Why the white press can't cover black violence

April 22, 1994|By Jonathan Alter

WHAT IF they gave a war and nobody cared? The astonishing level of brutality in Rwanda is getting considerable attention, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

Last fall in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, as many as 100,000 (by vague estimates) died in fighting following a coup, and it merited mostly news briefs in the American press.

In Liberia, 150,000 were killed in 1989-90. In Angola, the death toll exceeds 100,000, twice the number of Americans killed in Vietnam.

In Ethiopia, the figures after 17 years of civil war are in the hundreds of thousands, not counting starvation.

Why is it that when blacks kill other blacks it doesn't register much on the world outrage meter?

The answers aren't quite as simple as they seem. Racism is only a partial explanation.

The peculiar conventions of the news business play a role. So do domestic politics, including the politics of the American black community. And the end of the Cold War is hardly insignificant.

There's obviously no formula for when killing becomes news. Apologists for skimpy coverage tend to remark how far away Africa is from the United States, but a nation's geographical proximity has little connection to the amount of attention it receives.

Violence in Haiti, 713 miles offshore, receives less ink than violence in the Middle East, 6,000 miles away. It's safe to say that if Haiti were a white island, the tyranny there would be leading the news more often.

And if Northern Ireland were part of a black island, the relatively small number of people killed there in the past 30 years (about 3,000) would not loom so large. (Incidentally, why aren't Protestants and Catholics -- or Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia -- referred to as "tribes"? Weren't the Celts once a tribe?)

But race isn't always the decisive factor, either. A dozen dead in South Africa is major news in the United States, even though it's far away and mostly black. That's because the struggle for justice in South Africa resonates here with the memory of our own racial conflicts.

Tribal violence doesn't resonate in the same way, though perhaps it should. The Hutu versus the Tutsi aren't so different from the Bloods versus the Crips, after all.

Sometimes strong TV pictures trump race, as in Somalia. The black skin of the victims did not lessen the white world's sense of horror.

On the other hand, pictures of gunshot victims in American cities, while big local news, are now so common that they rarely make the national news, even when the shootings are geographically within blocks of the studios. The exception is when the violence crosses racial lines.

So geography, race and pictures take you only so far. There are also more subtle barriers to fuller coverage of black-on-black unrest. The first is a feeling of futility about doing anything to stop tribal violence that has existed for hundreds of years.

This is partly white racism -- "these people were born to fight" (as if the rest of the human species weren't). It's partly an acknowledgment of the paternalism of the colonialist -- "Who are whites to straighten out their problems for them?"

And finally, the sense of futility is biracial and pragmatic -- "We couldn't do anything even if we tried."

Of course these hesitations would be whisked away if a domestic constituency existed to lend political weight to the cause. But there are few Rwandan-Americans, for instance, to write to Congress.

This political pressure is further reduced by the existence of Pan-African sentiment among many American blacks. (Randall Robinson and his condemnation of the Haitian military marks an exception.)

As long as black activists remain wedded to the idea that Africans who share the same skin color are all brothers, they won't be able to speak out loudly against tribal brutality.

This dangerous mixture of solidarity and rationalization is beginning to break down within the United States. Ironically, the gap in foreign news is being partially filled by a new and overdue focus on violence at home.

Black leaders are increasingly willing to speak out against the crisis in their own communities. And Bill Clinton is lending a hand in changing the climate.

Instead of debating intervention in Rwanda last week, the president was devising new rules of engagement for the war in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and other strife-torn (note the combat cliche) housing projects.

The president's decision to allow unannounced weapons sweeps in all housing projects will bring some yelps that he wants to impose the moral equivalent of martial law. But the basic choice to emphasize domestic instead of international violence is popular among both blacks and whites.

Mr. Clinton supports far more aggressive environmental and population-control measures than did his predecessors. But the retreat from the Third World proceeds.

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