Watching professional broadcast journalists attempt to compete with social media hobbyists for any nugget of information during last week’s manhunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, many us felt a familiar dread. We know, either intuitively, through direct experience or via professional training, that media have a collective power to help diffuse or fuel the fear and tension that so often triggers racial violence in this country. Despite all of the post-9/11 reflection and lessons learned, it seems that some members of traditional media cannot help but have a racist response to the unknown. The hysteria of social media users—who enjoy the luxury of using handles rather than their names and faces—serve to intensify the racist response.
So despite their public atonement, it still appears as if people with power don’t understand the impact of their decisions.
American history shows us time and time again that without an incredible amount of resistance to and clarity about the white supremacy undergirding our culture, mob rule serves as the default.
So although some media members have made public apologies for the racism they fed into via silence, doublespeak or rote reporting, there is still work to be done. A lot of work. One way to begin is by examining the language we use when we’re doing our jobs.
Let’s probe the Monday mea culpa from Reddit general manager Erik “@hueypriest” Martin. He described the racist behavior of some the site’s users as a “witch hunt.”
In 2013, on the Internet, “witch hunt” can apply to the post-9/11, Islamophobic, and racist branding of Sunil Tripathi, the Indian-American student who had been missing since March 16.
But the centuries-long American usage of “witch hunt” refers to the 1692-1693 trials in Salem, Mass., of more than 200 women accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.” All of the authorities and most of the victims in this shameful chapter were what we today consider white. Yet people use “witch hunt” in a racially neutral way because Salem, at the time, was an English colony. So “England” was the oppressor, “Puritanism” and “religious intolerance” was the problem, the victims were “women” and nobody’s white except for the “Caribbean slave” Tituba.
The redditors who “crowd sourced” the wrong information about Sunil Tripathi and the blogs that spread the conjecture were not conducting a witch hunt. They were mimicking the behavior of American white supremacist mobs.
Now, think about how CNN’s John King reported the nonexistent arrest of a phantom “dark skinned man” last Thursday afternoon during the manhunt, then tweeted that evening a self-defense that declared, “…What I am not is racist.” As several Twitter users helpfully pointed out, the system of racism is about outcomes for the multitude of men in this country who don’t appear to be white, not John King’s perception of himself.