The summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents decided to move from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to Mobile, Alabama. Although I was very sad to leave my boyhood home and all my goodhearted Midwestern friends, I was also 15 years old and had hatched a theory in my adolescent mind that moving to the Deep South would mean attention from southern girls, who would no doubt be swooning after the mysterious new guy from a faraway land.
My parents enrolled me in the big public school in downtown Mobile, and I spent much of that summer learning to appreciate air conditioning and daydreaming about all the beautiful young women that I would meet when the school year started.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my Yankee accent was not as alluring as my delusional teenage mind had imagined. I was swallowed up in a huge high school that was much more diverse than my lily-white Wisconsin school. The majority of students in my new school were black, but all sorts of races were represented there. I wasn’t even the guy from the “faraway land”—that designation probably belonged the small group of Vietnamese immigrants at the school.
By the time I was a senior, I had worked up the courage to ask out the smartest girl in my class. I wasn’t even discouraged (for very long) when I once overheard her father telling her that he didn’t approve of the “Yankee Jew-boy” she was dating. A few years later, he gave me permission to marry her, so I guess he didn’t hold my heritage against me for long.
It took me a long time to fit in, but I learned a lot about myself and the world during that time. Race in America, it turned out, was much more complicated than the namby-pamby version I learned in my civics classes.
Racism Isn’t Unique to America
I learned firsthand that there is a lot of truth in the old saying about American race relations: “In the North they love the race, but hate the person; in the South they love the person, but hate the race.” This is to say that, while the North is much more segregated by race in both the schools and cities, folks generally don’t say anything that is overtly racist. Meanwhile, in the South where folks are generally more racially integrated, you tend to hear more overt racism. In short, the North exhibits more institutional racism, the South a more individual kind.
I have since lived all over the country—and abroad for a few years—and I have learned that you cannot escape racism. It is a quality that is not unique to any region or people or country. When I lived in Senegal, I learned about Wolof racism against the Serers and Fula. Everyone pretty much hated the Lebanese businessmen who ran shops in Dakar and the snobby French tourists who populated the Senegalese beaches in the winters.
So when I read the headlines about the flack Hillary Clinton was getting for saying “all lives matter” at a black church in Missouri, which repeated themselves when Martin O’Malley said the same at Netroots Nation, I have to say I was sympathetic to the critics. It was not just because I found it enjoyable to see a hiccup in Clinton’s carefully scripted campaign/coronation. I was sympathetic because I think she, like so many Americans on the Right and Left, simply don’t get it. We still have a problem with racism. And we need to say that.
The Media Isn’t Helping Heal Racism
A big part of the problem is the media. Much has been written about the modern journalistic impulse to “narrativize” unique events by imbuing them with broader socio-cultural implications, sometimes to the detriment of the actual facts. One need not think too long to come up with a bevy of recent racially charged news stories where facts have been embellished—or outright fabricated—in order to serve a political or ideological agenda.
Perhaps this is why I was initially skeptical of the Time headline I read recently: “Another Black Church Burns in the South, the 8th in 10 Days.” I didn’t have to do much research to have my suspicions confirmed. All I had to do was read the story. Turns out, of the eight churches that have burned, over half were not arson, but “several have been blamed preliminarily on lightning.” But the damage was done. The Time headline has been accompanied by a whole host of similar headlines. #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches is now trending on Twitter.
To complicate matters, Mark Tooley at the Institute for Religion and Democracy has uncovered some troubling statistical data which suggest that there are about 20 church arsons in America every month. About 20 percent of these are black churches. So after finding out that the article was egregiously misleading, it would have been easy to dismiss it as click- and race-bait and go about my daily business without another thought.
But something still bothered me. If it is true that there have been a few cases of black church arson in the last week, why wasn’t I hearing more about it? It seemed to me that I had seen a lot more headlines about the Confederate flag than I had seen about the black churches burning. Why would the news media focus on a symbol of racism more than what appeared to be actual racist crimes?
And I’m not just imagining disparity in the coverage. According to Google trends, over the several days during the Confederate flag brouhaha, the American public was about 20 times more likely to see a news headline about the “Confederate flag” than they were to see one about arson at a black church:
Even worse, news the debate surrounding the Confederate flag far overshadowed the news about the eight black worshippers who were killed by a committed racist at church in June.
Of course, the true victims of this journalistic dishonesty and misplaced priorities are not the readers who are gullible enough to believe the false narratives, but rather future victims of racism whose cries will fall on deaf ears because no one trusts the veracity of the stories that they are reading.
President Obama has repeatedly urged Americans to begin a “national dialogue” on race. If we had integrity in reporting, perhaps the dialogue could move past bickering over whether reports of racism are actually true.