By Scott Tibbs, January 28, 2008
Bloomington police arrested 13 people on drug-related charges last week. Seven of those arrested were white, and six were black. The front page of the Saturday newspaper featured photographs of three suspects: all three were black. The rest of the suspects had their photographs published on page A9. A quick look at the comments section showed that I wasn't the only one who noticed this.
The problem with this is that there is a history of racial discrimination in this country, and some folks wrongly associate dark skin pigmentation with criminal activity. The fact that we're 40 years removed from the civil rights movement does not erase these racist sentiments from the culture. Whether intentionally or not, the choice of which photographs to publish on the front page of Saturday's print edition plays into those stereotypes. It is understandable why some people would be upset about the choice of photographs, especially since many people will see the headline without ever reading the rest of the newspaper.
Now, do I believe that the Herald-Times is intentionally trying to smear blacks with the choice of photographs? Do I believe that racism played any role in the choice of which photographs to put on the front page? No, I do not. I doubt the race of the people alleged to have committed drug crimes even entered into the minds of the H-T staff. Nonetheless, given the emotionally charged nature of racial issues in this (or any other) community, someone at the H-T should have noticed that the racial makeup of the pictures on the front page didn't match the overall racial makeup of the 13 people who were arrested and fixed it before it went to press.
As much disdain as I may have for those who cynically exploit racial tensions in order to score political points, I do not believe that "playing the race card" by commenting on the choice of pictures for the front page is necessarily race baiting. Complaining that no one would have noticed if three white people were on the front page does not address the real racial stereotypes that exist of blacks and criminal behavior. The H-T does not need to implement a "quota" system in which pictures they choose to publish, but they should not ignore the larger societal context either. I hope the H-T shows better judgment the next time they are presented with a similar story.