What Can We Learn from Spotlight Part 3

In previous installments of this post, I asked the question whether or not an mainstream media exposé would have as profound effect on cracking systemic racism within the nation’s law enforcement system as the revelation of child molestation did on the Catholic Church.

The question assumes that there hasn’t already been such an expose.

But, of course, there has.

The now omnipresent Atlantic writer, Te-nahasi Coates, has made his name doing just that. And not just systemic racism within law enforcement, but in American society in general.

An increasingly prominent figure in the leftist intellectual sphere, Coates has written on everything from the African superhero, Black Panther, to the effect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous report has had on national policy and mass incarceration.

Not surprisingly, he has also commented on the spate of recent shootings of black citizens by white police officers.

Apropos of media coverage in particular, a recent article written by professor of sociology, Tressie McMillan Cottom, entitled Fascism concludes that mainstream media for a number of reasons cannot or will not label events as examples of racism.

From the article: 

Sociologist Bonilla-Silva talks about a U.S. culture where there is miraculously racism but no racists. He interviews people, across race and class, and finds that they can talk about aspects of racism but have a multitude of narratives that makes no one complicit really.

And the media – at least the mainstream media – by and large follows suit.

I’ve asked some of those same people on my media-heavy social media before if their outlets have style guides about when they will or will not use “racism” or “racist” in reporting.

The gist seems to be that the media relies on the “objective” rationality of its reporters to make that call….

As one reporter told me, they rely on other people – their subjects – to call something racist. Given the research that shows that people also rarely call anything racist, even when acknowledging racism, we end up in a divine feedback loop: people see racism but no racists and media will only report on what people say is racist.


Whose Shoes?

One of the things we can take away from her analysis is that mainstream media is not willfully opting out in the task of labeling racism, but rather that it lacks the tools to do so because the people reporting the event are too white and/or too privileged. 

One of the classic conundrums of racism is that its power rests on the fact that, like ghosts, evidence of its existence depends largely on whether you believe in it or not. 

Black people, in experiencing racism, by and large, believe in it.

Many white people, by not experiencing racism don’t believe in it, except in the most egregious cases: church burnings, targeted shootings, or as  an abstraction that is not perpetrated by  directly and/or not really relevant to our daily lives.

There have been experiments done which attempt to simulate the phenomenon of racism to give white people a little taste of what it feels like, notably the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment of Jane Elliott.

But participants in such experiments often fail to analogize their own discomfort at being discriminated against—albeit within a controlled environment—with the plight of people who experience discrimination based upon physical characteristics every day.

Instead, they just get mad. 

Racism: Just Nebulous Enough

In contrast with the culture of secret complicity and suppression of facts implemented by the Catholic Church hierarchy as protection against imputation, the enduring legacy of racism in the US can only partly be attributed to the suppression of information, though it is undoubtedly a tactic as evidenced by lengthy withholding of an incriminating video by Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago administration. 

Rather, as stated above, much of its power lies in the disagreement over whether or not it really exists, and to what degree. 

When the revelations of Church impropriety and molestation came out, we were all shocked. 

Protecting our children from predators is something we can all get behind, regardless of race. 

But identifying racism is something else entirely, largely because racism is such an abstraction.

Is it an action or a system? Can people of color be racist, or only white people? (This last is a classic question that hinges on the difference between prejudice and racism, articulated within academia, and consequently outside the ken of millions of people who haven’t gone to University.) This is why social science is so important in delineating, historicizing, and contextualizing racism. 

I read a lot of that sort of scholarship in college, and although with age I’ve gotten more conservative, it provided me a good bedrock upon which to couch my beliefs.

But there are a whole lot of people out there haven’t had access to that sort of education or simply don’t want to be bothered with educating themselves. Not when it implodes their worldview. And certainly not when it treads on their privilege.







What Can We Learn from “Spotlight”? Part 2

In my last post, I ended with the statement that United States Law Enforcement is racist. This is a grievous charge, but not, unfortunately, an outrageous one. 

In the movie, Marty Baron, the incoming editor of the Boston Globe (played by Liev Shrieber) insists that the Spotlight team continues its investigation until it has unearthed a system of abuse as opposed to simply rooting out one or two “bad apples”. 

Ah, those perennial “bad apples“. 

The question I have is not whether African Americans are targeted disproportionately by law enforcement. This is a question that can be approached from many different angles and suffers from partisan political outlook. For example, while whites are more likely to be killed by police, we also make up 71% of the population, whereas blacks make up 12%. Depending on how much one chooses to omit the whole story, the story changes. Nor is it the reasons why Law Enforcement might target African Americans unduly. 

Given the history of slavery in the US, I would suggest that the answers to these particular questions are not nearly as elusive as the question of why the Catholic Church has fostered and protected pedophiles among its ranks.

The main question for me is how can the targeting of blacks be quantified to the degree that people will no longer be able to dismiss these cases as anomalous, but rather as symptomatic of a flawed system, in the same way that the system of sexual assault on minors has been exposed within the Catholic Church. 

At the end of Spotlight, the phones begin to ring off the hooks as victims dial in their stories. The proverbial flood washing away a culture of silence.

But what if a similar thing were to happen, if black people were to call in and confide that they had experienced police abuse of power? Would there be the same sort of fallout? 

The question at the heart of the matter is why is racism more acceptable than child molestation to our culture. 

The Catholic Church has recovered and will continue to bring spiritual succor to untold millions. But it will never be the same. It has been tarnished. It is no longer irreproachable. Because in this day and age, the sexual abuse of minors is considered deviant behavior, and punishable by law.

But it wasn’t always that way. And it isn’t always that way. 

A History of Violence

Children have been used and abused throughout history. In countries to this day, girls are still married off to husbands older than they and raped as a matter of course, as part of their marital contract.

In our liberal society, the rights of women and children have increased dramatically. Even hitting your child in public, once a regular part of child rearing, is now punishable by the system. Child abuse is no longer something that can be done in public without serious ramifications. Other adults may intervene or even report a parent to the authorities.

Perhaps we take the designation “minor” as a fait accompli . However children’s rights in the West only began to appear in the mid-19th century, initially as laws to protect children in the workplace. This would have been the height of industrialism, of course, when little hands were important for certain tasks.

What I am driving at is that the enormity of the violation done against these Catholic children is premised on the social division of children from adults. Likewise, their protection against it is contingent on this social division.

It is possible, given that the Catholic Church’s long title is the Holy Roman Catholic Church and given that the Roman Empire is well-documented as one in which authority and profligacy went hand in hand, that sexual abuse of minors inside the Church predates the designation of children as a discreet social entity. 

In other words: in certain systems historically, children were abused as a matter-of-course. Particularly if they were poor. 

In A Tale of Two Cities in Book the Second, Dickens writes of the Parisian upper classes, of their disdain for everyone, including their own children. One Marquis upon leaving an opera hurtles through the streets in his coach, heedless of the “scarecrows” as Dickens calls them. This deplorable man, made inhuman by his absolute privilege, thinks nothing of it when his coach runs over a baby, killing it. 

It is a marvel of liberal humanism that we have accomplished so much for our little people in the last hundred years, making abuse of children, which once was commonplace, an abhorrent abomination of character and behavior. 

But can the same paradigm shift be effected to combat institutionalized racism? 

I will try to tackle this question in my next post. Wish me luck! 





What Can We Learn from “Spotlight” Part 1

Despite rumors to the contrary, Spotlight is not a great movie. I’m not going to go into the reasons, in my opinion, why the film isn’t as good as they say; I’ll leave that for professional film critics. But I think that Spotlight is an important movie, as mainstream Hollywood pictures go. 


Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of child sexual abuse and its coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston.

It is a Hollywood movie, so it is no doubt full of embellishment. Nevertheless, if the skeleton upon which the movie hangs its premise is sound, then it is a damning condemnation of one of the world’s most established and powerful religious institutions. The reporters and the paper should be praised for their courage and investigative diligence.

Ripple Effect 

As is often the case, when a boat springs a leak other leaks are sure to follow.

In the movie, the initial investigation of the Spotlight team centers on only one priest. After a meeting with the founder of a child abuse survivors’ support group, this number leaps to 13.

Real life psychotherapist, Richard Sipe who has long studied celibacy in the Church, features in the movie as a voice-over-the-phone that provides harrowing details about the high incidence of molestation. In his estimate, the number of priests who have engaged in illicit sexual acts with minors could be as high as 6% of all clergy members. That would mean 90 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. 

After extensive investigation by the team, this number is borne out. In the post-script following the movie, the audience is informed that ultimately 249 priests in the Archdiocese were eventually indicted! 

From one priest to 249. The numbers are not good. 

Change in global organizations such as the Catholic Church happen at a glacial pace. The Spotlight report erupted not long after the turn of the millenium, around the events of 9/11. For some of us this doesn’t seem like so long ago, but in reality an entire generation has already come of age. All that time, the Catholic Church has been reeling from a loss of credibility.

The 2013 election of Pope Francis  by the papal conclave, an egalitarian who champions for the voiceless, could be interpreted as a significant change in an organization famous for its secrecy.

Let’s hope to see more of such changes. 

The Importance of Media

If there is one thing the movie Spotlight shows, it is how important fearless and unimpeded journalism is to a functional democracy.

Without the relative freedom of the press the United States enjoys, Nixon would not have been impeached, American engagement in Vietnam would not have ended so soon, and Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts may have simply sailed unobstructued into the anti-harbor of Trump’s Islamaphobic tirades. 

In 2001 there was still enough attention being paid to the mainstream press that the Spotlight story did serve as a vehicle for change.

However, as the Internet sluices more and more attention onto its fractured and infinite superhighway, generalized sources of information are losing traction. We increasingly receive different news from disparate sources, often curated to our political stance. 

In other words: 

“News” has become less a challenge of our beliefs as a bulwark for our preconceived notions. 


Related to this is the question of just how much longform investigative journalism will continue to play a role in social change.

This is not only an academic question. 

Recent events have shown that there is another entity, as powerful and entrenched in our American fabric as the Catholic Church, that requires the gimlet eye of a fearless and impartial press: The nation’s Law Enforcement system.  

Here then is the big question: what tactics employed by the Spotlight team to expose systemic pedophilia in the Catholic Church can be used to determine systemic racism in our nation’s police forces, if any….


I will explore further this question in part II of this blog post.