The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. — Thomas Jefferson.
But since airplane crashes make national news, and car crashes do not, many people continue to think airplane travel is especially risky. What the national news media decides to report shapes our perception of reality.
The issue of racism in the US is, to say the least, an ongoing national news story. But is the news media, in its eagerness to report all things racial, shaping an inaccurate perception of race and racism in America? Consider a couple of recent incidents.
Who didn’t hear about the two black males arrested for loitering in a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12, 2018? Viral went the video, national went the story, and virulent went the outrage across the country. But why was the story national news at all? No doubt that same day there were dozens of other people across the nation arrested for loitering: in 2015, there were 33,700 arrests nationwide for “curfew and loitering law violations” according to FBI statistics. But the story of 2 black men arrested in Starbucks is what was reported nationally.
A couple months later, June 21, 2018, the headlines read “White woman calls police on 8-year-old black girl for selling water.” Viral went the video of “Permit Patty” calling the police on a little back girl selling water at a baseball game, national went the story, and virulent went the outrage across the country. Yet there were probably dozens of stupid phone calls that same day from other stupid people calling police about children. Yet the story of the “white woman” calling the police on the “black child” is what we read about on national news.
In August 2018, Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for Florida governor, said in an interview that his opponent’s liberal policies would hurt Florida’s economy. “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” Desantis said. “That is not going to work. That’s not going to be good for Florida.” Since his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, is black, viral went the comment, national went the story, and virulent went the outrage across the county. “Racist dog whistle!” tweeted Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party. (In case you didn’t spot the racism, it was using the word “monkey.”)
In a more serious vein, consider how the news media reports fatal police shootings. An incident of police killing an unarmed black person fits the ongoing national news story about race and racism, and so usually makes national news. An incident that does not fit that storyline is generally filtered out and goes unreported, or remains local news. As a result the perception persists that most police shootings are of unarmed black people. “[A]another unarmed black man unjustly killed,” columnist Eugene Robinson opined after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “This storyline is unassailable. Anyone who thinks race is not a factor in these fatal encounters should have to cite examples of unarmed young white men being killed by trigger-happy police or self-appointed vigilantes. Names and dates, please.” The belief that police often shoot unarmed black people is why NFL players are kneeling during the national anthem, and community leaders and politicians and Hollywood figures and even Miss America contestants are joining voices to condemn “racist police brutality.”
Yet the facts do not support the “racist police brutality” perception. According to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings, of the 987 killed by police in 2017, 20 were unarmed black people – 2% of the total. (Three percent were unarmed white people.) Overall, 223 (22.6%) of the 987 shooting victims were black, 458 (46.4%) were white, and the remaining 31% were “Hispanic,” “other” or “unknown.”
Racism exists, of course, but the media’s obsession with all stories racial makes racism in America appear a more significant menace than it is. The reality of racism, and the media-infused perception of racism, are growing ever further apart.
A recent letter to Amy Dickinson’s “Ask Amy” advice column shows how this incessant reporting of “racist” incidents is generating excessive fear. A college student wrote Amy about his black friend coming to visit him in his predominantly white neighborhood. “In a time,” the student wrote to Amy, “where people of color, especially men, are having the police called on them for everything from waiting for a friend in Starbucks to taking a nap in a common area of a dorm, I am worried about my neighbors’ potential reaction to a man of color showing up in their predominantly white suburb.” He acknowledged that he has never seen his neighbors display racism, and that the area “prides itself on being a liberal and progressive area.” But he wondered if he should post something on his neighborhood’s social media site.
I thought Amy would tell him to relax. Instead, she recommended more active anti-racism vigilance.
“Challenge your neighbors out loud,” Amy replied, “to actually let a black man — any black man — walk through the neighborhood unchallenged, not because he is your special guest, but because he is a human being walking down a sidewalk.” She also advised him to warn his friend about “the kind of community he would be visiting, and the physical or psychological annoyance (or worse) he could face, simply by being there.”
I wonder if he followed Amy’s advice. I picture him taking a deep breath as a neighbor answers his knock on the door. “Good morning neighbor, a black friend of mine is coming to visit me, and you need to let him walk through this neighborhood in peace, because he is a human being walking down a sidewalk.”
Maybe it went well. Maybe his neighbor replied “Thank you, your advice has changed me profoundly. Instead of my usual practice of dialing 911 when I spot a black person, I will treat your friend as a fellow human.”
And I picture the white friend pulling his black pal aside in the airport: “Dude, I got some bad news. Racist incidents happen even in progressive neighborhoods like mine. Sorry! Just wanted you to know.” His friend would howl with laughter at this revelation.
If I had been Amy, this would have been my response to the college student nervous about his black friend’s visit:
Your friend has been a black male his whole life. He has been in predominantly white areas before. He doesn’t need special guidance from you. And while your concern for your friend is great, your fears of racism are exaggerated. These days, almost every incident with a “racist” angle is reported on nationwide news, which makes such incidents appear more prevalent than they actually are. “Black male strolls unmolested through predominantly white neighborhood” doesn’t make the news. Hope you and your friend have an enjoyable get-together.
In a nation of 350 million people of different races there will be some racist incidents. But like the decision to make every airplane crash front page news, the national media’s decision to make all things racial a front page story distorts the reality of racism.