Recently, I was at a thrift shop, shopping for CDs, and I picked up Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is album. I’ve heard the title track plenty of times on the radio, but I’ve never really listened to it. When I did, I was disgusted to hear that the song has the same 4-beat drum machine pattern playing through the entire song: four and a half minutes. No rhythm changes, no drum fills, no cymbals, nothing. Just the same beat. You can almost imagine Bruce playing the intro, then reaching over and pressing Start on the drum machine. The song even fades out since there’s no programmed drum ending.
Absolutely horrible. And that song was a hit!
But, that’s not what this post is about, even if the message of the song is somewhat relevant. This morning, I was reading a news story about a police officer shooting an armed suspect during what may have been a standoff. The details of the situation aren’t important. I was struck by the reporting of the story. When I finished reading, I had the thought, “was the guy black?” I went back and re-read it and there was no mention of the suspect’s race. Huh.
Well, we can probably assume he was white, then. But that made me wonder, why do news stories always indicate the race of the people involved when they aren’t white? The person’s race has nothing to do with the story unless it involves race, and sometimes, not even then.
This reminds me of a time I was reading a local newspaper from my hometown area. I had moved away a long time ago and come to the understanding of how prejudiced that tiny area was. The story was more or less, “Police are investigating a report of an assault on a white female by a black male that occurred late Friday night.” Take out “white” and “black” and the story is still accurate, but doesn’t stir up any racial biases.
There’s a natural tendency for people to call out differences. Like if you give directions, you reference places that are different and easily identifiable. I think this has something to do with the fact that we crave novelty. But to specify a person’s race in a news story is almost saying, “this person is different and easily identifiable.” And I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t work the other direction, too. In black culture magazines, they probably use “white” a lot, because it’s different than the “normal”, their majority black readership. I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I be offended.
What I’m trying to say is what is being treated as a detail is not a detail unless it is a detail. For example, in that news story from my old hometown, the man’s identity is known, so his race is irrelevant. That would be different than “Police are asking for help finding a man involved in a fight yesterday at The Local bar. The man is white and balding, and referred to himself as Chuck.” That’s something you need to know in order to take action.
So, as an exercise for all of us, next time you read a news story, look for the race card being played, say to yourself, “that’s not necessary”, and self-censor it. See if the story reads just as well without those details.