What Many Still Don't Know about Racism

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday August 01, 2013 - 03:19:00 PM

The verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin produced a flood of opinion in the left-leaning press—many excellent coherent comments on the Second Amendment, Stand Your Ground laws and racism in general, some of them in this space and most of which I agree with. But the comment that’s stuck with me was not one of these, in fact from someone with whom I seldom agree, David Brooks.

Poor David Brooks is stuck with the label of “on the other hand” when news organizations are looking for a rightish Republicanish voice to balance all those clever lefties who write well and are available at a dime a dozen in the national media. Genteel outlets like the New York Times and PBS’s News Hour don’t want to publish slavering idiots like David Horowitz and Glenn Beck, but they have a residual commitment to offer a somewhat contrasting point of view, left over from the David Gergen era. This gets harder and harder as the Republicans trip blithely down the primrose path of Tea Party insanity, leaving behind the polite moderates like Brooks who used to support the sensible Northeastern version of quasi-conservatism.

What was remarkable about Brooks’ reaction to President Obama’s speech about the verdict, as I heard it in passing on the News Hour, which I seldom listen to on the radio and never watch on television, is that he reported experiencing some kind of personal epiphany as he watched the talk. The turning point, he seemed to be saying, was the President’s suggestion that the verdict would have been different if the shooter had been black and his victim white. It seems to be something he’s never thought about before.

As my pre-teen granddaughters would say, DUH! 

Where has David Brooks been all this time? Yes, I know he’s Canadian, but even calm Canada has its share of unfounded suspicions of the increasing numbers of Afro-Canadians, who could have explained it all to him. 

Obama’s speech was a good one, no doubt about that, but the rhapsodic reaction of a sizeable percentage of the national media, not just Brooks, was surprising.  

Obama’s recounting of his experiences growing up as a Black man in America was remarkably familiar. Being stopped for no reason by the police, being followed by store detectives who suspect shoplifiting, being passed by taxis on stormy nights, being avoided in elevators? That’s life, folks, if your skin is dark. 

And every so often the small stuff turns big, as it did for Trayvon Martin when he was stalked by a paranoid vigilante and unwisely “stood his ground” instead of backing off when he was confronted by Zimmerman. Mothers and fathers in San Francisco and Oakland and Richmond and Chicago and New York and, yes, Florida warn their sons and even their daughters about these risks, though they wish they didn’t have to do so. Standing your ground is not an option for Black kids, and certainly never carrying guns. 

How can someone be hired as a talking head on national public television who has missed this? 

Who among us with African-American family members, friends or even acquaintances has not heard stories like these? And even if you don’t number many people of color among your personal friends, you should have learned the score from the media, right? 

Well, there’s the rub. A lot of the press and especially television outlets are all too eager to feed the flames of fear, serving up salacious stories, complete with terrifying mug shots, every time an African-American person is connected with a crime. It’s not news, however, if a well-behaved young Black man is stopped and frisked by a New York city cop when he’s doing nothing wrong—happens all the time, doesn’t it? Erudite talking heads on the op-ed pages of the elite outlets deplore racism, but these common stories are seldom reported.  

Race matters, to borrow a tag from Cornell West. For example, a recent study of medical diagnoses showed that simply changing the racial description in simulated case histories resulted in experienced physicians arriving at different conclusions about the health of the imaginary patients, with those identified as Black less likely to be taken seriously.  

When people like David Brooks, presumably honest, sincere people who do not believe themselves to be personally racist, continue to have significant access to a national audience though they’re demonstrably ignorant of observable reality on racial matters, their editors and producers have some explaining to do. One might ask that credentials and experience should be checked before opinionators are hired to opine from prominent pulpits like the NYT and PBS. 

On the other hand (a favorite phrase in today’s journalism), David Brooks speaks for many Americans when he candidly admits his ignorance, and that’s worthwhile. More and more, I find that “straight reporting” leaves out more than it includes.  

I’ve always believed that all sorts of opinions, especially those I disagree with, are worth hearing. Americans are sorting themselves into smaller and smaller camps, each of which believes itself to be the illuminati, each of which however is ignorant of what the others believe. If we’re ever to make any progress in tackling racism in America, it’s important to understand that seemingly intelligent people like Brooks, not just illiterate Southerners, still need a lot of educating.