by Dr. Boyce Watkins
When you use a loosely-defined term such as “dark-skinned male” to describe the suspect of one of the most notorious crimes in American history, you should fully expect that people are going to become angry with you. So, when CNN’s John King went there, all Hades broke loose in the blink of an eye. A series of prominent figures and organizations went on full alert, from Rev. Al Sharpton to the National Association of Black Journalists. King was not only called out for using the term, he was also called out for using faulty information.
This kind of irresponsible use of language and imagery is nothing new in the Boston area. Back in 1990, a man by the name of Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, then falsely claimed that a black man did it. This led to a massive manhunt throughout the city, where black men were being stopped, searched, abused and apprehended for no good reason. This reign of police terror remains as a scar on Boston’s ugly racial history, and this situation certainly didn’t help.
King seemed to try to be thoughtful and careful when he shared his false description. But that’s like a surgeon politely informing his patient that he is about to amputate the wrong leg.
” ‘I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things,’ he said. ‘I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male.’ He said that there had been a further description given, but he was refraining from sharing it with viewers.”
We can’t entirely blame King for using skin color as part of the description, since it does reduce the potential pool of suspects. But what we can blame him for is the use of poorly-researched information and not being more specific. If the suspect had indeed been a dark-skinned male, it might have made more sense for King to wait until an image was released, instead of seeking to be the first man on television to give any kind of information to the public. I suspect that King hardly understands the kind of danger every “dark-skinned male” in the state of Massachusetts would be dealing with as a result of his seemingly innocent little sentence.
As a case-in-point, a lot of bald black men were stopped and harassed in California when Christopher Dorner went on the run from the LAPD a few weeks ago. I am bald and black (and sometimes angry), so my life would have been in danger had I been in the path of the police. An old women had her truck, and her body, riddled with bullets because her vehicle was similar to Dorner’s. The point is that, when police are on a wide-eyed manhunt for a dangerous suspect, they don’t always give you a chance to raise your arms and identify yourself. In some cases, your relatives end up identifying your body and receiving a half-hearted apology from the authorities.
What I love the most about King’s embarrassing gaffe is that it highlights the renewed commitment to whiteness embraced by CNN over the last few months. The network got rid of several prominent black analysts recently (namely Soledad O’Brien and Roland Martin, among others) and most of their new hires were white guys. I can say that, as a man who’s appeared on CNN too many times to count, most of the producers I’ve worked with have also been white.
While keeping their own folks around them might make the mostly white male CNN executives most comfortable, this lack of diversity creates an environment where there is no one around to say, “maybe we shouldn’t say that on the air.” If you refuse to have a management structure that reflects the diversity of your target demographic, you are always at risk of looking stupid.
This embarrassment to CNN could have been easily avoided, but of course they aren’t listening to me.