Monday, December 17, 2012

The Ripple Effects

Reporters show up at tragedies like what happened in Newton on Friday like maggots at a gravesite, some people will tell you, and because there are basically no rules for something like this, inevitably someone will step over some boundary of taste and/or ethics. And yet who else do we turn to in order to satisfy our insatiable curiosity to know: What happened? How many? How? And for God's sake, why?

Reporters are the people get the unenviable job of knocking on doors to ask grieving families to part with that picture you saw this morning of that sweet six-year-old--because you want to see that, don't you? And not out of purient curiosity, but because you are grieving, too, and you need a face to attach to your grief. Reporters see the bundled bodies, the bloodstains. They see mothers and fathers collapse, screaming, or faint from shock. The see hardened police officers crying like babies. When they feeling like crying themselves, or going home to hug and comfort their own kids, they are on deadline, calling every name in an old high school yearbook, searching for some clue, some person who can help us all make sense of what has happened. They walk toward that stuff, not away, and take pictures and notes and get the story out as best they can, however imperfectly that may be. There may be some sick souls among the media who groove out on horror, just as there are sick souls everywhere, but in all my years of reporting I didn't meet anyone who really fit that description.

You cannot ask a parent for a picture of their sweet six-year-old, and then ask for sympathy because the act of making that request was deeply traumatic for you, too, and it left a scar on your own soul. Your pain is nothing compared to the pain of the people who are at the horrifying center of this tragedy. In fact, for a member of the media to even raise this topic would be a violation of good taste, not to mention human decency. But as a former member of the media, I can.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What Southerners Don't Say

Interesting story in The Atlantic  entitled "In Southern Towns, 'Segregation Academies' Are Here to Stay." It presents a more nuanced view than what the title suggests--it does note that these "segregation academies" usually have some black and Asian students--but even so it only scrapes the surface of racial complexities in the South. Here's an example: 

Minniefield [a long-time black resident of Indianola, Miss.] does not believe the schools in Indianola will ever truly integrate.  "It has not been achieved and it will likely never be achieved,'"he said. "It's because of the mental resistance of Caucasians against integrating with blacks. ... Until the white race can see their former slaves as equals, it will not happen."

Steve Rosenthal, the [town's white] mayor, takes a different view. He argues that many white families have no problem sending their children to school with black students, but choose Indianola Academy because the public schools are inferior. His two children, both in their 20s, graduated from the academy, where he believes they received a strong education. "I would not have had a problem sending them to public schools had the quality been what I wanted," he said, adding a few minutes later, "If there's mistrust, it's the black community toward the whites."

And then there is what is not being said:
  • This is no longer just about race; it's about economic class, and growing wealth inequality.
  • On the other hand, race is often a proxy for economic class, especially in the rural South.
  • Middle-class black families are as averse as white families to having their kids hang out with ghetto kids from the 'hood, and sometimes even more so. But for the most part, this is a conversation that takes place only amongst other middle-class black families.
  • White Southerners these days--with a few diehard exceptions of the kind that can be found on the fringes anywhere--really have no problem with their kids going to school with black long as those black kids hold the same middle-class aspirational values as they do. These white Southerners of today get understandably huffy when they are portrayed as thick-necked bigots straight out of "In the Heat of the Night," circa 1964, because it's not true.
  • On the other hand, these same white Southerners are tone deaf and completely blind to the generational dividends they have inherited as a direct result of decades of Jim Crow: real estate values, social capital, family wealth, educational status. They simply do not want to see and will do anything to avoid admitting that history did not start in 1965.
And that's the name of that tune.