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Institutional Racism Ignored

More feelings than facts in coverage of inequality

Janine Jackson

After a tour of the country last year, a United Nations special rapporteur (4/28/09) urged Washington to do more to address "the depth of racism [that] still permeates all dimensions of life of American society." Not "questions of race," not "past racism," not "personal biases"--but present-day, institutional racism, as expressed in, for example, "racial bias in conviction rates and length of sentences of both juvenile and criminal courts," "direct discriminatory practices in well as in mortgage lending," and in the educational system, "racial bias in the type of disciplinary action given to white or minority students."

Restrained and conciliatory in tone, the report nevertheless went leagues beyond most corporate news reporting simply by recognizing racism as a demonstrable reality--not uncomplicated (laws and policies may have racially disparate impacts though non-discriminatory on their face; there is overlap with issues of class) but not reducible, either, to matters of personal sentiment or individual interactions.

Corporate media don't just fail to seek out stories of structural inequality; they run from them when they're offered, as seen recently in the widespread effort to dissolve questions of racial profiling, raised by the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, into a matter of differing perceptions ("The Great Divide: He Said, He Said," Boston Herald, 7/26/09) or some people's feelings ("Suspicions of Police Bias Haunt Black Men," Baltimore Sun, 7/26/09).

The arrest of a high-status black man, mistaken for an intruder in his own home by a white officer, was covered above all in terms of President Barack Obama's reaction, whether his initial criticism of the officers went "overboard" (Kansas City Star, 7/23/09) or whether the story would "sidetrack his healthcare agenda" (L.A. Times, 7/25/09). But in the context of a conversation about whether racial profiling may have occurred in a specific case, wouldn't it be relevant to explore the reality of profiling? Most outlets decided not.

That lack of serious reporting didn't leave a void so much as fill it-with the inaccurate idea that racial profiling is a matter on which the jury is out. Instead of exploration of specific practices which include "in addition to racially or ethnically discriminatory acts, discriminatory omissions on the part of law enforcement" (ACLU statement, 11/23/05), we got talk of "the historically uneasy relationship between blacks and law enforcement" (Orlando Sentinel, 7/25/09) or "the wariness of a population that feels singled out and mistreated" (Washington Post, 8/2/09).

The fact that profiling is illustrated not by anecdote, but by repeated patterns over time, was obscured by articles ending on the notion that "‘the cop probably had a bad day, and the professor had a bad day. It could have been a black cop and a white professor'" (Boston Herald, 7/24/09), or stressing that "the line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car" (New York Times, 7/25/09).

Fundamental misunderstanding was also betrayed by pieces like the L.A. Times' July 25 "Status Doesn't Allay Fears of Race Profiling," which first evinced implicit surprise that racial profiling affects people by race, as opposed to class, and then went on to treat the illegal practice as more regrettable than redressable, with an emphasis on how black people should react: "For some black men, the solution is to try to avoid the possibility of confrontation altogether," the paper explained, citing the story of one man who sends his wife to the front gate to meet police if the house alarm goes off, fearing "if he goes instead, they will mistake him for an intruder," and another who, on seeing a line of cars with black drivers pulled to the side of the road, pulled over himself, "figuring that was expected of black men." It's unstated whether the L.A. Times sees such "solutions" as broadly acceptable for a democratic society.

There's no mystery to the appeal of disaggregating problems of widespread bias into a million unique incidents in which victims "happen to be black": If racism is reduced to the personal and situational, the responsibility for overcoming its effects can be spread around, with black people themselves carrying the brunt. Certainly it's not appropriate to call on institutions to do anything about some people's "feelings."

Corporate media underscore this message in part by not hearing messages to the contrary, as when they extracted the "bootstraps" elements of Obama's July 16 NAACP speech, characterized in the New York Times (7/23/09) as "warning black Americans not to make excuses for their failure to achieve." (See also, e.g., "Obama Boldly Challenges Blacks in NAACP Speech," Kansas City Star, 7/17/09; "Obama Delivers Tough Talk on the Black Family," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/21/09.)

That Obama himself sometimes emphasizes blacks' "personal responsibility" is true, but that's not the source of elite media's fascination. Jesse Jackson got the same treatment in 1994 for comments in which he appealed to African-Americans to "take the lead" in helping their communities fight crime. Jackson presented blacks' responsibilities to help themselves alongside government's obligation to remove racist barriers; "Blacks Are Urged to Take Responsibility for Violence" (Washington Post, 1/17/94) was a typical rendering (Extra!, 5-6/94).

The idea that racism is a personal problem about which society can do nothing but soul-search serves a status quo that disadvantages people of color, but it's by no means exclusive to white people. In fact, the message was spelled out most clearly in a Washington Post editorial (7/26/09) written by an African-American. Referring to Bill Clinton's description of racism as a "cancer of the soul," the Post's Jonathan Capeheart wrote: "The cure for this corrosive cancer won't come through a government program or the courts....This is a matter of the heart, an intensely personal exercise that demands we talk to each other-one on one, face to face. Perhaps over a beer...."

The report from the U.N. special rapporteur recommended increased federal and state funding for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, congressional investigation of resegregation in the nation's schools and housing, and "as a matter of urgency," vigorous clarification of the illegality of racial profiling, including congressional passage of the End Racial Profiling Act. Beer did not come up.

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Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and a frequent contributor to FAIR's magazine, Extra!. She co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). And she co-hosts and produces FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin--a weekly program of media criticism airing on more than 150 stations around the country.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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