Race: The story we are not telling

lpitts@MiamiHerald.comJuly 27, 2013 

Eight years ago, a storm came barreling through the Gulf of Mexico and smashed the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of Waveland. It buckled roads in the city of Biloxi, it ripped the city of Bogalusa. And it absolutely smashed the city of New Orleans.

Eight years later, the images from that time feel as if they happened in someone else’s nightmare. But they were real. The bodies floating in the canals were real. The dead woman in the wheelchair covered by a sheet was real. The people trapped in the heat and stench of the Super Dome were real. The people sweltering in their attics as the floodwaters rose were real. The people making camp on the highways and bridges were real. The people looting, the people wading through chest-high waters in search of bread and diapers, were real.

Real, too, was the sense of surprise, of abject shock, with which the nation and their news media realized an astonishing thing. There are poor people in America. Indeed, it turns out there are people in America so desperately poor that they lack the means even to run to higher ground in the face of a killer storm. They don’t have cars. They don’t have credit cards. They don’t have the things that the rest of us are able to take for granted.

As an Illinois senator named Barack Obama put it, "I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

For a brief moment, the astonishing news that there is poverty in America seemed to galvanize the news media. We wondered how in the heck we could have missed this. Newsweek responded with a cover story: The Other America. The public editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution chastised the paper for dedicating a reporter to coverage of the zoo and the aquarium, but none to cover welfare and public housing. A reader wrote the New York Times to express disappointment in that paper’s failure to bring attention to poverty. “As a close reader of The Times and of poverty trends,”’ he said, “I was surprised to learn of the poverty conditions that prevailed in New Orleans. Why didn’t the economic-social-racial conditions in New Orleans get some attention in the paper?”

’’The Times,” he added, “let us down.’’

The Times, or at least its public editor, agreed, writing: “Poverty so pervasive that it hampered evacuation would seem to have been worthy of The Times’ attention before it emerged as a pivotal challenge two weeks ago.” The paper’s coverage, he added, “falls far short of what its readers have a right to expect of a national newspaper.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there arose a consensus in American journalism that we had done a terrible job of covering poverty. I am here to tell you that we have done an equally abysmal job of covering race.

Many of us, I suspect, will resist that characterization. They will point to the attention given the furor over Paula Deen, the Henry Louis Gates affair and the subsequent “beer summit,” the headlines out of Jena, Louisiana, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the opening of the Martin Luther King monument on the Washington Mall, the sliming of Shirley Sherrod. And, yes, they will point to the wall-towall coverage given the shooting of Trayvon Martin – especially this week, as Martin’s assailant was acquitted and the nation grappled with the aftermath.

But that is not covering race. That is covering the tragedies, dramas and sideshows that periodically arise from race. We are always there when the circus comes to town. And even then, it turns out our attention is surprisingly fickle. Last year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism posted an analysis which found that, with the notable exception of the Trayvon Martin case, news media tend to drop stories with racial implications with surprising quickness. According to Pew, for instance, during the week of March 17th 2008, the story of Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory comments consumed 17 percent of the news hole nationally. The following week, it dropped to 3 percent. The week of July 19th 2010, Shirley Sherrod represented 14 percent of the news hole, the following week, she was two. Stories related to race, according to Pew, tend to have little staying power.

The reason we tend to drop race like a hot potato, I think, is that, contrary to what some of my readers contend, we in the news media draw our members from the ranks of the human race. And human beings, particularly in this country with its fraught history of slavery, violence, suppression, exclusion and murder, often find race a very difficult subject to talk about.

But again, it’s not even race that we tend to cover but, rather, the aftermath of race – the incidents that race creates the circus of race. So what do I mean, then, by race?

If you read the first of the two columns I wrote in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, you may remember that I made reference to a social experiment I once saw on television. What Would You Do? is one of those hidden camera shows in which they set up a situation and watch to see how average people respond. In the segment I wrote about, a young white actor sets to work trying to steal a chained up bicycle in a park. He uses a hacksaw, a bolt cutter and even an electric saw. The cameras watch for an hour. A hundred people pass by. A few mildly question what he’s doing, but most don’t even bother. Out of that 100 people, only one couple calls authorities. ABC also tried the setup with an attractive blonde woman. Five white guys stopped – and helped her steal the bike.

It was when they did the experiment with a black kid that things got interesting. And you know where this is going. Within the first minutes, there’s a crowd of people around him. They challenge him.

They lecture him. They whip out cell phone cameras and take video of him for use in court. They call the police. And afterward, when they are asked if the color of the young man stealing the bike had any bearing on their actions, they all swear it did not.

As one man put it, “Not at all. He could’ve been any color, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.”

So when you ask yourself what I mean by “race,” I mean that. That is race.

And can we pause and just deal with that for a moment? Ask yourself what it means that, after an experiment that demonstrates with stark clarity the dimensions of racial bias, that man can assure us all race had nothing to do with his decision to harass the black kid and that he absolutely would have given the same treatment to the white one. We know from watching the video that he very likely would not.

The point is not that that man is lying. Far from it. The point is that he is telling the truth as he understands it. How can he be guilty of racial discrimination? He doesn’t burn crosses on people’s lawns. He doesn’t post Whites Only signs in his place of business. Black people are welcome at his house, as Archie Bunker once put it, through the front door as well as the back. So there is no way he looked at that black kid in the park and committed racial profiling. This is his truth. Race had nothing to do with it.

It is a statement of self-delusion that finds its echo all throughout the Trayvon Martin case. Race had nothing to do with my shooting him, said George Zimmerman. Race had nothing to do with our letting Zimmerman go, said the police department. Race had nothing to do with our acquittal said the jury.

And yes, I am well aware that Trayvon’s parents also said the same thing. Race had nothing to do with our son’s death.

Before I explain what the difference is, let me tell you a story. Three years ago, an 18-year-old black kid named Tyell Morton, sneaked into his high school in Rushville, Ind., wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He left a mysterious package in the girl’s restroom. The package turned out to be a blow-up doll. It was the last day of school and this was a senior prank.

For this prank, Tyell, an A and B student with no criminal record and dreams of college, was arrested and jailed on a $30,000 bond and initially charged with terroristic mischief. Prosecutors eventually came to their senses and dropped the felony charges but before they did, Tyell was facing eight years behind bars.

When this happened, a woman a letter to the editor of the Rushville Republican newspaper. "I want and need someone to PLEASE tell me,” she said, “this case is not going to become a huge deal because of RACE!” She capitalized “race” and followed it with an exclamation point, adding, “I feel very strongly that skin color had nothing to do with these charges ..."

Tyell’s father told me in an interview that he didn’t want it to be about race either. He explained that Rushville is a small, predominantly white town, that most of his son’s friends are white and that most of those who contributed to raise the $3000 needed to bail Tyell out were also white. So he did not, he told me repeatedly, want race to “cloud” matters. “My son’s life,” he said, “is more important than some racial issue that people can’t seem to get over. That’s what I want to focus on, man."

But I pushed him on it. I asked him point blank if he thought his son would be in jeopardy if he were not black – and poor. And this guy who didn’t want to “cloud” matters snorted bitterly and said, “"That question has been answered way before this happened to my son. Do I need to even answer that? Come on."

My point is that Tyell’s father, like Trayvon’s parents, understood intuitively that if you start making racial accusations, no matter how obvious and well-founded they are, some white people will retreat behind self-justifying statements of blamelessness, others behind statements of angry denial, and the justice you seek will just get that much further away. So I am not surprised Trayvon’s parents said what they did. But I would wager a month’s salary that if you could somehow induce that man or woman to speak their heart of hearts and ask if them if they believe their son would be dead if their son had been white, they would say something like what Tyell’s father said. “Do I need to even answer that? Come on.”

This, friends and colleagues, is the story we are not telling. Because this influence that color still has over our perceptions half a century after the civil rights movement – and our denial of that influence – has implications far beyond the killing of Trayvon Martin, tragic as that was. No, it bears directly upon the decisions we make, the policies we embrace, in the fields of criminal justice, education, the environment, health care, the economy, politics, foreign policy, terrorism, you name it. It bears upon how we all perceive the world. So where are our enterprise stories documenting these effects? Why are we as an industry – with a few noteworthy exceptions – silent on these issues?

As I said a moment ago, race is not an easy topic. If you are white, race can be difficult because you have to grapple with the sense of feeling guilty or that someone is trying to make you feel guilty for an ugly past. I remember watching at a documentary on the murder of Emmett Till with a young white kid who told me afterward that it made him want to pull his skin off. This is a child born three and a half decades after Emmett Till died and yet, watching those white people on screen in the middle 1950s saying all those vile, hateful, stupid things, made him, personally, feel bad. Feel indicted. We have to recognize that and be sensitive to that. We have to evolve some way of talking about race that allows white people of good intention to feel as if they can be part of the solution and not just a new iteration of the problem.

It is easier for black folk to discuss race, but even with us, there can be some hesitation. It you are black, race can be a difficult subject because like sediment at the bottom of the pond, it stirs up so many feelings of anger, shame and boiling frustration. It can be easier just to not deal with it, easier just to leave it alone. We have to find some way of pushing to the other side of anger, of using it not as a fuel for bitterness, but as a fuel for determined, focused action.

Make no mistake, those are hard things to do. And instead of helping the nation find ways to do them, our industry has instead entered, I think, into a kind of conspiracy of silence where race is concerned. In this, we are not unlike many of the readers we serve.

I had a reader tell me once that I must stop writing about race because the subject is “impolite.”

I get told all the time that if I didn’t talk about race – me, personally – race would not be a problem in this country.I am frequently instructed that I create racism – and become a racist myself – by writing about race.

I think what these people mean to say is that they wish I would not violate the conspiracy of silence. By mutual, unspoken consent, we have decided that we will speak of these things only when doing so becomes unavoidable, only when we are pushed to by drama, tragedy or sideshow, only when the circus comes to town. The problem is, that is precisely when emotions are apt to be most high and voices most shrill. That is precisely when people are most likely to retreat into their bunkers of fixed opinion and yell across at each other and no one ever hears a thing that is said. No understanding is ever broached, no reconciliation even remotely possible.

By acceding to this conspiracy of silence, we as journalists – and I would also indict the school system in this – have helped create a generation of socio-historical idiots where race is concerned. You may think that description is a little harsh. I would ask you to spend some quality time talking to some of my many earnest readers who insist with a straight face that conservatives fought for civil rights in the 1960s and died to stop slavery in the 1860s. You may just change your mind.

This socio-historical idiocy flourishes in a nation where what happened yesterday is no longer recalled and what happens today, still, right now, is considered taboo. It should tell you something that according to a 2010 study by Public Religion Research Institute, 44 percent of all Americans believe bigotry against whites is a significant problem even though, by every objective standard – education, health, wealth, life expectancy – it is not. It should tell you something when the re-election of the nation’s first African-American president is greeted by calls for secession and revolution. It should tell you something when the number of hate groups in this country spikes by nearly 70 percent since 2000 amid claims that white America is threatened by genocide.

It should tell you that the silence we have embraced is poisonous.

So it is not enough to cover the Trayvon Martin trial. We should have already been writing about the forces that made that trial a sensation, meaning this abiding perception that black equals criminal. We should have been asking local police chiefs and district attorneys how it is that African Americans commit, say, 15 percent of drug crimes in a given jurisdiction, yet account for upwards of 70 percent of those doing time for drug crime.

It is not enough to cover the “beer summit” that ensued when a black professor was arrested on his own front porch. We should have been writing more about the disparities in educational achievement that make an African American man on a college campus such a rarity in the first place.

It is not enough to write about the sliming of Shirley Sherrod. We should have been writing about what seems to some of us an organized attempt by elements on the political right to stir racial resentment, to give those resentments moral and intellectual cover, and to use them as a lever of political power.

It is not enough to write about the opening of the Martin Luther King monument on the Washington Mall. We should have been writing about the erosion of progress toward the Dream he famously articulated there.

In other words, we need to draw the through line, so that when President Obama is called “uppity” or people pretend there is some controversy over where he was born, there is no question where that is coming from. We need to provide context so that when a district attorney seeks to try six black children for attempted murder after a schoolyard fight, people are already equipped to understand the rage that boils in some of us who have been down this road too many times before.

This matters. Virtually every domestic issue that you cover – crime, poverty, the economy, the environment, education – is impacted by race. So helping our audiences understand what race means, what it is and how it still works, could not be more vital.

This is true all over the country. It is especially true – and especially critical – here in Florida. For the last few minutes, I have talked about race in the way we have traditionally talked about it in this country, as a bipolar phenomenon: blacks on one side, whites on the other. But as anyone who can read a demographic chart knows, the bipolar is fast becoming the tripolar as Latinos and other Hispanic Americans make ever greater inroads in terms of numbers, cultural influence and political power.

I am aware, yes, that Hispanic is not a race, but an ethnicity. I am also aware that both those words, when you break them all the way down, are pretty scientifically meaningless, except to the degree they quantify our tendency to want to slap labels on those who are “not like us.” So let us just agree to agree that the nation is changing, that in the future, “race” will be even more complicated than it has previously been and that in Florida, the future is now.

Almost one in four of the 19 million people who call this state home identify as Hispanic or Latino. In Texas and my home state of California, the ratio is even higher: nearly 40 percent. South Central Los Angeles, where I grew up, was once regarded as the largest African-American community west of the Mississippi River. That’s changed. I attended John C. Fremont High, which had maybe two Mexican kids when I graduated almost 40 years ago. We were the Pathfinders, and our mascot was a scout with a big Afro and an Afro pick sticking out of his back pocket. The school is now predominantly Mexican American. The mascots now are a man and woman with pale skin and dark features wearing coonskin caps, their fists raised as they burst through the page.

The times, as Bob Dylan once sagely noted, they are a’changin’.

The question is, is our industry changing to meet them – not just technologically, but culturally. Are we representing diverse cultures in our pages and on our websites? Are we speaking honestly about the changes, challenges and opportunities those cultures represent in terms of politics, education, criminal justice, health and labor. Do we understand that the conversation we have refused to have does not get easier from here on out because some of the participants hablan Espanol. To the contrary, it becomes more complex – and more critical.

I will tell you the truth: there are days when I come uncomfortably close to despairing of my country’s ability to ever come to terms with itself, heal itself, on the subject of race. My assistant Judi, who handles my email and is thus on the front lines of the sociohistorical idiocy I mentioned, periodically blows her top at some of the ignorant things people say. She sent me an email once that said, “I don’t understand why you don’t just hate white people.”

Judi’s white. She’s about my age. And I suspect she feels what I feel: that sense of betrayal unique to those of us who came of age in the post civil rights era thinking that all this stuff was fixed, all this stuff was over, all this stuff was past, that it was finished for us by Martin Luther King and the generation of marchers who followed him toward the Promised Land. I went to college in the ‘70s, roomed with a white guy, discovered Simon and Garfunkel, watched All In The Family on television, thankful all that idiocy was now distant enough and safe enough to laugh at.

The ensuing 40 years – the bulk of my life – have been a bitter process of watching the backlash take form and discovering just how naïve and mistaken I was.

One of the things that gives me hope, that helps to keep despair at bay, is embodied in this room, in the profession that you and I are both lucky enough to pursue. As I said, much has changed over that 40 years. One thing has not. I still believe, cutbacks be damned, furloughs be damned, economic downturn be damned, that we do honorable and vital work and that if you seek the truth and then tell it without fear or favor, you commit an act of unalloyed good.

The civil rights movement would not have been won without Martin Luther King’s incandescent leadership. It would not have been won without that army of marchers and boycotters and nonviolent protesters. But it also would not have been won without the pens and typewriters and cameras of reporters who turned the nation’s eyes to the injustices flourishing in places like Little Rock, Selma, Montgomery, Nashville, Greensboro and St. Augustine. It is said that newspaper images of the unrest in Birmingham so embarrassed John F. Kennedy and undermined the nation’s ability to condemn Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on human rights issues that Kennedy’s brother Robert sent an envoy to Alabama to mediate the dispute.

This is what our words and pictures can do. In the civil rights years, they shattered stereotypes, they shredded preconceptions and they destroyed self-deluding fantasies. Sometimes, I don’t think we really appreciate just how dramatic a change that was. We are talking about wrongs that had endured for generations, yet they were rendered inert in just 13 years, in part because our professional forebears saw a story that appalled them and told the world about it.

That is the power we wield.

So what appalls us now? Government spying, government lying, rapacious banks and terror threats are likely somewhere on your list, and with good cause. But I would ask that you also spare a little bit of moral indignation for the fact that, not 50 miles from here, a black child, walking through a gated community wearing a hooded sweatshirt and khaki skinny jeans carrying nothing more dangerous than iced tea and candy can somehow be inflated into a thug and a threat. Or for the fact that you could stalk and kill that child and be acquitted of any wrongdoing in the same state where Marissa Alexander is doing 20 years for shooting a wall. Or for the fact that some of us can look at this and assure themselves, assure us all, that race has nothing to do with it.

I ask that you see this as a story and a priority and a moral imperative. I ask that we use our great power to batter down selfdelusion and socio-historical idiocy. I ask that you reconsider the price we’ve paid for our conspiracy of silence – and that you do it before the next circus comes to town.

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