Several days ago two white businessmen asked me to lunch. One wasted no time asking whether I shared his view that there has been a terrible deterioration in race relations in America. I agreed that in factories, on campuses, across the landscape of America, new levels of bigotry and meanness have arisen. When he asked the reasons why, I gave this answer:
"I could blame recent politicians, white resistance to affirmative action programs, anger over school busing, campus inroads by white supremacists, but the greatest cause for rising racial animosities may be the way my profession, the media, handles crime stories.
"There is hardly one day in a year that TV, newspapers, magazines, radio stations do not pump into the heads of the white majority the notion that black Americans have a monopoly on violent crime, drug abuse, sexual offenses," I continued.
After that luncheon, I watched crime reports to see if I had been too harsh on the press. First I looked at the coverage of the abduction and rape of an 11-year-old at a school in the national capital area. The media spread the word that the abductor-rapist was "a white male, 5-feet-10 to 6-feet tall, with brown wavy hair and stained teeth."
A few days later in suburban Maryland a 13-year-old white girl and her 12-year-old boyfriend were murdered just after they had bought Mother's Day cards. The media announced that the suspected killer was "a black male, wearing a black hood, who had been seen in the area hiding behind trees."
At first glance, that would seem to be "balanced" and "fair" coverage of two ghastly crimes. But which story had the most crushing impact on the ruling white majority? The story about the black guy.
When a white man abducts and rapes ow inadvertently
an 11-year-old, white people don't see a vile rapist in their male relatives, friends, acquaintances. This "stained-teeth" white abductor is viewed as an aberration. But when "a hooded black male" kills two nice white youngsters, millions of white people are provoked by the media to think of all but the few black males they know personally as actual or potential vicious killers.
You can talk yourself dizzy about the most notorious killers in American history -- Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Guyana cult leader Jim Jones, Richard Speck -- and point out that all were Caucasians, but that takes no poison out of the talk about crime in America. No white corporation head, cop or college fraternity leader is going to imagine himself inside the skins of Bundy, Manson or any of those murderers.
But mention that terrible recent gang rape of the white woman in New York's Central Park and millions of white people see a heinous streak in almost every black man. That is a truth about human emotions that the white majority doesn't want raised.
I am not raising a new media problem. When I came into this business in Minneapolis many years ago, white editors and publishers were acutely aware of the destructive impact of publishing the race of criminals, convicted or alleged. There was for a while a rule on the best newspapers that race was to be mentioned only if it was a pertinent part of the story.
As television began to show the black, brown, white faces of the accused, the victims, the suspects in "composite drawings," that rule vanished. Now, when a grisly crime is committed, millions of people can sit in front of the tube and say, "One of them -- a black guy did it." But they never say, "One of us -- a white guy did it."
Even if the media wanted to recognize the poison of their coverage, I don't know how to tell them to change it. I know they won't change it.
Part of the problem of being noticeably "different" in any society is that you get tarred by the misbehavior of a few, but you never get credit for the achievements and contributions of anyone but yourself.