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Bill Boyarsky

Ferguson Exposes America's Enduring Legacy of White Bigotry

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Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

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At the heart of what’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., is an unbridgeable racial divide that has prevented too many whites from looking at African-Americans as human beings.

The racial divide is not exclusively between black and white. As a resident of Los Angeles and a journalist working here, I experience life in a city where Latinos, the largest ethnic group, whites, blacks and Asian-Americans generally live in different and largely separate neighborhoods. Relationships between dominant whites, Latinos and Asian-Americans each have their own dark, tangled stories in a state with a long history of oppression of people of color.

But the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin by a white volunteer patrolman in Florida, Oscar Grant III by a white transit police officer in Oakland and Ezell Ford recently by Los Angeles police, along with similar deaths over the years, have a special resonance.

Just why that is so was explained in a powerful Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on Monday by African-American journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, author of the book “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispatches From a Black Journalista.” Kaplan wrote:

For most of our history it’s been impractical, virtually impossible and often illegal to regard blacks as people, black men especially. How to think of Michael Brown’s welfare, his individuality, when black men are the very definition of criminality, of sub-humanness, when black life was once so degraded, when the public lynchings of black men were family-friendly events suitable for postcards? We may congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come but the fact is we still live that legacy of degradation, a legacy most vividly expressed in these high profile clashes between blacks and police.

The legacy goes beyond the relationship between African-Americans and the police. In a revealing analysis Tuesday, The New York Times found:

Five decades past the era of legal segregation, a chasm remains between black and white Americans — and in some important respects it’s as wide as ever. … Many other gaps — between men and women, between non-Hispanics and Hispanics — have shrunk substantially over the last few decades. But the black-white racial divide remains as central to American life as it has been for centuries.

The analysis, by the Times Upshot unit specializing in data-driven reporting, showed that although black managers and executives have increased in number as have lawyers and engineers, African-Americans are underrepresented in high-income jobs and overrepresented in low-income work such as food preparation.

Unemployment is higher among blacks, according to the Times analysis. Since the early 1970s, the unemployment rate among African-Americans has been about 2 to 2.5 times higher than that of whites. Among those working full time in 2013, the median weekly earnings for African-Americans were slightly over $600, compared with $800 for whites. When it comes to accumulated wealth — savings; investments; or money to send kids to college, pay for retirement, or as a resource in the event of a layoff or bad health — white families in 2010 had six times the wealth of black families. And, finally, black men are killed at the hand of someone else at a much higher rate than whites. About 76 of every 100,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 34 were killed in homicides in 2010, more than nine times the rate for white men in the same age bracket.

In the intense coverage of Ferguson, television and mainstream websites and newspapers have neglected to cover how these trends affect the mass media itself. The whiteness of the news business shapes the coverage and the way the public sees race relations.

As I watched cable news during the increasingly bad days in that working-class St. Louis suburb, I noticed African-American journalists on the scene, and some even anchoring shows. That happens whenever there are big racial troubles in African-American communities: The call goes out among the largely white news executives to bring in the black reporters. The call, however, isn’t heard apparently when it comes to plum jobs, such as hosting NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Nor is it happening in filling the now diminishing rank-and-file reporting and editing jobs that keep daily news operations running. The National Association of Black Journalists’ 2012 survey found that “since 2002, African American journalists have lost 993 newsroom jobs — more than any other group of minorities, including Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans.”
This looks as though it is a return to the bad old days of journalism when many newsrooms, both in the north and the south, were as racist as the police departments they covered.

In those days, white reporters and cops drank together, telling each other war stories, the journalists never reporting how the police brutally enforced the law — even bragged about it — in the segregated African-American parts of town.

I was one of those reporters. As it turned out, I witnessed everything that happened in journalism from those days into the 21st century, when the color line had been broken and blacks moved into key reporting jobs and even sometimes cracked the glass ceiling that had barred them from top editorial posts.

I worked with the first African-American reporter to be hired by The Associated Press, Austin Scott, in the San Francisco bureau in 1960. Imagine that — 1960.

As an editor at the Los Angeles Times, I did what I could to push the careers of African-Americans and other reporters of color. As a columnist and city editor, I tried to portray African-American neighborhoods in poor South L.A. for what they were — for the most part, working-class communities rather than gang-run hellholes.

But these were small steps. I, and white journalists like me, were up against something I hated to acknowledge: The real problem was the deep societal gulf between white and black. “How many times can we have the same conversation about race and power, convene the same panel discussions, before we acknowledge that the real problem isn’t police tactics or the militarization of police departments or even rogue cops, but fear of blackness?” Kaplan asked in her Times piece this week.

I’ve been in those discussions, appeared on those panels, had arguments and intense conversations with African-American reporters, watched as our Times staff fractured racially, just as Los Angeles did, during the 1992 riots.

Now President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, African-American leaders who have, on the surface, bridged the black-white divide, cautiously try to calm down Ferguson. In a few days, that may happen. These things have a way of running out of steam. But another Ferguson will occur somewhere else unless and until whites learn to look upon blacks as human beings.

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