Doesn’t matter what we call “them” or “black people”

There’s continued talk about how we refer to members of certain races and ethnicity in the news. But I’m here to say that it doesn’t matter what journalists call black people if they continue to tell the same types of stories about “them.”

This week, asked “whether it’s time to stop using the term “minorities,” in part so we can avoid sentences like this one from the Associated Press:

For the first time, minorities make up the majority of babies in the U.S. …

This summer, The University of Iowa Sews Service called a local community “minority majority” with a rise of Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census. The Press-Citizen then used the term, too.

But who cares what “they” are called when newsworkers keep depicting racial and ethnic minorities as primitives and deviant?

Case in point:

Over the past several weeks, racial tensions have once again erupted in Milwaukee. Starting with a “riot” in the eclectic Riverwest neighborhood on July 4, the city has been in racial turmoil since, blaming violence on black youth (also read, men).

This past week, even more “riots” — also called “melees” — occurred at the State Fair in Milwaukee.

Here’s the Journal Sentinel’s description of the events (and photo) (with my bold):

The trouble at the fair started around 7 p.m. Thursday in the midway area, where amusement rides are located, when fights broke out among black youths, said Tom Struebing, chief of the State Fair Police. Those fights did not appear to be racially motivated.

Then around the closing time of 11 p.m., witnesses told the Journal Sentinel, dozens to hundreds of black youths attacked white people as they left the fair, punching and kicking people and shaking and pounding on their vehicles.

At least 31 people were arrested – many for disorderly conduct – in connection with the incidents on the fairgrounds and on the streets outside. At least 11 people, seven of them police officers, were injured, officials said. Twenty-four people were arrested within the fairgrounds by State Fair Police. West Allis police arrested seven people, five of them juveniles, outside the fairgrounds.

OK, so these are blacks against whites. We get that. But look at some of the words: Dozens OR hundreds. Which is it?

Blacks attacking whites. Why?

Then the active action verbs: kicking, shaking, pounding.

These ideas fit America’s worst nightmares: African Americans rising from the bonds of slavery to harm or kill the white man. That history, which still exists in people’s collective fears today, makes these words even more salient, providing the deeper meanings than just a few — or a lot — of people fighting.

More description (my bold):

Police from three jurisdictions – West Allis, Milwaukee and Wisconsin State Fair – spent Friday trying to piece together what happened. But they could not say what started the situation.

Witnesses, though, told the Journal Sentinel that the attacks appeared to be unprovoked and racially motivated.

“You could just tell they were after white people. That was the main thing. If you were white, they were coming after you,” said Jon Stikl of Oak Creek.

He said he was stuck in traffic as a group of young people blocked cars near the fair gate on S. 84th St. near I-94 after he picked up family members attending the fair.

“We noticed a group of five to 10 young black males run up and jump a young white male for no other reason then [sic] him being white,” Stikl said.

So these youth, always the most dangerous, are fighting for no reason.


Cops didn’t ask anyone who they arrested why they had been fighting? Did reporters seek this information from the dozens OR hundreds?

The news story makes it sound as though black kids fight for no reason and that they could erupt in violence at any time.

The comments from the eyewitnesses — who scholars and journalists know are unreliable — are left holding the answers.

But, what if someone was called a nigger? That might start a fight.

Or stole a girlfriend/boyfriend/something else. That, too, may be a reason.

Maybe people didn’t like each other. Fights start that way all of the time.

Or, having lived in a city that is so segregated — that might give some cause.

Farther down, an interesting quote (again, with my bold):

A 34-year-old Muskego man said he was riding on the Ferris wheel in the midway with one of his children when he heard shouts of “fight” sometime after 7 p.m. He saw a big group of people, perhaps 200 to 300, gathered around a brawl.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. . . . There were so many people you couldn’t see who was fighting. There was just this big group that kept growing and chanting, ‘Fight, fight, fight,’ ” he said. “That lasted for one to two minutes. Then when security showed up blowing some whistles, all of this mob started running. It was like a herd of cattle.”

Here, again, the journalists’ selection of words — growing, chanting — resonate with the history of how white Americans have viewed blacks — especially young black men.

And, cattle. That makes sense, too. And while the journalists themselves are not saying this (it is in a quote by a source) the words add authority and cultural significance to the telling. These words, these quotes, are selected because they resonate with a society that already views blacks in this way. The words help the story make sense on a cultural level.

And nearer to the end, (yes, my bold):

The incidents Thursday night come as the State Fair Board has worked to increase diversity at the annual fair, expanding its entertainment lineup and attempting to appeal to a younger, more multicultural audience. Diversity was a priority for former State Fair Park Chairman Martin Greenberg, who spoke of making it a “place of inclusion, not exclusion.”

The violence is similar to what occurred in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood over the July 4 holiday, when about 60 young people beat and robbed a smaller group that had been watching fireworks from Kilbourn Reservoir Park. The injured people were white; the attackers were African-American, witnesses said. Another group looted a convenience store.

Thursday night’s Main Stage performer was rapper MC Hammer, but a number of people who attended the concert said the show wasn’t to blame for the disturbances at the fair. One woman said the crowd watching Hammer was mostly white and adult, and any children there seemed to be with parents.

Holy crap! MC HAMMER? Get the violence on! Music and violence, music and sex, too, has also been an embedded feature of the young black man. Take a look at jazz.

In this section diversity and multiculturalism and race and music become the cause for violence. Not economics. Oppression. Or anything else that may have caused the event.

Most troubling, this story doesn’t seem to show what reporters actually did to get answers for the cause of the violence. People just don’t know. But we think it had to do with race. And that we were white, and they weren’t, and blacks are on a racially charged rampage in Milwaukee.

So what does this story have do with what we “call minorities?”

1) Even if we changed what we called minorities, it wouldn’t matter IF newsworkers continue to cover issues of race in ways that are so harmful. I am not suggesting that journalist’s stop covering the news, but that we evaluate the stories that we tell about the news. Mob stories are fun to cover and journalists get wrapped up in the drama, in the “holy-shitness” of the story. (Dan Berkowitz helped us with the “holy-shit” idea. I just added the ‘ness’.” Do we not look at what the story becomes because of the drama? This is not a story of violence at the State Fair. It is a story about a city’s dangerous blacks.

2) Labels usually matter. How we call something and what we call it has meanings. In this story, I think it’s so interesting how much the emphasis is on youth. The fear we have for the young is so strong. I guess I can see why this may be as I get older. I am 30 and high schoolers run circles around me. Thank god they are not pounding on my car or something. I see myself aging when I yell “slow down!” at cars that speed on my street. I wonder why kids are “slacking-off” when they get out of school at 2:30 p.m. and are walking home. “Why aren’t you in school,” I think. Do I label these ones “hoodlums” because of my exposure to media? How much does the label matter when I am already pretty sure what their story is?

3) We can have a debate about being politically correct or not. I sense the story I started with from Poynter was attempting to be inclusive and fair. Maybe even accurate. But what needs to change is not only what we call people, but how we present them in the news.



On a side note, the maps that the JS used to show the violence continues to show the drama. Can you find your house? Are they coming for you?

It reminds me of the maps we saw during the movements for democracy in Egypt:


Here’s the JS map from the July 4 event:


And here’s the one from the State Fair: