May 1 1994

Hearing What They Want to Hear

Media interpret Jackson as blaming blacks for crime

Rev. Jesse Jackson’s recent comments about how blacks can take action against crime in their communities received an unusually favorable response from mainstream media outlets that are usually cool, if not hostile, toward the civil rights leader.

But the selective emphasis of many press accounts distorted the content and context of Jackson’s remarks, revealing more about media priorities than about Jackson’s ideas,

Of particular fascination to reporters was the comment Jackson made to an Operation PUSH group in Chicago last November that he has sometimes felt “relieved” to find that the footsteps following him on a dark street are those of a white person. There is, he said, “nothing more painful” to him.

There was something “new, explosive and, perhaps, liberating” in that November “confession,” claimed U.S. News & World Report (1/17/94). Jackson’s focus on urban violence has been a longstanding part of his civil rights work, yet journalists praised it as a “decided departure” (Houston Chronicle, 1/17/94). “Having built a career fighting the powers that be,” Newsweek (1/10/94) intoned, “Jesse Jackson has now found a new foe.”

And although it seems we hear about urban black crime on virtually every newscast, some pundits congratulated Jackson for tearing away the “protective shroud of secrecy” surrounding “blacks being terrorized by other blacks.” (Newsday, 2/27/94)

The media spin on Jackson’s Washington, D.C. African-American leadership conference in January was captured in the Washington Post headline (1/17/94): “Blacks Are Urged to Take Responsibility for Violence.”

In even the more measured accounts, Jackson’s appeal to African-Americans to “take the lead” in helping their communities was rhetorically pitted against calls for government investment, making these approaches seem mutually exclusive. In this framework, anyone calling for federal aid to cities or the redressing of racism and socio-economic imbalances is painted as “making excuses” for violent crime.

In fact, Jackson has long insisted that both government help and self-help are needed for the African-American community. At the January conference, Jackson proposed a “domestic Marshall Plan” for inner cities, involving low-interest mortgages and loans, youth mentoring programs and a meaningful jobs bill. “What is needed,” Jackson told reporters, “is some combination of more demands upon ourselves but also more demands upon our government.”

But such subtleties are ignored by many journalists. In November, columnist Mike Royko (Chicago Tribune, 11/30/94) reported (approvingly) that Jackson believes it’s “a waste of time to expect government to reduce…urban mayhem.”

Some journalists interpreted Jackson’s comments as putting an acceptable face on their own long-held opinions. In his December 21 column, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen declared that Jackson’s remarks “pithily paraphrase what I wrote” in 1986. The reference is to Cohen’s assertion in a column (9/7/86) that if he were a shopkeeper, he would lock his doors “to keep young black men out.”

For Cohen, Jackson’s comments proved that “it is not racism to recognize a potential threat posed by someone with certain characteristics.” The difference between recognizing violence as a problem for black communities and advocating discrimination against young black men is evidently lost on Cohen.

Columns and reports like this seemed to celebrate the notion that black people’s difficulties are due above all to self-destructiveness. If even Jesse Jackson says African-Americans should take action on crime in their communities, it must follow that racism and economic injustice have nothing to do with the problems of those communities.

For some, merely acknowledging blacks’ “responsibility” is not enough. New York Times columnist Sam Roberts (11/15/93) credited Jackson with “belatedly exposing” what Roberts called the “propensity toward violence among black Americans,” but warned that “by focusing on genocidal black-on-black crime, to some people Mr. Jackson may seem to be suggesting that white lives are cheaper.”

“Some people” would include former Klan leader David Duke, whose expert opinion on the January leadership conference was quoted by Newsday (1/7/94). “There are white victims of black crime,” Duke complained, sounding remarkably like Sam Roberts.

The media’s preoccupation with scapegoats rather than solutions is evident in the U.S. News & World Report piece. By saying he sometimes fears young black men, Jackson “seemed to be offering sympathetic whites something for which they hungered: absolution,” the article declared. “Yet rather than grant such absolution—and reap the enormous good will and political cooperation such a move might bring—Jackson has pulled back.”

What U.S. News was looking for, apparently, was a statement that whites’ fear of blacks has nothing to do with racism.

The message for black spokespeople is clear: They will be deemed “mature” and “responsible” when they seem to be mainly blaming black people for poor urban blacks’ situation. Mention of any other factors is cause to dub them “divisive” and difficult.

Many civil rights leaders, and Jackson himself, expressed fear that his ideas would be misconstrued by media looking for “acceptable” targets of outrage and blame, media that find gun-wielding teenagers front-page material but systemic socioeconomic problems boring. The media response indicates that such concern is fully warranted.