Tuesday, February 7, 2023

You Don’t Stop Police Killings by Calling them ‘Fatal Encounters’

By Julie Hollar and Janine Jackson, February 2, 2023

It’s hard to find words after yet another brutal police killing of a Black person, this time of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, captured in horrifying detail on video footage released last week. But the words we use—and in that “we,” the journalists who frame these stories figure critically—if we actually want to not just be sad about, but  end state-sanctioned racist murders, those words must not downplay or soften the hard reality with euphemism and vaguery.
New York Times: Tyre Nichols Cried in Anguish. Memphis Officers Kept Hitting.

The New York Times (online 1/27/23) writes of the “enduring frustration over Black men having fatal encounters with police officers.”

Yet that’s exactly what the New York Times did in recent coverage. In its January 28 front-page story, reporter Rick Rojas led with an unflinching description of the brutal footage, noting that Nichols “showed no signs of fighting back” under his violent arrest for supposed erratic driving.

Yet just a few paragraphs later, Rojas wrote: “The video reverberated beyond the city, as the case has tapped into an enduring frustration over Black men having fatal encounters with police officers.”

People get frustrated when their bus is late. People get frustrated when their cell phone’s autocorrect misbehaves. If people were merely “frustrated” when police officers violently beat yet another Black person to death, city governments wouldn’t be worried, in the way the Times article describes, about widespread protests and “destructive unrest.”

By describing protest as “destructive,” while describing state-sanctioned law enforcement’s repeated murder of Black people as “Black men having fatal encounters with police officers,” the Times works to soften a blow that should not be softened, to try to deflect some of the blame and outrage that rightfully should be aimed full blast at our country’s racist policing system.

That linguistic soft-pedaling and back-stepping language was peppered throughout the piece, describing how police brigades like the “Scorpion” unit these Memphis police were part of are “designed to patrol areas of the city struggling with persistent crime and violence”—just trying to protect Black folks from ourselves, you see—yet they mysteriously “end up oppressing young people and people of color.” Well, that’s a subject for documented reporting, not conjecture.

New York Times: What We Know About Tyre Nichols’s Lethal Encounter With Memphis Police

The New York Times (2/1/23) doubles down on its new euphemism for “killing.”

When a local activist described himself as “not shocked as much as I am disgusted” by what happened to Tyre Nichols, the Times added, “Still, he acknowledged the gravity of the case”—as if anti-racist activists’ combined anger, sorrow and exhaustion might be a sign that they can’t really follow what’s happening or respond appropriately.

Folks on Twitter (1/28/23) and elsewhere called out the New York Times for this embarrassing “Black people encounter police and somehow end up dead” business, but the paper is apparently happy with it. So much so that the paper came back a few days later with an update (2/1/23), with the headline: “What We Know About Tyre Nichols’ Lethal Encounter With Memphis Police.”

In it, Rojas and co-author Neelam Bohra wrote in their lead, “The stop escalated into a violent confrontation that ended with Mr. Nichols hospitalized in critical condition. Three days later, he died.”

Journalism school tells you that fewer, more direct words are better. So when a paper tells you that a traffic stop “escalated into a violent confrontation that ended up with” a dead Black person, understand that they are trying to gently lead you away from a painful reality—not trying to help you understand it, and far less helping you act to change it.

Originally published on FAIR.org, February 2nd, 2023. Reprinted with permission.     

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Black History Month and the importance of African American studies

Chad WilliamsBrandeis University

The opening days of Black History Month 2023 have coincided with controversy about the teaching and broader meaning of African American studies.

On Feb. 1, 2023, the College Board released a revised curriculum for its newly developed Advanced Placement African American studies course.

Critics have accused the College Board of caving to political pressure stemming from conservative backlash and the decision of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ban the course from public high schools in Florida because of what he characterized as its radical content and inclusion of topics such as critical race theory, reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Feb. 11, 1951, an article by the 82-year-old Black scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois titled “Negro History Week” appeared in the short-lived New York newspaper The Daily Compass.

As one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909 and the editor of its powerful magazine The Crisis, Du Bois is considered by historians and intellectuals from many academic disciplines as America’s preeminent thinker on race. His thoughts and opinions still carry weight throughout the world.

Du Bois’ words in that 1951 article are especially prescient today, offering a reminder about the importance of Black History Month and what is at stake in current conversations about African American studies.

Du Bois began his Daily Compass commentary by praising Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, who established Negro History Week in 1926. The week would eventually become Black History Month.

An elderly black man dressed in a dark business suit poses for a portrait.
Black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1946. Library of Congress

Du Bois described the annual commemoration as Woodson’s “crowning achievement.”

Woodson was the second African American to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard University. Du Bois was the first.

Du Bois and Woodson did not always see eye to eye. However, as I explore in my new book, “The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War,” the two pioneering scholars always respected each other.

Reckoning with history and reclaiming the past

Du Bois’ connection to and appreciation of Negro History Week grew during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. During this time, whether in public speeches or published articles, he never missed an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of Negro History Week.

In the Feb. 11, 1951, article, Du Bois reflected that his own contributions to Negro History Week “lay in my long effort as a historian and sociologist to make America and Negroes themselves aware of the significant facts of Negro history.”

Summarizing his work from his first book, “The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade,” published in 1896, through his magnum opus “Black Reconstruction in America,” published in 1935, Du Bois told readers of the Daily Compass piece that much of his career was spent trying “to correct the distortion of history in regard to Negro enfranchisement.”

By doing so, the nation would hopefully become, Du Bois wrote further, “conscious that this part of our citizenry were normal human beings who had served the nation credibly and were still being deprived of their credit by ignorant and prejudiced historians.”

In addition to championing Negro History Week, Du Bois applauded other Black scholars, like E. Franklin Frazier, Charles Johnson and Shirley Graham, who were “steadily attacking” the omissions and distortions of Black people in school textbooks.

Du Bois went on to chronicle the achievements of African Americans in science, religion, art, literature and the military, making clear that Black people had a history to be proud of.

A group of black men, women and children are marching on a street.
W.E.B. Du Bois, third from right in the second row, joins other marchers in New York protesting against racism on July 28, 1917. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Du Bois, however, questioned what deeper meaning these achievements held to the issues facing Black people in the present.

“What now does Negro History Week stand for?” he asked in the 1951 article. “Shall American Negroes continue to learn to be ‘proud’ of themselves, or is there a higher broader aim for their research and study?”

“In other words,” he asserted, “as it becomes more universally known what Negroes contributed to America in the past, more must logically be said and taught concerning the future.”

The time had come, Du Bois believed, for African Americans to stop striving to be merely “the equal of white Americans.”

Black people needed to cease emulating the worst traits of America – flamboyance, individualism, greed and financial success at any cost – and support labor unions, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial struggle.

He especially encouraged the systematic study of the imperial and economic roots of racism: “Here is a field for Negro History Week.”

Black history and Black struggle

Looking ahead, Du Bois declared that if Negro History Week remained “true to the ideals of Carter Woodson” and followed “the logical development of the Negro Race in America,” it would not confine itself to the study of the past nor “boasting and vainglory over what we have accomplished.”

“It will not mistake wealth as the measure of America, nor big-business and noise as World Domination,” Du Bois wrote in his article.

Under a large headline that reads The Shame of America, a newspaper advertisement lists a number of lynchings.
In 1922, the NAACP ran a series of full-page ads in The New York Times calling attention to lynchings. New York Times, Nov. 23, 1922/American Social History Project

Instead, Du Bois believed Negro History Week would “concentrate on study of the present,” “not be afraid of radical literature” and, above all else, advocate for peace and voice “eternal opposition against war between the white and colored peoples of the earth.”

Were he alive today, Du Bois would certainly have much to say about current debates around the teaching of African American history and the larger significance of African American studies. Du Bois died on Aug. 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana.

But he left behind his clairvoyant words that remind us of the connections between African American studies and movements for Black liberation, along with how the teaching of African American history has always challenged racist and exclusionary narratives of the nation’s past.

Du Bois also reminds us that Black History Month is rooted in a legacy of activism and resistance, one that continues in the present.The Conversation

Chad Williams, Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.