How Does the Media Shape Our Views of Race?

Skis and Whighams Artistic Effect

Though the 24-hour news cycle began with the launch of CNN in 1980, I don’t really remember being consumed by news all day, every day until the arrest of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his wife Nicole and of Ron Goldman. I remember watching that white Bronco speed down the interstate over and over again, with the police in close pursuit. For almost a year, the arrest and the trial played endlessly on CNN before Simpson was acquitted.

One of my closest friends at the time was an African-American male. We had many conversations about the role that race played in the trial, and I tried very hard to understand how he could believe that it might be possible that white law enforcement had framed Simpson.

Both my friend and my husband grew up in Anacostia, a neighborhood that became predominantly black when they were both in middle school. My husband’s parents, devout Catholics, sent him to parochial schools. My friend’s mother, a single parent, sent him to the public Anacostia High School. Both of them became public school teachers in the suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland.

In the wake of the O.J. trial, when I repeatedly asked my friend how on earth he could believe that O.J. might be innocent, he told me a story that I’ll never forget. When he was in middle school, he and two of his friends decided to ride the bus to the end of the line, in what is now Potomac, Maryland, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country. He described how they pressed their faces to the window, awed by mansions that dwarfed the most famous house they knew, the White House.

They got off the bus at the end of the line with the intention of walking around and looking at some of the houses. But they were stopped by a white policeman, who asked them, using a racial epithet, what they were doing in Potomac. Stammering, all three of them tried to respond that they just wanted to see what was at the end of the bus line. The policeman promptly told them to get back on the bus and go back home. Confused and humiliated, my friend and his friends climbed back onto the bus and rode back to Anacostia in silence, something highly unusual for my gregarious friend.

Before he died in March 2013, my friend became one of the most beloved administrators in the Montgomery County school system. He told me that it was a source of pride and wonder to him that he had been able to break racial barriers and rise to the top of the school system’s administration after his first foray into Montgomery County. He served as principal in three schools before becoming a hearing officer who helped students who had been suspended—a job he used to help minority students find their way back on track in a system that felt as foreign to them as it did to him on the day of that bus ride in the 1960s.

I’ve thought of my friend a lot this week in the wake of the events in Ferguson. I also have another close friend who is a white policeman who has railed against President Obama and Attorney General Holder because they have not been more neutral and have not given the benefit of the doubt to the policeman who shot Michael Brown.

According to Pew Research surveys, most black Americans believe the policeman killed Brown in cold blood, and a number of whites agree with my friend who railed against the president. But, interestingly, many white and even a sizable number of black Americans are reserving judgment until more facts are made known. Many of us are willing to concede the possibility that either man in that confrontation in Ferguson could have been the aggressor.

It has taken the better part of two weeks for the 24-hour news cycle to slow down and acknowledge that we may never know all the facts about what happened in that St. Louis suburb. And in that two weeks, they have stirred the pot so much that 90% of the people arrested for the violence in Ferguson are people who live as far away as California—people who traveled half-way across the country to spur the residents on to violence.

But many of the residents in Ferguson actually tried to stop the protestors who resorted to violence and threatened the command center. This isn’t something that sells on the 24-hour news cycle, and so, since there have been two peaceful nights, the news media plans to leave tomorrow unless more violence tonight helps them to sell air time.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have both spoken of their own experiences that are similar to my friend’s. They understand, in a way that I cannot possibly understand, how it is that the minority citizens of Ferguson (and elsewhere) would be distrustful of the police.

Neither man can win. Both have chosen to speak of their race to the wounded and the suspicious in Ferguson. And both have been bashed for failing to defend the policeman who shot Brown. But had they done so, they would probably not have been heard by the people who needed most to hear them.

What astonishes me, again and again, is that President Obama is white—at least as white as he is African-American. His mother was as white as his father was black. And yet we consistently identify him as an African-American. How might things change if we spoke of him as a white American, which he also is?

I often wonder how different our country would be right now if, instead of bashing the president at every opportunity, we all agreed that our world will only survive if we find a way to talk about issues of race, of issues that divide us. What would it be like if we tell stories that lift up instead of tearing down?

So tell me now, what stories do you know that could bring about peace?