The Language of Race
"The suspect is described as a thin, black male, 20 to 30 years old, about 5 feet 8, who probably uses a bicycle to cruise neighborhoods."
The description in the local newspaper was like so many others, so familiar that anyone who has ever read a headline or watched the nightly news could finish the sentence after knowing only the first few words.
It was the sort of description that passes for information in too much of American journalism today, part of a dysfunctional racial discourse that doesn’t always mean what it says and seldom says what it means.
Language is the brick and mortar of the profession, transmitting in a single word, phrase, or juxtaposed fact countless intended and unintended messages to readers, listeners, and viewers. A sports headline declaring that "Indians extend Boston’s massacre" may not have intended to evoke the racist stereotype of the savage American Indian, but it hurts just the same.
Excellent journalism starts with an understanding that language has power. It demands clear writing. It leaves little to chance interpretations.
But the mangled language of race is punctuated with descriptions that underscore ethnicity but describe nothing. It is mired in euphemisms and the tortured, convoluted syntax that betray America’s pathological avoidance of straight talk about race relations.
Put it all together and you get stereotypes, dangerous misinformation, half-truths, and daily proof that when it comes to race, journalists are chained to habits that defy the cornerstone principles of solid journalism.
And that’s the point. Journalists who can’t connect with the myriad moral reasons to reform the way they write and report about race and race relations don’t have to look further for their motivation than some of the core values that undergird the profession: Accuracy. Precision. Context. Relevance.
You won’t find euphemisms on that list.
Yet, "urban" (a sociological term), "inner city" (a geographic term), and "blue collar" (an economic term), are employed to connote race and ethnicity. "Minority," a numerical term, is often used when the journalist actually has a specific racial group in mind, allowing for the ridiculous oxymoron, "majority minority." "Poor" is euphemized as "disadvantaged" and often used as a synonym for people of color.
Consider the way race, class, and fashion are handled in the following paragraph from a story about teen-agers’ love affair with brand-name clothing:
"Incongruous as it seems, designer names that once were best known among the traditional preppy set are now the highly coveted "must have" items of black teen-agers all over the country." –March 1995
What does "traditional preppy" mean? If you used the dictionary’s definition ("A student or former student of a private secondary school that prepares students to enter college."), "preppy" and "black teen-agers" would not be as "incongruous" as the writer says. More likely, the writer meant "white and well-off" when she wrote "traditional preppy." The reader might be forgiven for seeing more than a fashion statement in the text.
The paragraph, like the story, carries with it several assumptions that could be challenged for accuracy and completeness, two of the cornerstones of solid journalism. How might the story change if the reporter asked the question, "What am I trying to say?"
Ask that question about the description at the end of this story about an Orange County, Calif., man accused of posing as a doctor and "treating" patients in a clinic:
"Police believe Moreno worked at the First Street clinic for at least a year, with his partner Rafael Garay. The clinic primarily served Hispanic families." –April 1998
Why is it important for the public to know that the Orange County clinic served Hispanic families? Or what about a December 1997 story about a Florida woman shot in her jewelry store that said "her husband arrived and reported that the 28-year-old Vietnamese woman had been murdered." Why is it relevant to say that the woman was Vietnamese?
The thing is, race often has relevance in stories. It’s just that the relevance goes un— explored and unexplained. In both cases above, it’s easy to imagine reasons for using ethnicity or race. Perhaps the Orange County clinic was serving recent immigrants whose English was poor and whose tenuous status in the community made them more susceptible to scam artists. Maybe the Florida woman was a Vietnam native working toward American citizenship.
But maybe not. Who knows? Neither story provided the context that solid journalism demands.
What the public is left with is a story that singles out a person’s race or ethnicity for no apparent reason, harkening to a day when the reason was racism. That’s why the practice of using race to identify people, as journalistically unsound as it often is, generates so much emotional heat.
It’s about history.
White-run news organizations historically used racial identifiers to distinguish the person from white people. If you were not white and you were in the news, your race would be mentioned. It was that simple. An example from the archives of a southern newspaper under the headline, "Harm Escaped by Bed Smoker":
"Ivory Jefferson, Negro, 31, Beaumont, Tex., truck driver, told police he was awakened about 5 a.m. Friday by a combination of heat, smoke, and the clanging of a fire bell." –December 1959
Black people, like American Indians, Asians, and Latinos, were regarded as a "separate society," a retired southern newspaper editor once told me. So it was natural to identify them by race so that white readers would know the story wasn’t about white people. The use of race had nothing to do with the details of how a person looked. All that mattered was that they were not white.
Racial identifiers were used to selectively support beliefs in white supremacy. They were used to call attention to the criminal, immoral, or threatening acts of other racial and ethnic groups to demonstrate that the stereotypes about those groups were true. In many American newsrooms, things only began to change in the early 1970s.
The most benign effect of that practice was to separate people of color from the white mainstream. The more malignant, lasting effect–in the media and beyond–has been an unfounded but unshakable connection between people of color and social pathology. It has contributed to some of America’s most destructive acts of prejudice, from white flight in neighborhoods and schools to injudicious police stops of men with black, brown, red, and yellow skin.
That is why people continue to anguish over using identifiers. Journalists who understand this historic habit worry about contributing to the stereotypes and prejudices to which the practice plays.
Because this is about hurting people, it is an ethical and moral issue. But the larger point here is that it is imprecise to describe someone as black. Or Latino. Or white. Or Native American. Or Asian.
That’s all a Hawaiian newspaper frequently offered its readers to help them picture the hair, eyes, skin color, lips, and ears of a native Hawaiian suspect:
"The man, described as a local male wearing a tan shirt and a white baseball cap, fled in a brown Ford Thunderbird driven by another man." –May 1998
Racial identifiers do carry information–about geography, about bloodlines, about heritage. But they don’t describe much of anything.
What, for example, does a Hispanic man look like? Is his skin dark brown? Reddish brown? Pale? Is his hair straight? Curly? Course? Fine? Does he have a flat, curved nose or is it narrow and straight? Telling the public that he’s 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, with a blue shirt and blue jeans says something about the person’s appearance. But what do you add to that picture when you say Latino?
And what is black? It’s the color of pitch. Yet, the word is used to describe people whose skin tones can cover just about every racial and ethnic group in the world, including white people. What does the word "black" add to the mental picture the public draws? How do you draw the lips? The eyes? The nose? What sort of hair does a black person have? What color skin does a black person have? The combinations are infinite.
All racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics. Still, we don’t see the phrase "Irish-looking man" in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, "The suspect appeared to be Italian"? Couldn’t many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as "Jewish-looking."
There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?
"The two suspects were described as black men in their 20s. One was about 5-7, the other between 5-8 and 5-10." –May 1996
Too many newsrooms brag that they’ve solved the problem of racial identification by requiring other "distinguishing marks" before they’ll allow race to be used as a descriptor. A scar on the cheek. A gold tooth. A tattoo. None of that addresses the myth that race describes how someone looks.
Think about it this way: In order for everyone reading, watching, or listening to the story to conjure up the same image in their mind’s eye, they must all share a common understanding of what a Latino person looks like. In other words, people who are Latino would have to look alike. Except for the scars, gold teeth, and tattoos.
Here is an alternative: If journalists told their audience that the suspect was about 5-foot-8, about 165 pounds, with caramel-brown skin, wavy, dark brown hair about an inch long, thick eyebrows, a narrow nose, thick lips, and a light mustache, people could pick me from a lineup of men whose skin and face were different from mine. Nobody would need to know my race. It wouldn’t matter if I was descended from Africans, spoke Spanish, worshipped Allah, lived on a reservation, or called a Hawaiian woman mother.
And every Latino man in America would not be implicated in a crime because the newspaper printed a description such as this one:
"She said he was a white or Hispanic man wearing a red cap and shirt." –June 1996
Unless the story is specifically about race–the Jasper, Texas, case, for example–race has little descriptive value in a story. Colin Ferguson’s murderous subway ride was about race. Tiger Woods’ dispute with Fuzzy Zoeller was about race. The struggle of biracial people to be recognized on the Census is about race. A suspect description is about how a person looks.
Journalists need to challenge the presence of racial identifiers and their euphemistic disciples in every story. Demand more from the people who give vague, meaningless descriptions, just as you do whenever a politician gives vague or meaningless information. Ask, "What do you mean?" when someone speaks in euphemisms, just as you do when doctors or rocket scientists lapse into jargon. Ask the question of relevance whenever race appears in a story. Say what you mean and say it clearly.
It’ll add up to fairer treatment of people of color and could even help the public talk more openly and directly about race. That’s a noble goal whose roots run much deeper than the modern debates about so-called political correctness that greet stories like this one.
The roots are in accuracy. Precision. Context. Relevance. That’s not PC. It’s solid journalism.