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Racial Profiling

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Racial Profiling

September 13, 2002

To judge by many reviews, books like Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" and William McGowan's "Coloring the News" are just overblown rants, maliciously exaggerating a liberal slant in the press when they are not simply inventing it.

But the contrast between two recent profiles in the Washington Post, of Clarence Thomas and Cornel West, affirms the sad truth that these books try to present. The naked prejudice on view in the profiles -- published only a week apart -- shows a kind of journalism barely advanced beyond the casual slander that was ordinary in Gilded Age newspapers.

Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher drown Justice Thomas in savage dismissals. Emerge magazine, we are told, has twice parodied him on its cover; Julianne Malveaux, rageaholic economist and columnist, hopes the justice's wife will feed him to death; an acquaintance thinks that Justice Thomas "wishes almost sociopathically to be white."

Apparently Justice Thomas is a slippery sort of guy: He "isn't shy about working the media he disdains." Meanwhile, at a club he was seen clustering with whites while smoking a big cigar; a black lawyer notes that "the symbolism was eerie." And there seems to be something missing in poor Clarence's heart: He is estranged from his grandfather and rarely visits the town he was born in (but hasn't lived in since he was a child).

Oh, Messrs. Merida and Fletcher make sure to provide "balance" by noting that Justice Thomas is raising a great-nephew, meets regularly with drug addicts and fifth-graders, and has a hearty laugh. But Lord forbid that they focus a whole article on such things, though the contrast with the usual hit piece on Justice Thomas would surely attract readers. They conclude that, scattered good points regardless, "Thomas remains a Washington player."

Of course, Cornel West is a consummate "player" in Blackademia. But this makes him, in the title of his Post profile, a "Moving Target," a canny survivor, in contrast to Justice Thomas, whose profile is titled "Supreme Discomfort."

Lynne Duke Washington, the author of the West profile, offers a paean to her subject, catching him after the "ordeal" of his run-in with Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, and his relocation to Princeton. She sums up the criticism of Mr. West as a "monsoon of vitriol." Otherwise Mr. West is draped in words like "dignity," "confidence" and "style."

Beyond his meeting with Mr. West, Mr. Summers offended several white professors at Harvard on his arrival. Yet Mr. West feeds us the line that he ran up against bigotry: "So already, I knew you had what I call an a priori approach to 'the Negro.' You don't need any evidence. You just accuse." This is a decidedly fragile analysis of the episode, which centered on questions about the quality and quantity of Mr. West's scholarship. But while Messrs. Merida and Fletcher make sure to dismiss anything that came out of Justice Thomas's mouth, Ms. Washington counters Mr. West only with a brief mention of Shelby Steele's judgment -- making sure to note that Mr. Steele has published less than Mr. West.

Ms. Washington paints Mr. West as a man of confidence, ending with him crowing: "If they wanted to get someone they could crush, they got the wrong Negro." Messrs. Merida and Fletcher quote similar statements by Justice Thomas but can't let him speak for himself, instead asking: "If Thomas is unbothered by the harsh judgment of him, why does he spend so much time talking about it?"

I get it: Mr. West, whose response to a tough session with his boss was to turn tail, is a Strong Black Man. Justice Thomas, who has withstood years of withering profiles like this one, is a weak sister.

Even the photographs nauseate in their contrast. Justice Thomas is shown kissing his white wife. How often do we see Lani Guinier or Al Sharpton -- or any subject of a profile -- kissing a spouse? The choice deliberately plays to the contempt that many blacks have for interracial marriages, all the more since black conservatives are accused of "wanting to be white." Mr. West, however, is shown earnestly packing his bags on his way to Princeton -- a man on the move. But why so chary about his personal life? If the Post will go to the trouble of paying reporters to travel to Georgia to dish the dirt on Justice Thomas, then surely a "balanced" portrait of Mr. West will include at least one edgy quote from one of Mr. West's three ex-wives. I guess not.

And what the profiles leave out is as egregious as what they include. From the West piece we would never know that many writers have written cogent critiques of his work and career. Meanwhile Messrs. Merida and Fletcher keep mum about books like Scott Douglas Gerber's "First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas" that demolish the canard that Justice Thomas simply follows the directions of Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

A fourth-grader could see this is not balanced coverage. It is an alternation between character assassination and puff-piece drivel, and this bias in the coverage of black conservatives is endemic. In 1997 the New York Times did a long piece on Ward Connerly interviewing relatives from his childhood who made him look like a self-hating freak, crowned by his dying father wondering when Wardell was coming back home. Yet the Times and other major newspapers ignored Mr. Connerly's autobiography, "Creating Equal." Where was the balance in refusing to let a man defend himself?

Worse is that this bias is largely unconscious. The journalists and editors behind such pieces are neither rabid ideologues nor committed advocates. Guided by a tacit sense that the "authentic" black cries victim and the "compassionate" white plays along, they inevitably see dumping on Justice Thomas as neutrality incarnate, although they would surely bristle to see black public figures like Anna Deavere Smith or Randall Robinson submitted to such treatment in print.

In my smaller moments I wish a foundation would dedicate a grant to writing profiles of profile writers themselves, especially of anyone who has written about race. For some, chosen at random, the profile would be a mash note. For others, it would be a hit job, reveling in minor inconsistencies in their writing and low moments in their lives, mentioning a few strengths for "balance" but matching each with an acrid quote from an ex-lover or childhood friend.

Maybe, just maybe, such writers would then understand the difference between "balance" and funhouse-mirror distortion -- and think twice before contributing to the swill that passes for coverage of some of our most important black thinkers today.