Archive for October 27th, 2009

This post originally appeared on Moms in the Lobby.  Reposted here with permission.

Newsweek recently featured a web exclusive on How the Media Treat Murder. The article’s focus is on the underreported story of a possible serial killer in the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Ten women have been found slain or have been declared missing in Rocky Mount, N.C., in recent years. But the rest of the country hasn’t heard about a possible serial killer stalking the young women in this Southern town of 60,000. The latest victim, Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, was identified on Oct. 12. Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?

“When you think about the famous missing-person cases over the last few years it’s Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Laci Peterson,” notes Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. All these women had a few things in common—they were white, educated, and came from middle-class families. The victims in Rocky Mount—which residents describe as a “typical Southern town,” and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black—were different. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.

Unfortunately, this level of blindness is an all-too-common characteristic of the media when it comes to crimes against people of color. The article goes on to suggest that national media may be the worst about selecting for race when reporting on crime:

‘Nancy Grace called and wanted to have some of us on her show, but before it aired there was a white woman from Georgia that went missing. The Nancy Grace show was canceled,’ [city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter, Andre] Knight says. HLN network, which broadcasts Nancy Grace, confirmed that Knight was booked for the show, which was ultimately canceled to profile the disappearance of Kristi Cornwell, a white woman from Blairsville, Ga., who went missing during an evening walk. Representatives from Nancy Grace told NEWSWEEK, ‘The booking was changed due to news that was breaking that day,’ and emphasized the change had nothing to do with the race of the victim. On Aug. 12, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees covered the story.

I’m no fan of Nancy Grace and this story is partly why. Despite her best attempts to portray what she does as an important service for the social good, her tactics and her focus on certain sensationalized cases suggest she’s mostly out for attention (and perhaps media martyrdom, swoon).

Many times I’ve wondered where are all the missing black kids? or Latino kids? or Asian kids (up until and perhaps beyond the case of Annie Le)? A trip to the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows racially-proportional and accurate alerts to the abductions and disappearances of our nation’s children. According to studies done by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice, non-white children make up 42% of the total number of missing children, while they only comprise 36% of the U.S. population. Yet we rarely see these kids’ cases on the national news.

Much of this has to do with the media’s desire to present a compelling narrative, rather than an accurate report of crime incidents in the community. One MSNBC reporter, Alex Johnson, writing on the subject calls this “Catnip for TV types.” Johnson cites Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., talking about the way journalists choose a story:

‘The example of a bad murder would be the murder of an African-American person from a poor neighborhood,’ he said. ‘The definition of a good murder is a socialite killed by her jealous husband, the debutante murdered by her angry boyfriend.’When it comes to police stories, Clark said, there is ‘this perverted, racist view of the world. White is good; black is bad. Blonde is good; dark is bad. Young is good; old is bad. And I think we can find versions of this story going back to the tabloid wars of more than a hundred years ago.’

Even more frightening is what advocates on the ground experience trying to get media attention for the sake of finding victims or delivering justice for their families:

‘We can’t get a young girl who may be suffering substance abuse and may be prostituting on the national news because they feel she’s not worth the time,’ said Kym Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults in Phoenix. ‘But these individuals are no less important to their families, and their families are entitled to the same help’ in getting their cases before the public. ‘We have found that it’s far easier for our agency to obtain national coverage on an individual who society, I think, identifies with,’ she said.

While all of this is alarming and deeply disturbing, it isn’t all that unexpected. When one considers that our justice system has its own virulent strains of prejudice and inherent inconsistencies, it’s not terribly off-base that elements of the media covering crime would more than mirror, even magnify, the problem. Most executions (80%) are carried out against defendants with white victims, even though half of all homicide victims are black. Juries, studies show, are more likely to exact the ultimate penalty against a defendant whose victim is white.

These crimes, particularly the crimes against children, are terrifying realities for any mom. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother denied justice not only by the actual justice system, but again by members of the media who are more intent on selling a story to white America than on reporting the important details about a crime to all of us in this country.

It’s tragic enough when our children are lost. That tragedy is only compounded when our compassion and our attention is likewise missing.

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A few months ago I was drinking some beers with a white friend of mine and we got to talking about racism & white privilege. It was a long and lively night of great conversation. She’s a fellow beginner in anti-racism and a non-Latina who lives and teaches in a predominantly Latino area of a city that is nearly half Latino, so I gave her a copy of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She found it immensely helpful, and we’ve continued our dialogue long-distance. Through our conversations, we’ve become more aware of the privileges we experience and discussed various ways to help other fellow white people become more conscious of the problems of racism and white privilege in our society.

Last week, during one of our sporadic phone calls, the topic of racism & white privilege came up again. Does it change the white privilege dynamic when a white person is a minority and occasionally feels marginalized within the local community? Can my white friend experience racism in her neighborhood similar to the way people of color do elsewhere? It was another great conversation.

Any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. We probably all do these things at some time or another, even when we do not intend to. My white friend has experienced some real prejudice and marginalization in her Latino community. But can we really call it racism?

We came to the conclusion that even though my white friend is in the minority locally and does, on occasion, experience some marginalization, she is not really experiencing racism in the sense that people of color experience it in the broader context of American culture. At most, she has had a very small taste of what people of color experience, and this is a lesson in compassion, encouraging her in the continuing struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.

We recognized that privilege and marginalization are complex. A person can be privileged in one way (e.g. as a white person) and marginalized in another (e.g. as a woman, a poor person, and/or a member of a marginalized ethnic or religious group). A person of color may be marginalized by whites yet receive more privilege than another person of color.

In the case of my friend, there are times when she may feel marginalized as a white person in her local community, but in the broader context of American society she receives far more privilege as a white person than Latinos do. In America, non-Latino white people still have greater access to and control of social, cultural, political, and economic resources than Latinos. It is still the racial attitudes and prejudices of white people (both conscious and unconscious) that receive dominant expression and systematization in common language, cultural messages, social mores, institutional practices and policies, cultural artifacts, etc. White people continue to have greater access to good schools, jobs, housing, and so forth. If my friend is feeling alone and marginalized, she can “escape” simply by turning on the TV or visiting the next town. She has not reached the point where one of her first thoughts of the day is “I’m white” (as many people of color report thinking about their own race) and she probably never will.

And what about the Latinos in the city where my friend lives? In their local community, their experiences may be positive in many ways. They are not a minority locally.  They are represented in local business and politics. They are not as marginalized on the basis of ethnicity to the same extent that they might be elsewhere, and may even experience some privileges. But this is not so in the broader context of American culture.

Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show a 40% rise in reported anti-Latino hate crimes between 2003 and 2007, the most recent numbers available. In California, the state with the largest Latino population and a state with better hate crime reporting than most, the number of reported anti-Latino hate crimes rose by 54% between 2003 and 2006. And the real national numbers are probably much higher, because many hate crimes are never reported, especially by undocumented immigrants, and police departments and states are reluctant to report hate crimes as such. A 2005 study by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on more detailed and accurate national surveys, found that the annual level of hate crime in America was about 20 to 30 times higher than the numbers reported by the FBI. (The same DOJ study showed that 84% of hate crimes included violence like rape or assault, while only 23% of non-hate crimes did.)

There was also a 48% increase in the number of American hate groups between 2000 and 2007, growth which the Southern Poverty Law Center reports is almost entirely based on the supposed “threat” of Latino immigrants. The SPLC reports that the number of specifically anti-immigrant “nativist extremist” groups in the United States increased by 20% in just one year (2007-2008). These “nativist extremist” groups “go after people, not policy.”

Rather than limiting themselves to advocating within the mainstream political process for tighter border security, stricter immigration controls or tougher enforcement of immigration laws already on the books, these fringe outfits target and confront immigrants [or suspected immigrants] as individuals.

(I add “suspected immigrants” because the FBI stats show an upswing in racially motivated violence against all Latinos, regardless of immigration status. Some of the victims are native citizens of the United States, some are naturalized citizens, some are legal immigrants, and some are undocumented. The great majority of Latinos in the U.S. are citizens and legal residents.)

In other words, whatever safety, community, and success Latinos may enjoy in the city where my friend lives is truly and increasingly threatened in the larger American culture in which we all live.

No, my friend and I are convinced, white Americans are not experiencing racism.

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