In the middle of the frantic search for the bomber or bombers at the Boston Marathon, there was also a race for information to see who would break the news first–accuracy be damned. Every news outlet was all Boston all the time. Advertising was effectively stopped, prime-time programming was preempted, and all we heard was speculation about who could have plotted such an attack and how was it carried out. Law enforcement was on high alert, yet the silence was deafening. There was no information, except for the information concocted by newscasters from so-called reliable sources.
The statement that may have caused the most controversy during the search for suspects was a comment made by John King on CNN. “I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male.” He had prefaced the comment by saying, “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things.”
Even with that preface, what King said was irresponsible. When is it responsible to say such a generalization about a suspect? Especially when we find out that it was not a correct description at all. In fact, the suspects–one killed, the other alive–were both Caucasian.
And this erroneous report by King only added to a subsequent one–again a rush to judgment–that reported a suspect was in custody when it wasn’t true. It was almost embarrassing to see professional reporters take a step back from the story and then blame their sources for the miscue.
But back to the color question and how we describe people of interest in general. The topic of stop-and-frisk has been front and center in New York City for months, even years. With more than 5 million people being stopped over the last several years–an overwhelming number of them people of color–the question must be asked: Can the description of “a dark-skinned male” be tolerated?
Far too often, the news media, the police or the victims just identify a suspect or assailant as someone with dark skin or with a foreign accent, as was the case in this recent incident. Does that mean that they are white and have a tan? Does that mean they are the color of a brown paper bag? Are they the color of milk chocolate or are they black as coal?
What does “dark-skinned” mean? Does it mean because they have some melanin in their skin, they are, of course, a suspect? In our society, we have created such a stereotypical attitude toward race. It has permeated law enforcement, the media, education, healthcare and the workforce. It has put people of color–any color–at so much more of a disadvantage, more than just being targets.
We are targets; whether it is by police in stop-and-frisk, or by right-wing fanatics seeking to blame us for the misery in their lives. In the schools, they are looking to blame, scapegoat or deny facilities and materials to our children. In the health care system, we are often neglected, most ignominiously used as guinea pigs and generally mistreated.
In the workforce, we tend to get less pay for more work; we are the last hired and the first fired, particularly when something goes wrong, even if it is in a different department. So it shouldn’t come to us as a surprise when a media newscaster says we are on the hunt for a “dark-skinned male.” This society has been hunting us since we were forcibly dragged from Africa.
Until the media reins itself in, until our kids are not made to feel that the color of their skin says anything about who they are, we are in trouble. It was over 50 years ago that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he says, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
It’s 50 years later and we are still not only being judged, but also defined by the color of our skin.