Posted on June 8, 2011

When a News Story Omits Race, Do We Really Know Any Less?

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, June 8, 2011

You probably know the basic facts.


A dozen or so teenage males went on the prowl near North Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s toniest shopping district. They attacked five people, ages 20 to 68. Their loot included a backpack, a wallet, a bike, an iPad, a BlackBerry and an iPod Touch. The cops quickly arrested five alleged assailants, at least three of them from the South Side, and vowed to find the rest.

If you’ve followed the story–and who hasn’t?–there’s another fact that you also know, but it’s one you haven’t read in the Tribune or seen explicitly stated by most of the official media: The young men were black.


So why would a news organization avoid a fact? This fact?


I’m ambivalent about the omission of the attackers’ race in the news accounts, but I think I would have decided to leave it out too.


Here’s the quandary, for editors, for cops, for all of us:

Race alone doesn’t predict or explain behavior. Just because this mob was young and black hardly means that all young, black people in groups are a violent mob. Knowing the race of these attackers is no form of protection.


So, yes, the attackers were black. We notice. But how to measure the relevance of the fact?

As my friend pointed out, recalling the words of the African-American writer Toni Morrison, “Once we know the race, what else do we know?”

The answer? Not as much as any single word–black, white, other–may make us think we do.