Wednesday, May 25, 2011


With hip hop artists from Ludacris to Jay-Z singin’ about niggas all day long, it may seem like a quaint question to contemplate, but if you’re a writer living in the American South, it’s fundamental: When should you identify a person’s race in print?

The question, which came to mind as I was reading an article about a local robbery in Jackson, Miss., first presented itself several years ago, when a New York Times reporter traveling in the Mississippi Delta described passing “an old black man sitting on his porch.”

The image is familiar to anyone who’s traveled through the Delta, but referencing the man’s race struck me as telling. I wondered if the reporter would have mentioned seeing “an old white man sitting on his porch.” My guess is: No. If the old man had been white, the reporter would almost certainly have described him, simply, as “an old man sitting on his porch.”

The article wasn’t otherwise about race, when such an identification might have made sense. As it was, mentioning the man’s race told me that the reporter himself was white, and that he viewed the old man as “other.”

I often mentally transpose “black” and “white” when reading stories where race is an issue, as a sort of test. Does the story still ring true with the races reversed? It doesn’t always work – there are plenty of asterisks and special considerations where race is involved, but as an exercise it can be illuminating. In this case, trading “black” for “white” made the description seem kind of weird.

A writer chooses which details to highlight, and ideally those details bring vividness and insight to the story. In some cases, though, the details come straight off the rack, and tell us nothing we didn’t already know. Sometimes they actually steer us in the wrong direction. Reducing an old man to being black is just that – a reduction. If his race mattered, it would be better to let other details do the telling – the man’s own words, perhaps, the precise hue of his face, or the scars from sharp-edged cotton bolls on his hands. He could be described as being among the few who remain of the region’s former sharecroppers, if the reporter was sure that was the case. Basically: Anything that goes beyond making him a generic old black man, a prop.

Maybe I’m wrong, and describing the man on the porch in racial terms is no different than identifying him as old – or, for that matter, as male. But what if the reporter had said he passed “a heavy man” sitting on his porch. It would just be a description, yet would seem to indicate some intent, to confer specific meaning.

When I was writing my book Mississippi in Africa, about a group of freed slaves who immigrated to Liberia before the American Civil War, I chose not to identify anyone by skin color. The characters in the book were black, white and all shades in between, and I didn’t consider it my role to determine anyone’s race or position it relative to my own. It was either identify everyone’s race, which would have been tiresome (and in some cases, complicated), or identify no one’s. So I chose the latter. What mattered was what a person said or did; if a person’s race was important, for whatever reason, it would be self-evident. Since then I’ve generally adhered to this rule, but I’ve noticed that most writers – at least, most white writers -- don’t.

It’s not that we all don’t take note of people’s races, but when attempting to create an objective account, which is what journalists are supposed to do, it’s important to identify and minimize your own bias. There are cases where it makes sense to note that a person’s perspective is influenced by the fact that he or she is black, white, Asian or Native American, but to mention it in passing reveals a subtle form of bias. It’s the same kind of bias I noticed in the best-selling novel The Help, in which the white characters speak in normal grammar while the black characters speak in dialect, indicating that in the author’s view whites are the norm and blacks, even when they are the protagonists, are “other.”

On the flip side, it’s possible to reveal a personal bias by not referencing race, as when writers ascribe certain characteristics to “the South” when those attributes are actually indicative of a specific southern demographic, not the population as a whole. As the historian Bill Ferris has noted, it’s inaccurate to even say that the South lost the Civil War because it was technically the white South that lost; the black South was liberated by it. Likewise, to say that fancy hunting camps and antebellum homes are popular in southern culture is only half true. So, ascribing race does sometimes matter. A journalist has to be able to recognize when it does and when it doesn’t. The point is to see beyond one’s personal bias to report what is factually known, not to rely upon perceptions or even the desire to change them.

If it were just a matter of ignoring a person’s race in print, a journalist’s job would be easier. But in some cases failing to mention a person’s race can actually do a disservice. A case in point was an article in the May 21, 2011, edition of the Jackson newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, which reported that local police were looking for a gunman who’d robbed a Church’s Fried Chicken and fired into a car in the parking lot as he fled. The article described the robber as being about five feet six inches tall, weighing about 150 lbs., wearing a black hat and hoodie and white gloves. According to the police report, he fled in a maroon Ford Contour.

OK, so… anything else? Since we’re talking about the colors of things, in hopes of identifying the suspect, it was natural to wonder: Was the guy, like, black or white? The article didn’t say. Omitting his race was not a simple oversight. It is apparently The Clarion-Ledger’s editorial policy to not identify a person’s race when a crime is involved, even when the public is being asked to participate in the search. Never mind that skin color, like hair color, is among the more salient details of a person’s physical description. In this case, the question of whether to identify race was very different than in the article in the New York Times.

Black crime, a common news topic in Jackson, isn’t the issue. This was a story about finding a criminal. Though the Church’s robbery may seem like comparatively minor news, for anyone who was there it no doubt seemed pretty major, and it’s distressing anytime a criminal gets away, which is why that one omission by the newspaper struck me as absurd. It’s not a matter of implying or reinforcing a perceived link between race and crime. It’s about identifying a suspect based on a physical description released by the police. To refuse to provide the pertinent information makes it seem like there’s something to hide.

In all likelihood, the newspaper’s policy is a reaction to a perception among many of its readers that most local criminals are black, which they often are, for a multitude of reasons, including that the dominant race in Jackson, by a very wide margin, is African American. Most of the people on the police force are also black. Most people who work in the city’s fast-food restaurants are black. Most victims of crime are black. That doesn’t mean a black person is more likely to rob someone than anyone else, only that more people are robbed by black people in Jackson than by people of other races. It’s just the way it is. We don’t need to know the race of the investigating officers, or the cashier who was robbed, or the people in the car that was fired upon. But we do need to know what the alleged criminal looks like. Otherwise, are we simply to assume that he is black, because that is the default setting? If he was white, which he may have been, we would need to know that, too, if we were trying to identify him for police.

Facts – not perceptions – are what matter. By attempting to subvert a presumed prejudice, the newspaper arguably reinforces it, as if to say, “Read between the lines. We can’t say whether he or she is black or white. But you can figure it out on your own.” The robber was in a predominately black part of town, wearing a hoodie, right? Yet white guys wear hoodies, too. They also commit crimes and drive Ford Contours. The newspaper was alerting us to look for someone specific, yet his face was intentionally obscured. The details are certainly known at Church’s, in the police precinct and at the newspaper. They’re just not known to the readers.

I don’t mean to give the impression that an old man on a porch isn't the right choice to rep his race, but a criminal is. In general, I don’t think race should be a salient detail. But in the case of the robbery, knowing if the gunman was black or white could eliminate a lot of possibilities for people observing drivers of maroon Contours in the area, and prevent investigators from wasting time following up on pointless leads. Not that locating a Contour-driver of the same race as the suspect would mean the driver was guilty. That is for the courts to decide. It’s about recognizing a person in hopes that you can identify him and report his whereabouts, because he is suspected of having committed a crime. It isn’t about a reporter’s bias or about legal prejudice or racial profiling.

My guess is that The Clarion-Ledger considers its policy progressive, and on the surface it might appear to have some merit, in that many residents, black and white, will assume that the crime was committed by a young black male, because that is who they most often see being arrested on TV. That, of course, actually is racial prejudice. But if you had witnessed the Church’s robbery, and the police investigating the crime asked the suspect’s race, would you refuse to say out of concern for how it might be perceived?

At the end of The Clarion-Ledger article was this notation: “Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Jackson Police Department at (601) 960-1234 or CrimeStoppers at (601) 355-TIPS.” I’m guessing that among the first questions the police would ask a caller is whether the guy being reported was black or white. It’s one of the details available to them to help narrow the search.

In the old days, when The Clarion-Ledger was a shameless racist rag, the fact that an alleged criminal was black would have been given too much prominence; the current policy is no doubt a reaction to this. But when the police are describing a criminal suspect, in hopes that the public can identify him, race is among many characteristics that matter. It’s useful in the same way that identifying the color of his car is useful. Leaving the reader to make his or her own assumptions about his race, based upon his or her personal biases, is a disservice. Referring to a person’s race when it isn’t germane reveals the limits of our own understanding, but declining to mention it when it matters actually does limit our understanding.

As you have probably figured out by now, I’m white. It matters, I suppose, in this context. Race sometimes influences my personal views, in myriad ways, and I think it’s important to take that into account when holding forth as an objective chronicler of the times. After that, it’s either address the issue or dispense with it. The point is to not let it get in the way of the stories we have to tell.

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