more global use of verbal traditions to express fears. Maria Herrera-Sobek analyzes the Mexican immigrants reactions and fears towards immigration via their Canciones and Corridos. The songs and ballads are, according to Sobek, expressions of the attitudes and reactions of the immigrants as they face innumerable hardships. (87) The innumerable hardships can also be understood as their fears in this case, whereby the immigrants are expressing several intimidating concerns.

This verbal response is the reaction of Mexican immigrants to United States immigration policies. Sobek gives several examples of songs which deal with immigration to the United States and shows how the songs express a distinct fear or concern. The popularity of the songs she attributes to a need in the community to contemporize the events and make them meaningful to continuing immigrant experiences. The songs serve the function of revealing the fears within the culture and help the people to define those fears.

Sobek divides the songs into three distinct categories, the quest for the mica (green card), tension with the border patrol, and the place of the coyotes or smugglers of the immigrants. Each of these three categories is in and of itself an expression of a different fear each immigrant experiences. There is the fear of not obtaining a green card, and thus facing almost certain deportation. The border patrol is also grounds for fear, since they are the deporters and simultaneously the police. The smugglers produce enough fear that they have even been given the name coyote and are often seen as con men.

The Mexican immigrants have dealt with these fears much in the same way the black community did with the Atlanta child murders. They have created a verbal way of expressing their fears and concerns, using a traditional form of verbal communication, namely the songs. The songs serve not only to elucidate the fears of the immigrants, but are also a way of protesting the treatment which they are given by the American government. The dissemination of the songs has helped to create a common resource for the immigrants to grasp onto. The songs serve not only to represent the immigrants fears verbally, but also to create a common format which allows the immigrants to be heard.

Sobek talks briefly about how the corridos were used in the 160s by Cesar Chavez to promote the workers cause and help them unionize. This directly linked the songs with a form of protest, which has become a function of the songs ever since. It also stimulated the writing and producing of many more of the songs, and helped the songs gain a foothold as the traditional form of expression. (8) What has happened in the case of the canciones and corridos is that the songs not only express the peoples fears, they also serve as a way of informing the other culture what those fears are, and help the Mexican immigrant to unify.

The black community used the rumors as a way to unite as well. Turner says at one point that the reason the rumors grew was because the black community as a whole was starved for information about the murders, and these murders filled a necessary role in supplying information, whether logical or not. In addition, she blames the mistrust with which the white media was viewed as contributing to the need for information from unofficial sources. Yet I feel she is closer to the true reason the rumors were so pervasive when she writes that the rumors acted as a motivating source for black unity and helped create a national movement in response to the murders. (include green ribbons)

The black community seems to also use rumor as a way on conveying to the whites what their fears are. While not publicly displaying the rumors, these verbal protests are a way to gauge the black communities reactions and fears. Turner gives an explanation and rational for each rumor she presents in her essay, and points out how many of the rumors are dependent upon news that has reached the black community. For instance, in the rumor concerning interferon, where the belief was that the bodies were being used to extract a drug for medicines, the popularity of the rumor depended on the number of people who knew about interferon. Thus one could literally watch, based on the rumors, which fears were affecting the blacks most.

What is hardest to see are the various functions that these rumors serve. Not only do they disseminate traditional fears within the community, but they provide an outlet for those fears. Turner states, Circulating these rumors among themselves, African-Americans are seeking to gain some measure of control over threats to their presence and status in a hostile environment. (85) The Atlanta child murders served as a catalyst to reprovoking those fears, and, as Turner says, the rumors provided a way of coping with the fears.

The canciones and corridos that Sobek works with serve much the same function of releasing the tensions and fears which the immigrants have. The songs about obtaining a mica are not just expressions of a desire to obtain a green card. Rather they also clarify fear of future deportation through the medium of song. Sobek writes, The dream of all undocumented workers is to legalize their status in the United States...and so as not to fear (emphasis added) later deportation. (1) The explicit statement of the fears in the songs serves to render them less ominous and formidable, and allows the immigrant to gain a small measure of control over their own status in a hostile environment.

Often the explicit statement of the fear is accompanied by a form of humor which renders the fear slightly less ominous. In the case of the songs which Sobek uses, many have elements of humor which attempt to make the border patrol appear foolish, or are about tricking someone only to be tricked in turn. In the Atlanta child murder rumors this element of humor is conspicuously absent, which is only natural considering the nature of the events.

The use of the rumors to help mobilize blacks throughout America is probably their greatest contribution. The fact that they renewed the traditional fears of the black community, and in some cases create new fears, acted as a driving force towards unification of the collective groups everywhere. The same impact was achieved when Cesar Chavez used the Mexican immigrants songs to promote the unionization efforts back in the 160s. The songs served as a unifying medium by establishing the fears the people had, and giving them a point around which not only to rally, but also to express themselves.

Turner quotes Terry Knopf, a rumor theorist, as arguing that rumors foster a culture of their own, which includes its own leadership and mobilization. He continues to say to that the rumors can provide a form of proof which leads to mass activism. In the case of both the black community and the Mexican immigrants his ideas hold true. Both cultures used their forms of verbal expression to unify themselves, to clarify their fears, and to act in a concerted manner in an attempt to counteract the fears. In the case of the black community this was harder to do because the cause of the murders, and thus the fears, was unknown. The immigrants have the advantage of a distinct and clear cut enemy with whom to take issue, in the form of the U.S. Government.

Sobek feels that the use Chavez made of protest songs was aided by the popularity of protest songs in general during the 160s and 170s. While this is probably true, the songs had existed long before then as protest songs, and have continued to do so ever since. The fact that the songs were written then and continue now is a sign that they are not written only due to popular demand, but rather to express the feelings of the people. The songs are a rallying point for the people and are necessary for the culture as a way to release its fears.

The similarities between these two cultures must also be analyzed to understand how the cultural fears of both have led to such similar forms of verbal protests. The blacks faced many long years of suppression within the United States, and immediately reached to that fact when constructing the rumors. The Mexican immigrants are currently fighting a form of suppression, in their inability to gain working status, and have used that as their protest.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas as quoted by Turner argues that symbols of group conflict are frequently revealed in forms that emphasize the human body. This can be seen in both groups where the bodies are the focus tensions. Within the black community there was the fear that the bodies were used for testing or for drug production. The Mexican immigrant community saw the body as a way of discriminating against them. In the song Superman is an Illegal Alien they point out the hypocrisy of the American government in letting Superman in simply because He is fair-skinned, Blue-eyed, And has a great physique. Both groups use the bodies as a source of fear since they are discriminated against due to their bodies. Thus it makes sense that they would eventually focus on the body as being a symbol of their fear.

While other fears obviously underlie both cultures, it is the direct cultural conflict which brings out certain fears. The fears of genocide or of being extradited in these two different cultures have led to the same response; a verbal protest of the real or perceived atrocities affecting the cultures. This verbal response is the manifestation of the deeper cultural fears inherent in the communities, which rose in response to the circumstances in which the culture was placed. The cultural fears cannot go away until the tensions creating them disappear. The cultural fears can however be analyzed via the verbal protests which express them, and help us better understand how the culture feels and reacts.


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