As Louisiana churches burn, Congress hijacks the conversation on hate

On March 26, St. Mary Baptist, a historically black church in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, was set alight. One week later, so was Greater Union Baptist, another black church in St. Landry. After the latter incident, Earnest Hines, a deacon at a third black church in the area, Mount Pleasant Baptist, wondered if it would be wise to install security cameras: the successive fires surely couldn’t be a coincidence, he told NBC. Two days later, Hines watched as Mount Pleasant, too, burned.

The three fires (and a fourth, at a predominantly white church in a different parish) have attracted national media coverage in the past few days. Much of it has been cautious—a reflection, it would seem, of views on the ground. Local officials have invoked “suspicious elements” in the fires and acknowledge they are “no coincidence,” but have not yet said who started them, or why. Establishing those facts may take time: key evidence has likely burned. In their absence, community leaders are circumspect. “I can’t say for one reason or another that the actual burning was a racist act or a hate crime until we can determine who caused them,” Freddie Jack, president of a local Baptist association, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday. “We need the facts.”

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To this point, at least, the story has felt undercovered—but so do lots of stories, especially those emanating from underserved communities and areas. It’s more useful, perhaps, to say this story has felt atomized. With some exceptions—like Whoopi Goldberg’s monologue, yesterday, on The View—individual reports, while factually informative, have not added up to the broader conversation they beg us to have: a conversation about hate. The lack of hard conclusions is one reason for this; another, perhaps, is that nobody has been killed or physically hurt. But racists have burned black churches so many times in our history that we can surely center the Louisiana fires’ historical parallels and symbolism, without having to wait for definitive proof of motive. Why must hate have a body count for us to prioritize it?

America did have a conversation on hate yesterday: in Washington, where the House Judiciary Committee addressed the rise in hate crimes and white nationalism, and the role of big tech companies in enabling it. The hearing—which came less than a month after a white-nationalist terrorist livestreamed a killing spree at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand—was an opportunity for answers and accountability, but was hijacked; it became “a triumph of alternative fact,” as Yahoo’s Alexander Nazaryan put it. Republican lawmakers invited Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Candace Owens, of the right-wing group Turning Point USA, to testify. Klein called the Christchurch shooter a “left-wing” terrorist; Owens sparred with Democratic Representative Ted Lieu over her previous comment that Hitler wanted to “make Germany great,” and called the “Southern strategy”—the idea that Republicans played on racial fears to win Southern votes in the 1960s and ‘70s—a “myth.” Outside the room, YouTube disabled comments on its livestream of the hearing because they were filled with hate speech.

Many articles about the hearing painted it, accurately, as an embarrassing, off-the-rails mess. Of those I read, however, only Nazaryan’s, for Yahoo, mentioned the Louisiana church burnings. Journalists didn’t give Owens a platform to spin the history of US racism yesterday; Republicans in Congress did that. But amplifying her history—over and above the history that’s on vivid display in Louisiana right now—cedes control of the narrative to those who would distort it.

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In a rich report for NBC News—headlined “‘Blackness isn’t safe, anywhere’: How the church burnings in Louisiana send a dangerous message”—Janell Ross offered the context so much coverage has been lacking. “The cause of the fires and the specific motivations of anyone who may have set them have not yet been released,” she wrote. “But the magnitude of the loss and the reasons black churches may have been a target are much more clear.” Let’s root the conversation on hate in that.

Below, more on Louisiana, Congress, and hate:

  • “Domestic terrorism”: On Monday, the NAACP broke with the cautious tone that has characterized much discussion of the church fires. In a statement, Derrick Johnson, its president and CEO, called the fires “domestic terrorism.” He wrote: “We must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin or their faith. The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
  • Ugly echoes: For the local Advocate newspaper, Claire Taylor writes that the fires in St. Landry Parish recall simultaneous fires that burned three black churches in the nearby Baton Rouge area in 1996. Back then, Taylor reports, it took the authorities six months of investigations to conclude that a hate crime had been committed.
  • A win for the haters: For Wired, Issie Lapowsky has a good writethrough of yesterday’s hijacked House hearing on hate. “The hearing succeeded in doing just one thing… pitting minority groups against each other,” she writes. “The haters, in other words, got their way—and the tech giants that have allowed those hatemongers to fester and find each other got off scot free.”
  • Revisionist history: For New York’s Intelligencer, Ed Kilgore deconstructs Owens’s narrative on Republicans’ Southern strategy. “As a white southerner who grew up in the era in question, and watched the ‘southern switch’ and the ‘southern strategy’ in action day in and day out, I just can’t let denialists like Owens have the last word.”


Other notable stories:

  • William Barr, the attorney general, was also in Congress yesterday, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee. The hearing was ostensibly about the budget, but Barr’s statement that he would provide a redacted version of the Mueller report to Congress “within a week” grabbed all the headlines. Could we be in for a Friday or Sunday news dump? Either way, the delivery won’t be the final word: Democrats will almost certainly challenge Barr’s redactions, in court, if necessary. As the redactions are finalized, be sure to read Jeffrey Toobin’s enlightening rundown of Barr’s legal choices.
  • Last month, Devin Nunes, the pro-Trump California congressman, sued Twitter and two parody accounts—@DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow—for defamation. Nunes wasn’t done there. On Monday, he lodged a $150 million suit against McClatchy, which owns Nunes’s local Fresno Bee (Nunes has history with the paper). According to Fox News, which broke the story, Nunes alleges that a reporter “conspired with a political operative to derail Nunes’ oversight work into the Hillary Clinton campaign and Russian election interference.” McClatchy hit back hard; online, journalists and legal commentators called the suit frivolous. Judd Legum, founder of ThinkProgress, tweeted, “Devin Nunes sued a fictional cow and his next lawsuit is even more ridiculous. Pretty impressive.”
  • For The New York Times’s Upshot, Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy visualize data, from the Hidden Tribes Project, showing that Twitter gives a skewed impression of the Democratic electorate. “Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its ‘woke’ left wing,” they write. But “the outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse, and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online.”
  • In another good Upshot package yesterday, Neil Irwin and Emily Badger bust Trump’s claim, propagated by other immigration hardliners, that the United States is “full.” In fact, experts say that “an aging population and declining birthrates among the native-born population are creating underpopulated cities and towns, vacant housing and troubled public finances,” Irwin and Badger report. “When it comes to the economy, at least, the country looks more like one that is too empty than too full.”
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick checks in with Bklyner, a hyperlocal news site in Brooklyn that recently started a monthly(ish) print edition. The paper’s editor saw the new format as an advertising opportunity as local businesses struggled to cut through on Facebook, but revenue wasn’t the only goal. “As important was raising Bklyner’s brand awareness and getting stories out to the community that might otherwise be missed online.”
  • Before Elizabeth Warren ran for president, she was often described in the media as “charismatic.” Now she’s a candidate, however, journalists are touting her perceived lack of charisma as an electoral problem, Peter Beinart writes in The Atlantic. “Warren may be a victim of what scholars of women’s leadership call the ‘double bind,’” he writes. “For female candidates, it’s difficult to come across as competent and charismatic at the same time.”
  • Yesterday, The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website, launched more than 20 ad-free podcasts behind its paywall, Axios’s Sara Fischer reports. The podcasts, which will be produced in-house, will variously “focus on individual teams or cities, while others will focus on big topics, like sports and media, or the coverage of certain sports leagues.” In 2017, Tony Biasotti profiled The Athletic for CJR.
  • Earlier this year, MNG Enterprises—better known as Digital First Media, the hedge-fund backed publisher infamous for slashing costs at its newspapers—tried to take over rival chain Gannett, but was rebuffed. According to Reuters’s Jennifer Saba, Digital First, which already holds 7.4 percent of Gannett, is now changing tack: it plans to present candidates for six of the eight available spots on Gannett’s board at the latter’s annual meeting next month.
  • And for CJR, Elizabeth Hewitt finds that agricultural trade publications, such as Olive Oil Times, are increasingly having to cover the effects of climate change. “From European winemakers to California nut growers, agricultural news organizations are often well-sourced across broad regions in their efforts to track unusual weather patterns and their impacts,” she writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.