Color Bind: Chronicling the Media's Awkward Refusal to Mention Race

This is a bit of a sensitive subject, so I'll try to be careful.

Though there are many purposes to news media, most people will agree that one of them is certainly to help protect the public -- sometimes by exposing public dangers or injustices, sometimes by alerting the public about dangerous people (and helping, if appropriate and possible, to catch them). That's one of the main reasons most daily newspapers in this country still have a police beat and/or blotter and why the media release descriptions and sketches of suspects in more serious crimes.

This has been a topic of discussion in our newsroom for some time, mostly because there are several local media outlets that continue to -- very awkwardly -- describe potentially dangerous criminal suspects without mentioning the color of their skin. Now, I'm certainly not suggesting any reporter make race an issue when it's not, and it's a pleasant idea, living in a society blind to superficial differences. (Sorry about the overly symbolic-ish image, by the way; we're working on it.)

But describing suspects the public might want to look out for without mentioning skin color is more than just counterproductive and counterintuitive; it's a silly attempt to be politically correct. Most egregious are the media outlets that want to hint at race without coming out and saying it -- "refusing to call a spade a spade," a black friend of mine jokes.

For example, have you seen the not-so-subtly-described men referred to here in the Sun-Sentinel?

The three men, who fled the store on foot, are described as in their late teens to early 20s. One is said to have gold teeth and is wearing a gray sweatshirt. Another is described as having long dreadlocks and wearing a red shirt. The third, who has a mustache, was believed to be wearing a blue shirt.

More examples after the jump.

Another from the Sun-Sentinel:

According to Boynton Beach police, the man is said to be in his mid 30's, 5'8" to 5'10," medium-build, clean shaven and with black slicked-back hair.

Got that? Medium build, medium height, black hair combed backward. Try not to shit yourself when you see the man everywhere.

From the Herald:

The robber is described as a man in his mid-20s with a medium build and a Jamaican accent. He was wearing all black at the time of the crime.

So yeah, if you see a guy wearing all black who looks like he has a Jamaican accent, beware. Not black. Not even Jamaican. Just "a Jamaican accent."

Another, from yesterday's SS:

The robber is described as having a slim build and blond hair. He wore glasses, a light-blue shirt and khaki pants.

That's right, this slim blond could be any color. But his shirt, that we know is blue. Unless he is a criminal genius and figures out a way to somehow change the color of the fabric.

Now, again, I don't care what race these people are or where they came from. Yes, the debate is slightly more nuanced than this, but not much. All I'm saying is, why publish a description if you aren't going to mention what the person looks like?

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Michael J. Mooney