But that is not covering race. That is covering the tragedies, dramas and sideshows that periodically arise from race. We are always there when the circus comes to town. And even then, it turns out our attention is surprisingly fickle. Last year, the Pew Research Centers Project for Excellence in Journalism posted an analysis which found that, with the notable exception of the Trayvon Martin case, news media tend to drop stories with racial implications with surprising quickness. According to Pew, for instance, during the week of March 17th 2008, the story of Jeremiah Wrights inflammatory comments consumed 17 percent of the news hole nationally. The following week, it dropped to 3 percent. The week of July 19th 2010, Shirley Sherrod represented 14 percent of the news hole, the following week, she was two. Stories related to race, according to Pew, tend to have little staying power.
The reason we tend to drop race like a hot potato, I think, is that, contrary to what some of my readers contend, we in the news media draw our members from the ranks of the human race. And human beings, particularly in this country with its fraught history of slavery, violence, suppression, exclusion and murder, often find race a very difficult subject to talk about.
But again, its not even race that we tend to cover but, rather, the aftermath of race the incidents that race creates the circus of race. So what do I mean, then, by race?
If you read the first of the two columns I wrote in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, you may remember that I made reference to a social experiment I once saw on television. What Would You Do? is one of those hidden camera shows in which they set up a situation and watch to see how average people respond. In the segment I wrote about, a young white actor sets to work trying to steal a chained up bicycle in a park. He uses a hacksaw, a bolt cutter and even an electric saw. The cameras watch for an hour. A hundred people pass by. A few mildly question what hes doing, but most dont even bother. Out of that 100 people, only one couple calls authorities. ABC also tried the setup with an attractive blonde woman. Five white guys stopped and helped her steal the bike.
It was when they did the experiment with a black kid that things got interesting. And you know where this is going. Within the first minutes, theres a crowd of people around him. They challenge him.
They lecture him. They whip out cell phone cameras and take video of him for use in court. They call the police. And afterward, when they are asked if the color of the young man stealing the bike had any bearing on their actions, they all swear it did not.
As one man put it, Not at all. He couldve been any color, it wouldnt have mattered to me.
So when you ask yourself what I mean by race, I mean that. That is race.
And can we pause and just deal with that for a moment? Ask yourself what it means that, after an experiment that demonstrates with stark clarity the dimensions of racial bias, that man can assure us all race had nothing to do with his decision to harass the black kid and that he absolutely would have given the same treatment to the white one. We know from watching the video that he very likely would not.
The point is not that that man is lying. Far from it. The point is that he is telling the truth as he understands it. How can he be guilty of racial discrimination? He doesnt burn crosses on peoples lawns. He doesnt post Whites Only signs in his place of business. Black people are welcome at his house, as Archie Bunker once put it, through the front door as well as the back. So there is no way he looked at that black kid in the park and committed racial profiling. This is his truth. Race had nothing to do with it.