Thursday, March 12, 2009

Will Racial Stereotypes in the Media Intensify as Recession Worsens?

So a good friend of mine suggested I watch American Movie Classic’s (AMC) original drama series, Breaking Bad, which airs every Sunday night. Season one already concluded, but season two just began this past Sunday (3/8/2009). “About the Show” from the AMC website:

Breaking Bad follows protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher who lives in New Mexico with his wife (Anna Gunn) and teenage son (RJ Mitte) who has cerebral palsy. White is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given a prognosis of two years left to live. With a new sense of fearlessness based on his medical prognosis, and a desire to secure his family's financial security, White chooses to enter a dangerous world of drugs and crime and ascends to power in this world. The series explores how a fatal diagnosis such as White's releases a typical man from the daily concerns and constraints of normal society and follows his transformation from mild family man to a kingpin of the drug trade.

In addition to the above description, the drama highlights the fact that White’s annual salary as a school teacher only stands at about $43,000. Moreover, his wife is pregnant, meaning heavier expenses are on the way, and to add more complex, engaging plot twists, his brother in law is a DEA agent. Ahh, a perfect storm of engaging drama!

It should also be noted that the specific drug market he enters is the volatile world of crystal methamphetamine trafficking, and as a producer of this highly addictive substance, his chemistry background is crucial. He even enlists a former chemistry student of his, “Jesse,” to help him in his budding entrepreneurial business.

Having only seen one episode myself, White (played by actor Bryan Cranston) appears the very sympathetic character who has altruistic justification for entering the drug market – providing for his family in the wake of financial and physical despair. And perhaps his last name is no coincidence – White.

White lives in a peaceful suburban New Mexico town and lived a model citizen before falling victim to his physical ailment, his mortgage, the future cost of his son attending college, a baby on the way, and a fairly limited salary. His financial anxieties resonate immensely with the current unease America (and much of the world) feels, furthering our tendency to sympathize with his character.

On the other side of the drug market is the seller, named “Tuco,” who purchases White’s products. Tuco, not surprisingly, is Mexican and extraordinarily violent. From AMC's recap of Season Two, episode one:

After buying meth from Walt at an auto junkyard, Tuco violently attacks No-Doze for presuming to speak for him. Afterwards, he drives away, leaving Walt and Jesse to ponder the danger of their situation. “$737,000,” Walt says, estimating how much he’ll need to provide for his family’s future. In other words: “Eleven more drug deals.”

Moments later Tuco roars back to the junkyard, ordering Walt to perform CPR on an unconscious No-Doze – who dies as a result of the brutal attack. Gonzo, Tuco's other henchman, says they should give his buddy a proper burial, but Tuco orders him to stash the body underneath a stack of old cars.

Jesse is outside his house. "What the hell are you doing here?" Walt says as he approaches Jesse’s car. Then he realizes Tuco is crouched in the back seat with a handgun.

"Get in," Tuco orders.

Visually, Tuco’s attack on No-Doze is indeed extremely violent, rendering his character, as an antagonist to White, very easy to despise. Whereas White is “forced” to enter the crystal meth trade due to his financial crunch and to provide for his family, Tuco is quite simply cast as a viciously sadistic, self-centered dealer, oh, who just happens to be Mexican (I would guess Chicano). At worst, White engages in deviant behaviors, and some might even define his actions as noble.

Conversely, the Mexican Tuco is straight up criminal. The racialized portrayals in Breaking Bad could not play off one another more blatantly. Not that these racist characterizations are anything new (ever see the movie Training Day?), but it is important to keep a pulse on how media-based racism interplays with our ongoing economic woes.

The reality is that most men and women, irrespective of race, who enter the underground economy at the lower levels, including the drug market, do so for the same reasons as Walter White. Philippe Bourgois’s classic ethnography, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, vividly illustrates the financial constraints people of color encounter before turning to the underground economy as a means to survive, that are very much in line with Walter White’s situation in Breaking Bad.

We just wouldn’t know it based off what we see on TV.

(Photos courtesy of

Academics Business Directory - BTS Local Subscribe with Bloglines


  1. You don't know much about the real world, do you, esse?

  2. I think it depends on the attitude or people have, because sometimes racial stereotypes could intensify the the problem depending on the place we living.

  3. and it only gets worse. seasons 3 and 4 are heavy laden with subliminal racial and political messages.

    oh, the white man's burden...