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.