Focus on nooses in news misses bigger racial picture

October 19, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

Nooses are in the news lately. I'm relieved that no one has been found hanging from any of them.

All that any lamebrain has to do in order to make news, it seems, is to tie a rope into a noose and hang the knotty symbol of segregation-era lynchings in a conspicuous place.

A news database search of "noose" quickly turned up one found recently at a Long Island police station locker room, another in a tree on the University of Maryland, College Park campus and another in a black Coast Guard cadet's bag aboard a cutter. A noose found on the office door of a black professor at Columbia University led to a student-led anti-racism rally.

Reported noose sightings have risen nationally in the months since nooses dangling from a schoolyard tree raised racial tensions in Jena, La. Or maybe it is just the reports of noose sightings that have risen. Since thousands of demonstrators, including the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton, descended on Jena for a highly publicized march in September, news media seem to be running to noose stories like children to a candy truck.

Unfortunately, racism is not easily covered by conventional news media these days. Television dramatically conveyed the binary good-vs.-evil issues at stake in the fight against segregation in the 1950s and '60s. Today's issues are more complicated and, if anything, better suited to radio, which can provide an insightful theater of the mind when its power is not being hijacked by demagogues. TV is better equipped to cover sports than civil rights. In sports, players on a level field strive to compete against accepted standards of excellence in front of viewers who share a common base of information. Disputes in sports usually are argued in terms of inches and seconds. Disputes about race are more nuanced and complicated. We don't have commonly shared rulebooks. Instead, our knowledge is based on personal experiences that are vastly different.

Today's America has come a long way since the segregated bad old days. For that, we can thank the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement. Racism hasn't disappeared, but it is getting harder to identify, especially when our vision of the future is clouded by old symbols from the past.

Still, the return of the noose to public view and national news should remind us, for example, of what a relic the old knotted rope has become.

Today's young black males kill more young black males in a year than the Ku Klux Klan killed in its entire history. Historians have documented more than 4,700 lynchings of African-Americans between 1882 and 1968. In 2005, the latest full year of FBI statistics, almost 8,000 black Americans were murdered, mostly by other black Americans.

It is an ironic sign of progress that the white knuckleheads who made history by making nooses have been driven into the shadows. They hang nooses, then run and hide. The terror inflicted by black knuckleheads stays with us.

In black America, today's debate often is defined as a choice between such iconic figures as Mr. Sharpton and actor-turned-activist Bill Cosby. Mr. Cosby has co-authored a book with Alvin F. Poussaint of Harvard University's Medical School called Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. The black community's most urgent problems, they argue, are rooted in a self-defeating culture of violence and victimhood. Whereas the Rev. Al calls on us to reform "the system," Cos says we need more personal responsibility. That's a false debate. We need to do both.

We have a personal responsibility to fix the system when and where it is broken. We also need to fix what is broken in our families and communities, whether TV covers it or not. Otherwise, we're hanging a noose around our own necks.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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