June 01, 2010

The Altar

The Newark (DE) Post out-reports the Wilmington News Journal. Here's the Post's report on a 7-Eleven cigarette robbery:

The suspect is described as a black male 6'02" to 6'03", 180-190 lbs, wearing black t-shirt with a gray undershirt, dark blue jean shorts with black sneakers.

Here's the News Journal's "helpful" description, in contrast:

The bandit then grabbed three cartons of cigarettes from the clerkís hands and ran out of the store. He was last seen heading toward Georgetown Manor Apartments, Whitmarsh said.

The clerk described the bandit as about 6-foot-3 and about 190 pounds. He was dressed in a black T-shirt with a gray undershirt, dark blue jean shorts and black sneakers.

And always remember, this News Journal omission of key facts is on purpose!

Our policy is not about being politically correct, it's about being accurate. Race is such an unreliable descriptor. What race is Halle Berry or Tiger Woods or Jennifer Lopez? They are extreme examples, but project them onto everyday people and you see the problem.

Or what real information is conveyed in a description that says: She is a 5-foot-6-inch white woman with brown hair? How many women fit that description? Who is that of use to? By the way, that description is of me -- and I haven't committed any crimes.

I offer you these excerpts from Keith M. Woods, a noted journalism scholar, in an essay called "The Language of Race": "What, for example, does a Hispanic man look like? Is his skin dark brown? Reddish brown? Pale? Is his hair straight? Curly? Course? Fine? Does he have a flat, curved nose or is it narrow and straight? Telling the public that heís 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, with a blue shirt and blue jeans says something about the personís appearance. But what do you add to that picture when you say Latino?

"And what is black? Itís the color of pitch. Yet, the word is used to describe people whose skin tones can cover just about every racial and ethnic group in the world, including white people. What does the word "black" add to the mental picture the public draws? How do you draw the lips? The eyes? The nose? What sort of hair does a black person have? What color skin does a black person have? The combinations are infinite.

"All racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics. Still, we donít see the phrase "Irish-looking man" in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, "The suspect appeared to be Italian"? Couldnít many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as "Jewish-looking."

"There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans donít look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?

Posted by Hube at June 1, 2010 04:10 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

The News-Journal says:

Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?

One might suggest that it was because the suspect looked sufficiently African-American for the witnesses to take such a determination.

Posted by: Dana at June 1, 2010 08:19 PM

It's interesting that the News Journal sees fit to include in the description of the suspect what he was wearing; there is nothing so easy to change as your clothes! If the suspect wore "a black T-shirt with a gray undershirt, dark blue jean shorts and black sneakers" today, why should we think he must be wearing the same clothes tomorrow?

Whether he appears to be African-American, however, is not something so easily changed.

Posted by: Dana at June 1, 2010 08:24 PM

PC is our death sentence

Posted by: MM at June 1, 2010 08:53 PM