Sometimes, though, I'm still shocked by how pervasive this kind of thinking is, and by the double standards it leads to.
I was struck again this way when I saw the following Good Morning America segment, about the death of 14-year-old Christopher Jones. He was a white suburban boy who was recently knocked off his bicycle, and then beaten and killed by a group of six kids. Two have been arrested; one, a 16-year-old, is black, and the identity of the other, a 14-year-old, has yet to be released.
For the makers of this Good Morning America segment, Christopher Jones' death is sad, but something else is the real story. That story is about the place he lived, "the suburbs," and the violation of that space by a contaminating element, a violent, racialized element that its residents thought they'd spent enough money to get away from.
The words "black" and "white" are never spoken here, and yet, that racial divide, with "normal," well-off whites on one side and "violent," impoverished blacks on the other, is what it's all about for the producers of Good Morning America.
I feel terrible for the family and friends of Christopher Jones -- no one should be treated like that, let alone die like that. At the same time, though, I can't overlook the unspoken white lens, or filter, through which this story gets told. I have to wonder -- would this story still be told this way by Good Morning America, or even at all, if Christopher and his parents were black?
Right from the start, the makers of this Good Morning America segment imply that the lives of well-off suburban white people are more noteworthy, more fundamentally valuable, than those of the implicitly non-white people who live in "the inner-city." Gang violence, and the misery and death caused by it, are presented as an old, boring story -- but not this time, because one white child died from it, in suburbia.
I find this story difficult to write about because I don't want to minimize the suffering of Christopher Jones' parents; their loss is horrific. The thing is, I think it's the producers of Good Morning America who minimize their suffering, by using it to tell a sensationalistic story about "all-American," implicitly white lives invaded by black gang violence.
The story of Christopher Jones' death is presented as a "cautionary tale" for the residents of "suburbia," an unspokenly white place where the residents have achieved "the American Dream," and thus a place where these kinds of things just shouldn't happen.
Never mind, dear viewers, that "old news" about how "gang violence" happens a lot more often in other places. To other kinds of people. And for all sorts of complicated, but addressable and workable reasons. We know you're bored with that story, about those people.
Never mind either that the relatively small group of kids who attacked Christopher Jones weren't really in what we normally call a violent, drug-dealing "gang." We're going to insist that it was a "gang," and that it committed "gang violence" against a "suburban" (and white, and thus especially innocent) child.
Among the many things Christopher's mother must have said during her interview, Good Morning America chose to highlight this statement:
"He died on our street. In suburbia. Where we paid $350,000 for a townhouse. In a neighborhood where our shutters have to match our doors."
So this becomes a story about the shocking invasion of supposedly safe suburbia. But again, this isn't just a story about people in general who've arrived at a cozy rung on the American class ladder, is it? It's really about white people who've done that; it's a safe bet that if non-white people who've done that were to lose a son in the exact same way, Good Morning America would not be in their spacious kitchen interviewing them.
To illustrate that the story being told here is also about race, that it's really all about race, imagine if a black child of black parents in that same neighborhood had been killed in this same way.
Would his story be covered by Good Morning America like this? I doubt it.
Would it even be covered at all by Good Morning America? I doubt that too.
Never mind asking if Good Morning America would cover an inner-city black or Hispanic or Asian American child's violent death with this same wide-eyed concern, and this same heart-tugging music. We know that'll never happen (though I do hope that someone will provide a link to a GMA video-clip that proves me wrong).
A quick Google search reveals that other major news outlet have also seen fit to treat Christopher Jones' death as a major story. The Washington Post, for instance, sent a reporter to his funeral. Again, I can't imagine a non-white child being described in the corporate media this way:
The images projected on the screen . . . were perhaps the most telling. Christopher appeared a normal, happy kid. He loved the Redskins. Made snowballs in the back yard. Had a boxy plastic play set. Mugged in pictures with mom.
"He was a boy's boy," said Anand Rawls, a longtime family friend. "You couldn't ask for a better son."
Again, Christopher Jones' death is horrible, and I feel for people who loved and knew him.
However, there's another horror here. As with the more familiar Missing White Girl stories, what I find appalling here is the loud-and-clear implication that Christopher Jones' story is significant because it happened to a certain kind of son, and not to another kind of son.
In other words, that other horror, which I consider symptomatic of a common white pathology, because so few white people actually see this horror, is this -- Christopher Jones was a child whose death is deemed more sad, and more alarming, than those of many other children who have died a similar death, merely because of his race, and merely because his parents live in the suburbs.