Race & Media Reality
Here’s a small thing, but one that’s worth mentioning, I think.
First, I want to thank you readers who e-mailed to say you hope I feel better. Yesterday was much better than Wednesday. The weird thing about the way this chronic mono works is that it’s episodic. I don’t know what triggers the episodes, but when they hit, boy, they can just knock me flat. On Thursday, I didn’t have one at all, and got lots of work done on the Ben Op book revision. I think we will be able to send it off to the copy editor next week, woo-hoo!
Last night I even went to the gym for a bit. While I anxiously await Season Four of The Americans coming to Amazon Prime streaming, I’ve started watching Stranger Things on the iPad while I’m on the treadmill. It’s as good as they say. I had the earbuds in listening to and watching the show, but looked up from time to time to see what was on CNN, playing on the big screen in front of the treadmill. They kept going to live shots from Charlotte. There were protests, but thank God everything was peaceful. (And by the way, it’s pretty dubious that the police chief won’t release the shooting video to the public, given that those who have seen it, including the victim’s family and the mayor, say it is by no means clear that Keith Scott had a gun in his hand.)
I noticed that Don Lemon spent a long time interviewing a North Carolina Republican Congressman who earlier in the day made a really stupid remark to the BBC about the black protesters. The Congressman apologized, I gathered, and went on CNN to repeat his apology. The segment went on and on and on, though, and I came to think that the only reason to have had that knucklehead on was to watch him squirm in apologizing for his racial remark, which he certainly did, but after a while the interview amounted to bouncing the rubble. The Washington Post quoted it:
Then, Pittenger went on CNN, saying: “Frankly, I apologize for the comments. They certainly weren’t meant in the context of how many viewed them.”
The congressman said he simply was quoting what he’d heard protesters saying.
“Do you believe that protesters hate white people?” host Don Lemon asked.
“No, sir, it’s the comments that they made — if you go back and look at the tapes, the comments they made on air,” Pittenger said. “I was only trying to convey what they were saying, and yet it didn’t come out right, and I apologize. … That certainly is not the spirit of who I am.”
“Let’s walk through what you said,” Lemon went on. “You said, ‘They hate us — they hate us because we’re successful, they hate white people because we’re successful.’ How is that taken out of context, with all due respect?”
“What I’m trying to communicate was, what has occurred with the economy has left them out,” the congressman said.
“Was this a learning point for you at all?” Lemon asked.
“I love my community,” Pittinger said. “I am very sorry for how I said what I said. My desire is everyone could grow up the economic ladder and have the greatest benefit of the American opportunity.
He added: “I’ve come on the air to apologize in every way I can.”
Here’s the interview, which went on for eight minutes:
Don Lemon treated him respectfully, but the Congressman didn’t really help himself that much, it must be said. This guy, Pittenger, is someone nobody outside of NC ever heard of before. The only reason he is of any interest at all is that he said something offensive, and was trying to crawfish out of it. By the end of the interview, it was clear that the point of the exercise was for him to abase himself on national TV. There was absolutely nothing to be learned from him, about anything. Watching the interview, it doesn’t seem that he is the sharpest or most self-aware Republican politician you’ve ever seen. The amazing thing is with all they could have talked about regarding events in Charlotte — real things, serious things — a national news program spent seven minutes with a politician talking about his dopey gaffe.
Next, in the same program, they went back to a day-old story, the one about Kathy Miller, the older white lady who heads Trump’s campaign in Indiana’s Mahoning County, and who earlier in the week denied that racism had been that big a deal since the 1960s. She had other inflammatory remarks about race. Here’s some context:
Mahoning, the eastern Ohio county where Miller is coordinating Trump’s campaign, is a historically Democratic stronghold that includes Youngstown, a former steel city that has experienced decades of economic decline.
The county is reputedly “ground-zero” for disaffected white, working-class Democrats who are drawn to Trump’s promise to boost manufacturing by renegotiating international free-trade agreements.
Before the primaries, some 6,000 Democrats in Mahoning switched party affiliation to Republican, reportedly to vote for Trump.
Yesterday she resigned as Trump county chair. Lemon used that as a segue into a segment with David Gregory, who came on as an analyst to talk about the national menace of relatively minor white political figures saying racially insensitive things. Lemon talked as if this was a scourge that had been released on America by Donald Trump. I didn’t see the entire segment with Gregory, but was impressed that Gregory, after clearly denouncing what they said, observed that in an era of social media, gaffes like that blow up bigger than ever, and we crucify people over them.
Note well that I’m not defending what either of these people said, but am complaining that a national news program made such a huge deal over something relatively minor, when there are vastly more important issues related to the Charlotte shooting and subsequent riots worth covering. After Keith Scott’s shooting, his brother was captured on camera calling all white people “f–king devils” (the cop who shot Scott is black). How can anybody with a heart hold that racist remark against the guy? He had just learned that his brother had been shot dead. Still, if CNN wanted to examine the role of fear and loathing in causing people to lose their sense of self-control and say what was on their minds, that would have been interesting. It also would have been interesting to do a segment on what people, both white and black, say privately about race that they don’t say publicly, and whether we are losing that sense of decorum.
Just about the least interesting angle on all of this is putting the old white man on camera for seven long minutes, watching him squirm. Or considering the offensive words of a local Trumpkin who lives in an economically devastated Rust Belt city worth going over and over on national TV. But that was the narrative CNN prefers. For all I know, it was the same thing on all cable news channels. It made me glad I don’t have cable. Shallow sensationalism, and all that.
What’s interesting is that if you got your news from CNN in that hour last night, you would have thought that one of the most important things to know about the Charlotte troubles is that it prompted elderly white Republicans to say dumb and insensitive things about black people. That’s how the reality gets manufactured. And please, don’t say, “But what about Fox?” I have no doubt that Fox is manufacturing its own reality. That’s what our news media, especially TV, do.
Anyway, the reason I decided to post on this is an e-mail I received last night from a reader, a white North Carolina Democrat who is a defense attorney. He can’t stand Trump, but his work with poor white people has made him more merciful towards people’s frailties.
He wrote that yesterday, he represented a very poor young white woman in court on a drug charge. I won’t give details out of respect for his privacy, but he explained in detail her background, and the circumstances of her life, and my God, this woman never had a chance. The lawyer writes:
I got her out of jail today but she faces an uphill climb for the rest of her life. So I imagine her views on race or refugees or cultural elites are pretty warped. And if I was her, I’d have the same views too. That doesn’t make her deplorable. It makes her human.
The kids rioting in Charlotte have their own stories. They have their own reason to be mad. They’re human too.
I appreciated his e-mail. To be clear, he wasn’t defending the actions or the putative opinions on race and immigration of his client. He was reminding me that so many people in our society — black, white, and otherwise — have such complicated stories, and carry burdens that the rest of us can scarcely imagine. Obviously the burdens a Congressman carries are much less than those carried by a poor young black man in Charlotte, or a poor young white woman in whatever small town the lawyer’s client lives in. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.
Still, it says something about our time and our culture that our national media are more interested in seizing on a public person’s gaffe, and making a huge deal out of it, as if an ignorant opinion stated publicly was real and important news. Our media do this all the time. It’s lazy and it’s wrong.
You know what I would like to see? A TV news organization go deep into exploring the roots of casual black racism, and challenge racial prejudice held by some black people with actual facts. And I would like to see them go deep into exploring the roots of casual white racism, to consider why whites who hold those opinions do. J.D. Vance, in Hillbilly Elegy, wrote about white welfare scammers he grew up with who blamed others (black folks, I would imagine) for being welfare scammers, but justified their own behavior. What’s the psychology of that? What it leads to is an inquiry into the role that beliefs and behavior play in blaming others for one’s own failures. And the same could and should be asked of poor black Americans.
At the bottom of the obnoxious comments by the Congressman and the Trump campaign lady are a serious and interesting question: Why did the end of segregation and the opening up of opportunity to African-Americans make little difference in the material circumstances of so many of them? It seems that the only answer anybody in the media is interested in is: Racism. Similarly, it’s clear that the only answer a lot of white conservatives are interested in is: It’s entirely your own fault.
On the other side, there are people who look at the misery and brokenness of poor white people’s lives and think: They’re poor because the Other (blacks, immigrants, et al.) are taking from them/the rich and well-connected are holding them back. Others think: It’s entirely their own fault, the redneck racists. J.D. Vance has taught us to see that both can be true to some extent, and to see these people as real people, not only victims of circumstance and , but also moral agents who in many cases are authors of their own misery.
In other words, as human beings.
The e-mail I got from the NC lawyer made me think more mercifully about the rioters, and about someone like his poor white client. It’s a hard balance to strike, between being merciful and holding people responsible for the bad things they do, and very few of us get it right 100 percent of the time. God forbid, though, that we fail to get it right when talking to the news media, which seems to delight in punishing and humiliating people who say the wrong thing. Well, certain kinds of people, anyway.
I’ll leave you with these excerpts from J.D. Vance’s great piece from yesterday’s New York Times:
It’s difficult in the abstract to appreciate that those with morally objectionable viewpoints can still be good people. This perhaps explains why Mrs. Clinton showed considerably less charity than did Mr. Obama as a candidate in a widely praised 2008 speech on race. In one particularly personal passage, he spoke about his white grandmother — an imperfect, but fundamentally good, woman, “a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
He goes on to cite data showing that large numbers of Democrats also hold pretty stark prejudices, and that indeed almost all Americans do, one way or another. Vance goes on:
There are many ways to confront the people of that nation in all its complexity. We can ignore that these biases exist, and pretend that our uniquely diverse society need never address the difficult questions posed by that diversity. This is the path chosen by far too many of my fellow conservatives.
We can deem a significant chunk of our populace unrepentant bigots, which appears to be the strategy of Mrs. Clinton and much of the left.
Or we can recognize that most of us fall into another basket altogether: One where prejudice — even implicit — coexists with incredible compassion and decency. In that basket is the black preacher who may view homosexuality as a little icky even as he lovingly ministers to struggling gay members of his church. The adoptive parent of a child born in Asia, who pours her heart and soul into her child’s well-being even as she tells a pollster that she doesn’t much care about America’s experience with Japanese internment. And in that basket is a white grandmother who speaks ill of black people even as she gives her beloved African-American grandson the emotional support and love that enable him to become the president of all Americans.
I’m willing to bet that the biggest difference between Don Lemon and the impolitic Republicans he skewered is that he has enough sense to keep his own prejudices off camera. How true is that of all of us? If the world could see the prejudices and bigotries in our hearts, would any of us be able to pass scrutiny?