No Real Conversation About Race

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin. Who is next?

We're the white mothers of two African American sons in their 20s. We've always been aware that, as Bruce Springsteen poignantly wrote, our sons could "get killed just for living in [their] American skin." Our fear and frustration have grown in recent weeks, however, as we hear and read about the senseless slaughter of young black men by white police officers--police officers who are ultimately not held accountable for these deaths.

We are even more frustrated that the news media--people in our society who could play a pivotal role in creating a "dialogue" about such injustices--have fallen short.

The nation is currently transfixed by images from Ferguson, New York City, and other communities where people are gathering to protest the police shooting of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men. But the focus is momentary, with reports providing little sustained attention to the pattern of black men being profiled, stopped by police, and then frequently subjected to violence, including shooting to kill, which appears to be the first rather than the last resort when a black man is involved.

Although various news outlets claim that their coverage of Ferguson and other related events has deepened our national conversation on race, journalistic practice belies that claim. The nightly news captures images of signs held by protestors that read "Black Lives Matter," "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," and "I can't breathe." Reporters film demonstrators lying in city streets, and give us the play-by-play as they stand on street corners waiting for riots to happen. The newscaster simply narrates what is happening, and keeps the most poignant images. It makes good television.

It's a prime opportunity for conversation, but nothing meaningful has been said.

Two journalistic practices in particular undermine efforts at any real conversation on race. The first is the focus on the present, absent of important historical context. News coverage of Ferguson immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown featured the incident and the people directly involved--Brown, Brown's family, and Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him. When the grand jury failed to indict Wilson, the story focused primarily on the protests, the protesters, and Wilson's account of what happened. The news focus is momentary, with reports providing little sustained attention to the pattern of black men being profiled, stopped by police, and then frequently subjected to violence, including shooting to kill.

The second practice that undermines real conversation is the creation of a conflict-oriented narrative that features two sides. Ferguson is a story about police versus black community members, or protesters versus the police and the grand jury. This two-sided drama misses the complexity of racial issues. The need to create heightened dramatic conflict to sustain the story leads reporters to seek out people who represent the most extreme positions, which distorts the complexity of the issues even more.

The narrative structure of the news also focuses the story on particular characters. Ferguson is the story of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. We read conflicting reports about whether Brown assaulted Wilson first or whether Brown was running from the police or for his life. We hear commentators talk about whether Wilson is a racist. We hear the opinions of random people on the street. Rather than furthering the conversation about race, this focus on specific people simply diverts attention from the issues.

As long as we reduce racism to something we can infer about an individual's state of mind and police violence to one individual, we fail to understand the depth and complexity of either issue. Many whites find it particularly difficult to understand black claims of racism. To a large extent, that is because whites see racism as an individual act rather than structural and institutional bias. Media coverage of race simply confirms rather than questions that position. And the same is true of police brutality.

The word "conversation" pops up frequently on CNN and MSNBC to characterize anything in which guests offer differing viewpoints on whether or not race is central to the headline news of recent weeks. But there is rarely a "conversation" about race going on because every incident is reduced to the individuals involved, and polarized positions leave the most significant dots unconnected. Was Darren Wilson a racist? Are the police in Cleveland racists? As soon as the so-called conversation turns in this direction, the floor is open for debate and not for deeper dialogue.

As white women concerned about their black sons, the tension of current events has raised our apprehension level substantially. The next time one of our sons is stopped for DWB, might the situation escalate? Blacks have been vocal in TV news segments, expressing the terror of their everyday lives, terror for their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, nephews, and for the generation yet to come, because our nation has made little progress toward a meaningful conversation about race.

Fern L. Johnson is Research Professor and Professor Emerita, Clark University and co-author with Marlene G. Fine of The Interracial Adoption Option: Creating a family Across Race, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013.