How We Talked About It, Part II

The Boston Globe asks the wrong question about racism in America

The front page of today’s Boston Globe has an inexplicably simplistic article innocuously titled, “Checking racism’s postelection pulse.” In it, staff writers Keith O’Brien and Michael Levenson ponder what they perhaps thought was a good post-election question: “Is racism in America dead?”

It’s simply the wrong question to ask. The fact that Obama was elected to presidential office has huge social and cultural implications for our country, but nowhere in that narrative-to-be exists the notion that if he is elected, then it will mean that racism is dead. There is no such if-then construct.

Here’s how the Globe couches it:

As they woke yesterday morning, settling into the news that voters had elected an African-American to be the next president, schoolchildren and professors, chief executives and bus drivers, black people, white people, and others were asking themselves a simple question.

Is racism in America dead?

The answer, coming as people began to digest the fact that a majority of Americans had chosen a black man, Barack Obama, to be the 44th president, was not nearly as straightforward. No, but sort of. Maybe, but probably not. While Obama’s achievement was profound, its psychological lift enormous for many, the impact on the rhythms of people’s everyday lives was revealing itself in subtler ways.

The people quoted in the story have reflective, sometimes powerful, things to say. It’s really just the question—the Globe’s frame—that is all wrong. It’s reductionist, and an error in logic, to consider that a black man becoming president is the last nail pounded into the coffin for racism, and while it’s highly unlikely that that was the Globe’s assumption, it’s just as simplistic or condescending to think that people might consider it so. Even the most ecstatic of Obama supporters wouldn’t suggest that racism is dead in this country. So why ask whether it is?

The story’s question is grounded in the emotional context provided in the following paragraph:

On the streets of Boston, a city whose epochal racial tensions were captured in a famous photograph of a white man spearing a black man with the staff of an American flag, people of all races basked in the postelection glow yesterday. Sleep-deprived, they recounted where they were when the returns came in, how they felt when they learned Obama had won, and what they believe his victory signaled.

But the reporters get the language wrong. The photograph, taken in 1976 when the city was struggling to integrate its school system, shows a white man apparently attempting to spear a black man in front of Boston’s old State House—not actually making contact with him. Spearing can mean “thrusting at” in addition to “impaling,” but only if it’s used as an intransitive verb. The word choice is unnecessarily misleading; if we’re talking about difficult topics, let’s at least get them right. (Here’s an earlier Globe book review that offers some background on the incident. And here’s the Pulitzer-prize-winning photo itself.)

Lingering on this photograph, you realize that the article’s question—“Is racism in America dead?”—is really two-pronged. There’s an historical view, as epitomized by the photograph, which at the time was emblematic of white resistance to court-mandated busing between, for example, black Roxbury and white South Boston. But there’s also the cultural present, the here-and-now view, which encompasses the hopes that, as one Roxbury resident said in the article, racial profiling by the police will decrease, or that, as a teenager noted, “he would no longer be stared at like a ‘creature’ when he walks into downtown office buildings full of white people.” And while the two views are part of a spectrum, they’re still miles apart.

Have we gotten past those moments in Boston’s history of “epochal racial tensions,” as documented by that disturbing photograph? The answer is that, yes, for the most part, we have. And with its overarching question, the story initially seems to be asking about that history. (Have we reached a milestone? Have we outrun—forever, for good, indubitably—the dark days of our country’s very racist past?)

But that’s not really what the question, “Is racism in America dead?” asked the day after a black man was elected president, should mean. The subtext should tackle the here-and-now prong of the question: whether this simultaneously symbolic and very real victory might improve life for minorities in this country.

The answer to that is, as the article states in its opening paragraphs, “No, but sort of. Maybe, but probably not.” And many people quoted in the story answer the question in that vein. These answers are weighted by the knowledge that racism (take your pick of the supermarket, glass ceiling, or profiling varieties) does in fact very prevalently still exist. (They’re also the reason that the idealistic post-race argument of Obama’s candidacy, and now presidency, doesn’t hold very much water.)

This was, ultimately, the Globe’s mistake: asking what is essentially a double-entendre question without distinguishing between its two subtexts.

It’s not to say that the two aren’t inextricably linked. But there is an irritating simplicity in the reporters’ choice to use the historical photograph as the context for a question that is most relevant in the present day. That photograph is a time stamp for the reporters’ queries about racism, and it allows them to say Yes, indeed, we have come so far since that moment.

The problem with that narrative is that, like the is-there-isn’t-there discussion surrounding the Bradley Effect, having made progress in some sense is not a referendum on the State of Racism in America—or, at least, not a very holistic one. Some media watchers feared that if the Bradley Effect turned out to be nonexistent (as it did) in this election, the media would conflate that story (that people are no longer lying to pollsters about whom they are voting for) with the more dubious story that racism no longer plagues the country. That, fortunately, hasn’t yet happened. But conflating Obama’s victory with a similar diagnosis is making the same mistake, and, to boot, not giving readers enough credit for wanting more nuanced reporting.

And finally, while the “schoolchildren and professors, chief executives and bus drivers, black people, white people, and others” cited at the beginning of the article all make appearances and have their say, it’s not clear whether they each asked themselves if racism in America was dead, as the article states. Particularly if the question was first introduced by the reporters themselves, attributing the question to the sources and anecdotally reporting that, as they woke up, they asked themselves “a simple question,” is a patronizing tactic. Not least because the question is anything but simple.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.