Nate Silver, everyone's favorite election-polls wonk, unveils an interesting chunk of data this week over at his blog FiveThirtyEight.com. In it, he tries to pinpoint exactly which news outlets are talking about race, breaking it down by "new" vs. "old" media and by political lean. He talks at length about his methodology in the post; the short version is that he's producing percentages of articles that contain the terms "racism," "racial" or "racist" vs. articles that don't.
The raw data is interesting, but we can presume that Silver intends this only as an exercise, not as a final statement. The method he uses is almost too shallow to be useful, and he admits that he doesn't have much appetite for Our Great National Conversation On Race. Or, more accurately and understandably, the cynical pageview-bait that uses race as a cheap grab.
Nate's face-value conclusion is that everyone's doing it. Fortunately, we at ColorLines eat cynical, race-based pageview-bait for breakfast, and bring some lived experience to the data. So I can say with some authority that this:
should scare the pants off of all of us.
Since this data is from the last thirty days, what we're seeing here is Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site pushing the doctored Shirley Sherrod video that got Sherrod fired, and dominated the news cycle for a week. It makes sense that he's in first place for amount of race-focused coverage, regardless of his motives. That's not the scary part.
The scary part is that second place in the "watchdog" category is Media Matters. Media Matters is an excellent and invaluable media watchdog group. The problem? They spend a lot of their digital column space responding to stories pushed, engineered, and sometimes out-and-out fabricated by the likes of Andrew Breitbart. (And in third place, we have NewsBusters, a sort of Flavor Flav to Breibart's Chuck D, who exist mostly to call Media Matters racist.)
And the red-over-blue pattern continues up the chart. Granted, these numbers are from the last 30 Sherrod-heavy days. But we can imagine how they looked for 30 days after the Tea Party called the NAACP the 'real racists,' or after Glenn Beck called Van Jones a communist plant, or after Breitbart himself circulated doctored videos of ACORN employees. The New York Times issued a retraction for their initial endorsement of that last video -- after Congress voted to cut off all of ACORN's funding.
In other words? There is no left-of-center original reporting on race at this level, period. Breitbart, Beck, and their ilk have no compunctions about leading with race, for pageviews or for personal vendettas, because it's a conversation they dominate -- and they spoil the field so thoroughly that smart high-profile liberals with access to real data, like Nate Silver, would rather just stay out of it and call it a loss. Or, news orgs teach the controversy. Scrolling up the chart, I'll bet most of both NPR's and CNN's few race-mentioning stories are hands-off discussions of the Sherrod scandal -- a scandal that didn't exist until Breitbart hit publish.
This has repercussions outside the media. We see Vice President Biden saying that the Tea Party isn't racist. We see President Obama getting railroaded for saying the Cambridge police acted stupidly for arresting a black man for standing in his own home, and then trying to patch up all of law enforcement's racially disparate history over carefully chosen beers. We have Mayor Bloomberg's beautiful speech defending the Ground Zero mosque -- made even more poignant by the silence of outspoken health care reform champions like Sen. Schumer, Rep. Weiner and the rest of New York's Democrats. And we see organized labor being shut out of the conversation about income inequality. Meanwhile, racially disparate policies in health care, in law enforcement, in education, and in employment go unreformed. If everyone's so afraid of being called a racist, why don't they do something about racial inequity?
'Calling it a loss' on race misses the point; race isn't separate from policy, because it's not separate from the people policies affect. Jamelle Bouie, writing at the American Prospect, says:
Of course, you can't treat race as a box to be checked off. Not only is race a crucial part of American identity; it's impossible to talk about policy in this country without also, somewhere, mentioning race. Indeed, to talk about race as if it were some "thing" apart is to deny the central role it plays in nearly every aspect of American life.
In short, the problem with our "national conversation on race" is that we refuse to acknowledge race as a basic fact of American life. We bury our heads in the sand and pretend to live in a country where there isn't systemic, institutionalized racism and where talking about race is somehow counterproductive to governing.
Until we reach an understanding that racial inequity does just fine when everyone ignores it -- and yes, worrying about being called a racist is a form of ignoring racial inequity -- the Breitbarts of the world will always win the morning. Maybe the best solution is to change the subject to the truth about our post-racial America -- about, say, where BP is dumping its spill waste -- and see if pundits and facts get along better than oil and water.