Recommended Reading List: African American History and Race Relations

From the silent protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick to the massive ground swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, examples of discontent and outrage are growing in reaction to systemic racial injustice in the United States. Understanding and facing these challenges requires historical context – how we got to this dark place – and analysis from scholars and journalists who follow the issues closely and are gifted with the ability to explain the problems and offer possible solutions. The following annotated bibliography is in no way intended to be exhaustive. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that have been published in recent years on African American history and race relations. It is simply a list of books I can honestly recommend because I have read them and think they are representative of the topic.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Although she is not the first person to write about America’s caste system, Wilkerson probably has better examples and research to support her conclusions than did previous writers on the subject, especially after the presidency of Donald Trump. She makes a compelling argument for why we need to dig much deeper than race and class to understand the complexities of white privilege, discrimination, injustice, prejudice, poverty, and a whole host of other societal ills in America.

She draws comparisons to the ancient caste system in India to explain how arbitrary lines are drawn between groups of people that are irrational, indefensible, and immoral. She illustrates the paradox of a country that was founded on liberty and justice for all that at the same time enslaved people for 250 years of its history and continued to enforce a segregated society, often with horrible acts of violence, long after slavery was abolished. The chapter describing how the Nazis in Germany used the rhetoric and Jim Crow policies of the United States to construct their own pogroms is chilling and painful.

One of the major strengths of this book is Wilkerson’s use of metaphors to describe how the caste system in America originated and continues to be perpetuated by the dominant caste: the power base mostly of European descent. She uses a neglected house as a symbol of how the caste system has slowly but effectively compromised the structure of American society, eating away at its foundation and crumbling its walls. The inevitable result will eventually be a pile of rubble if we continue to avoid the problem.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What a fine book. Not only does Gates bring a mountain of research to the table, but he also offers insight and thoughtful commentary based on decades of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing about Reconstruction and the Redemption period in American history that encompasses almost 100 years following the formal end of slavery. This topic has been covered to some degree by several scholars in recent years, with Doug Blackmon being the first to come to mind. I think what sets this book apart is the examination and analysis of the concept of the New Negro as it was proposed and argued by the major figures of African American society in the late 19th century and moving through the period now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington.

Gates recently published a book titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which is a wonderful history of African American religious communities and a study of how churches served much more than just places of worship. I am currently reading the book and cannot review it properly yet, but I do highly recommend it.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper

Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. Obviously, much of the paranoia centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day. This book is a fine addition to American history and African American studies.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

Well, this was painful . . . and so relevant. Jones is armed with a searing spotlight that reveals how Christianity in America was nurtured and sustained by white supremacy throughout its history and is still embracing it today. With compelling data, careful research, and thoughtful commentary, Jones forces readers to confront how racial discrimination and social injustice are far more prevalent in all denominations of Christianity than most people are willing to admit, including clergy and elected officials.

One of the lightbulb moments for me in this book was the realization that people who do horrible things while also identifying as Christians, are indeed Christians by the way our society defines it. He uses the horrific case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. This young man was an active member of his Lutheran church and frequently posted Bible verses and Christian doctrinal messages through social media and his personal documents. He justified his actions with his Christian beliefs. As Jones astutely observes, if Roof had killed white Christians and had been attending a mosque and posting verses from the Koran, how many white Americans would have denied that he was a Muslim? Roof is a Christian terrorist, and the justification for his violence is directly linked to white supremacy. And, he is not alone in that twisted mindset.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

I had a pre-conceived image of someone who was much more violent than Malcolm X actually was based on this book. I was intrigued with how the man born Malcolm Little evolved from being a petty criminal, often robbing even members of his own family, to become an intellectual force to be reckoned with by the U.S. government and even foreign powers. It may not be fair to say that a few years in prison turned his life around. It would even be a weak cliché; however, there is no doubt that some of the relationships he developed with older mentors he met while in prison had a tremendous impact on his self-awareness, his belief system, his intelligence, his understanding of racial inequality, and his vision for the future of African Americans.

It was also interesting to watch how he eventually abandoned his complete devotion to Elijah Muhammad as the head of the political organization, Nation of Islam, to pursue his own leadership role within the framework of Islam as a world religion. Leaving the NOI and speaking out against it precipitated his violent death. Before he died, Malcolm moved to the forefront in the fight for civil rights and was unapologetic about the means employed to overcome racial injustice. Malcolm X had no patience for pacifists who advocated a moderate approach. He wasn’t asking for justice — he demanded it.

Malcolm’s parents were heavily influenced by the separatist and sovereign ideas for people of color espoused by Marcus Garvey, which probably led Malcolm to make distinctions between segregation and separation. The former was imposed, but the latter was voluntary and desirable — a fascinating perspective. He wanted to see black people become completely independent of white influence, dominance, and charity. His disdain for white people (white devils, as he called them) waned toward the end of his life, but he never felt compelled to be conciliatory or to make excuses for racial discrimination and the privileged white society that perpetuated it. Nobody could ever mistake Malcolm X for a “team player,” and his vision for black people presented a stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition) by Michelle Alexander

Alexander presents us with a comprehensive and disturbing study of how mass incarceration resulting from the “war on drugs” in America has disproportionately imprisoned people of color in comparison to whites. As a well-trained attorney, she presents a mountain of evidence to argue her case, using quotes and testimonies from a wide array of historical and contemporary figures along with hard data and heartbreaking stories. No segment of American society escapes her stinging indictment: blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals; rich, poor, and middle class; champions of the Civil Rights Movement; and modern political figures, all the way up to Barack Obama (the book was published in 2010). This is an important book that deserves serious consideration by decision makers at almost every level of government, and especially those who are in any way connected to the criminal justice system.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.

To some degree, Forman’s book takes up where The New Jim Crow leaves off. Understanding mass incarceration of black people at the hands of a legal system that is dominated by white people is not too difficult, but the situation gets cloudy when it happens in cities across the country that are largely governed by black people. In Forman’s experience as a public defender, Washington D.C. is a model city for the disturbing phenomenon. Using personal accounts from his own case files and extensive research into the historical developments that bred the “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” Forman carefully examines why the arc of the moral universe is longer than Martin Luther King, Jr. may have imagined, and it doesn’t seem to be bending very much toward justice for people of color.

Critics will argue that, first and foremost, breaking the law is not justified simply because we don’t like the laws and that black people cannot expect a pass just because they find themselves in difficult circumstances that often leave them with few options other than criminal activity. They will likely argue that Forman is proving the point that race is not a factor at all, especially since black people are arrested and convicted by black officers and judges. However, Forman digs deeper than the surface appearances to uncover complicated and nuanced systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality on our streets, in our courts, and in our prisons.

I had the opportunity to sit next to Professor Forman at a luncheon when he was honored with a Lillian E. Smith Book Award in 2018 for his work. His own life story is fascinating; his methods of teaching law are innovative and inspiring; and his passion for justice is akin to a minister’s drive to lead his congregation. He even sounds slightly like a preacher when he talks about the topic of this book. Readers will have to judge if he presents a convincing argument, but I don’t believe anyone can doubt his conviction.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is such a compelling story from the man who leads up the organization that most recently brought us the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial, as many are calling it) in Montgomery, Alabama. I was particularly drawn to Stevenson’s reflections near the end of the book in the chapter titled “Broken.” He observes how our society has legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we surrender to the harsh instinct to crush those among us who are most visibly injured by circumstances that are in many cases beyond their control. Stevenson explains that we are all broken, but we are not defined solely by the mistakes we have made.

“I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transformed him into a heretic in the eyes of many Americans, especially those in the South. It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because it says what has needed to be heard and understood for a very long time by someone in a position of authority who deserves respect and serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first 20+ years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His definitions of Christianity and gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

He also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

The Right to Keep and Bear What Arms?

Pistol
Pistol

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the tipping point.” It’s probably too early to know for certain, but the wide-spread reactions we are witnessing to the February 14, 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, may indeed by a sign of a national opinion shift about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its unofficial but most vehement advocate, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Of course, the Parkland tragedy was only one in a long list of mass shootings in this country, and gun advocates typically point to almost any other solution than more restrictions on private ownership of firearms. “We should enforce the laws that are already on the books,” they say. However, there are cases where a shooter didn’t break the law until he decided to kill multiple people. I don’t think anyone believes that any action taken now will completely stop mass shootings in America, but can they be decreased? Can the number of casualties be reduced? Is it worth trying to include a discussion about restrictions on types of guns and their capacity? I think so.

We can’t exactly shut down all public events in the country, along with movie theaters, malls, parks, nightclubs, and all other places where people gather. We can hope that there are always good guys with guns around who are better trained than the average law enforcement officer, but how effective will that be against a suicidal maniac who wants to take out as many lives as possible before being taken down or blowing his head off? Let’s make it more difficult for them. Let’s make them choose other weapons that aren’t as efficient in closed spaces, at least. Or, we can just throw up our hands and say that no gun laws will ever slow down the murders. But then we are going to have to explain how stronger gun laws in other countries do impact murder rates.

We can no longer interpret our founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, as if we were still living in the 18th century. In truth, we have been re-interpreting these documents for over 200 years, and adding to them because they cannot completely address a society that continues to change with every generation with regard to values, beliefs, and technological advancements. I think we can all agree that the weapons available even to the wealthiest nations in the 18th century cannot compare to what the average American can now have in his closet.

Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the 2nd Amendment is not the only one under scrutiny. There are plenty of restrictions on free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment, that we all accept as a society because doing so makes us safer. Those have developed over time and are still in force. Even now there is serious discussion about how electronic communication creates issues that we have never had to address before but probably will, just as we had to do with broadcasting. The result will most likely be more and newer restrictions to free speech. We impose restraints on religious practice too, and for good reason.

Even gun enthusiasts generally agree that fully-automatic weapons don’t belong in the hands of private citizens, and they certainly don’t support individual ownership of advanced weapon systems used by forces around the world. We have a handful of people in this country who are wealthy enough to buy tanks, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles, but no one argues about their right to keep and bear those arms!  Some of our guaranteed rights were never intended to be, nor can they be, absolute rights.

Both 1st and 2nd Amendments are restricted rights. The current debate really comes down to a question of what limitations our society will accept. I have never advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment nor do I, as a gun owner, support taking away all guns from law-abiding, responsible citizens. I hope the country is moving toward finding ways to reduce violence, which may or may not involve more restrictions on firearms. I do maintain that any discussion of reducing violence by people using guns should take into account the type of guns that are made so widely available to individuals.

The Centre Cannot Hold

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”  The chasm is exhibited in more than just politics, although the divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.  In a report issued on June 12, 2014, the Center made the following observation.

Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

America seems to be the land of extremes. The labels employed so frequently in public discourse are usually an indictment and a stamp of extreme disapproval: right wing, left wing, socialist, capitalist, communist, opponent, liar, criminal, idiot, moron, etc. We are either desperately searching for the next word or deed that will offend us or someone else, or we are so self-absorbed that we care nothing about those outside our circle of friends and supporters. The polarization is crippling. There is no room for compromise but only intense fear that any concession will result in a quick trip down the proverbial slippery slope. Common ground is gone; there are only camps. An opinion or policy is either right or wrong, not worthy of thoughtful consideration or discussion. There are no intentions of improving on an idea or a plan; either reject any suggestions or scrap it altogether. Considering a different path along the same trajectory is out of the question; only the opposite direction is acceptable.

As much as I dislike doom and gloom forecasts based on the current political climate, I am nevertheless disheartened by what appears to be the disappearance of an ideological center in America.  So many issues now divide us as a population: abortion, immigration, terrorism, gun violence, the economy, same-sex marriage, etc.  Interestingly enough, the research indicates that Democrats are becoming more liberal at a faster rate than Republicans are becoming more conservative (many of my friends would disagree with this finding).  A third political party that poses a platform blending hot-button items into some semblance of a synthesis has very little chance of succeeding.  The viability of a third party of any kind is almost inconceivable, including the Libertarian Party.

America has a colorful history of political antagonism, even to the point of violence.  The Civil War makes the current political waters seem relatively calm by comparison.  Yet looking back at the first half of the 20th century when America went through two world wars, it seems that members of those generations had the ability to put their differences aside to concentrate on greater problems. Even during the Reagan administration, when I started paying attention to politics, the divisions didn’t seem as deep as they are now.  Sadly, the spirit of cohesion and reconciliation that followed an event as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was short lived.  Hostility almost seems to be equally directed internally and externally.

I know that round-the-clock news coverage from so many sources has certainly heightened awareness of the national debates, and social media sites are breeding grounds for vitriolic memes and declarations that serve to further divide people on a wide variety of issues, from 2nd Amendment rights to welfare reform.  The spectacular, if not outrageous,  Presidential campaign underway now obviously is bringing a tremendous amount of tension to the surface, forcing so many of us to dive deeper into our tribal nature and choose sides.  I am reminded of the familiar lines from the poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .

Perhaps our enemies don’t really need to attack us at all; they just need to be patient, and wait.

The Sky Is Falling

World leaders are meeting for the next week or so in Paris to discuss ways in which the major countries around the globe can reduce carbon emissions in hopes of warding off catastrophic effects from global warming.  How serious this problem is has become a topic of “heated” debate in this country, just like almost everything else, from Starbucks holiday coffee cups to Syrian refugees coming to America.  A handful of scientists (about 3% worldwide) are not convinced that the current climate changes we are experiencing are caused by human activity, which is all the evidence needed to call the whole idea a scam by a growing minority of people in this country who completely distrust any message coming from the federal government or the research of individuals, institutions, agencies, and organizations funded by federal tax dollars.  They are convinced that restrictions imposed by governments due to climate change will result in onerous taxes, economic ruin, burdensome regulations, dictatorial bureaucrats, and higher energy costs.

It would appear that the denial of climate change issues has moved into the realm of conspiracy theory.  Some of my friends argue that scientists are lying and falsifying data to appeal to liberal policy makers who pay them and who seek even further control over our lives and property.  They point to the changes in terminology — moving away from phrases like global warming and toward phrases like climate change — as an indication that the science is not solid and that climatologists are not to be trusted.   Here’s a flash.  What we are seeing around the planet IS global warming, but we have folks who can’t understand that global warming is NOT a term to describe weather.  There is a difference between climate and weather, so the vocabulary was modified in an attempt to increase understanding about the problem, which obviously failed.

Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to speak too much about climate change from a scientific standpoint, so I have to trust the consensus of opinion of the majority of climatologists around the world, just like I feel compelled to trust the vast majority of doctors who believe immunization is more helpful than harmful. I could list many other examples. I can remember a time when conservatives thought that recycling was a trick on dumb liberals, that is, until they discovered there is plenty of money to be made in the recycling business. Then it became desirable. I suspect we will eventually see this same pattern evolve with the reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable energy sources, and other similar initiatives.  I believe in being skeptical, but skepticism on the level of global scientific opinion of such a large majority seems unreasonable.

Christianity Is Alive and Kicking in the U.S.

The latest crusade to save Christians from persecution in the United States is now focused on Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples according to the law as defined by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.  She was eventually found in contempt because of her continued refusal to obey the law and carry out her responsibilities as an officer of the court based on her religious beliefs, nor would she allow her employees to issue licenses with her signature, which is required.  Rather than comply or step down from her position, she stood her ground and was arrested and jailed on contempt charges.

First of all, I can’t imagine how unfulfilled Ms. Davis’s life must be to go through with this defiant stance against the State of Kentucky and ultimately the Supreme Court.  Her actions seem to be that of a self-imposed martyr.  Given her past personal relationships that have been broadcast for all to read about over the last week or so, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  In some ways, she is a bit pathetic.  Apparently, she is convinced that this is indeed what Jesus would do, because Jesus didn’t like same-sex marriage.  Of course, there is no hint that Jesus ever said anything negative about homosexuality, but there are plenty of passages condemning it in the Old Testament and several in the New.  That’s all Kim Davis and millions of other Christians need to know.  If attention is what she needed, she certainly succeeded in getting it.  And she is returning the favor to someone who needs it even worse and is very vocally supportive of her actions: Mike Huckabee, a minister and also a Republican candidate for President, who can’t get the media’s attention because EVERYBODY is waiting to hear the next outrageous phrase coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth, who is the current top contender for the White House for the Republicans.  Yes, we are all in shock.  I don’t know a fiction writer today with enough imagination to come up with something this rich.

Evangelicals across the nation are crying out again that there is a war on Christianity.  Religious liberties are at stake.  The liberals are forcing the silent majority to conform to the sinful culture of a nation that is turning its back on God.  They claim that Kim Davis has been thrown in jail simply because of her faith, and before long, it will happen to all Christians.  Really?  Does Ms. Davis’s refusal to carry out her duties as a government official not warrant repercussions, such as arrest (she is an elected official, and therefore cannot simply be terminated — she must resign or be impeached)?  Southern Baptists who were completely against drinking alcohol routinely issued liquor licenses to businesses in their counties and municipalities in their capacity as public officials. And speaking from experience, I can testify that it is difficult to find a more conservative religious person with deeper convictions than a Southern Baptist.  Apparently, serving or drinking booze does not offend God as much as two men who are in love and want to get married.

So how oppressed are Christians in America?  Are they indeed in danger for expressing their beliefs?  Is the government trying to stamp out Christianity and move toward a totalitarian secular society?  If the entertainment industry is representative of the cultural landscape, and I think it is, then Christians can relax.  The faith-based movie, “The War Room,” is the top box office hit this week, and it isn’t being banned or boycotted anywhere that I have seen. It follows the success of another Christian movie last year, “Heaven Is Real.” Both movies were released by mainstream Hollywood studios. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled them unconstitutional. The President hasn’t issued an executive order shutting down theaters showing them. No one is going to jail for showing them or watching them. In fact, this latest one is taking the nation by storm. So for those who constantly preach about the war on Christianity in this country, please rest assured that your faith is alive and well and still one of the most influential forces in our society, for better or worse.

Facebook Reality Check

Facebook is a remarkable virtual place for people to share an almost infinite array of information about themselves, their families, their friends, their activities, opinions, wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, fears, faith, political views . . . the list is almost endless. However, if we are looking for a balanced snapshot of how the world is “supposed to be,” or if we’re even expecting accuracy as far as news and information is concerned, we really need to look elsewhere (and good luck finding those ANYWHERE). In that respect, the most we can hope for with Facebook is the flavor of the day — the issue or story that has captured the imagination of a lot of people for a brief moment. This week it may be a dead lion, last week it may have been the death of a jailed black woman, the week before that it may have been photos from a spacecraft leaving the solar system, and before that it may have been Planned Parenthood, and before that it may have been a battle flag from a lost war a long time ago. A year ago, Facebook was filled with folks pouring ice and water on their heads as a fundraising challenge. Five years ago it was all about the World Cup. I think we just have to take Facebook for what it really is: the dominant social media platform on the planet (I suppose) — sometimes a landfill, but sometimes a treasure chest. And those of us who have Facebook profiles can never lose sight of the fact that the advertisers are Facebook’s customers — we are the product.

Bad News

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but somehow over the last few decades, news has become a commodity that is invented, developed, marketed, and sold much like a sports drink or a hair product.  The transformation seems most apparent in television network and cable news outlets.  It has been argued that the round-the-clock cable news companies completely changed the way the public thinks about information and how it is delivered.  And then there is the Internet.  Regardless of the origins, so much of our news is now completely consumer driven, and our consumers consist of a whole lot of people who are not so well educated and who crave entertainment.  Sensationalism is entertaining — give ’em what they want!  But what they want is certainly not what we all need to be truly informed.

Americans who get their news from the mainstream sources will likely be able to tell you how many people died in the latest plane crash, the identity of the latest victim kidnapped and/or murdered by ISIS, what Kim Kardashian was wearing at the Grammy Awards, which presidential candidate is ahead in the polls, and how many times a police officer shot an unarmed African-American man yet again.  What they probably won’t be able to tell you is the impact that drought is having on farmers in California that will adversely affect food prices across the country.  It is doubtful they will know anything about the violence raging in Libya and other areas of Africa, which is increasing the number of people fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.  They will likely be unaware of a new type of blood test that is starting to transform cancer treatment, sparing some patients surgical and needle biopsies.

I’m not trying to unfairly pick on CNN, but they are the leader in world news.  Yet, they have fallen into the sensational trap of providing shallow news.  A quick look at today’s headlines on their website reveals these tasty stories:

  • Johnny Depp’s dogs face deportation or death
  • Ex-NFLer accused of murdering prison cellmate
  • Rock singer discloses mental disorder
  • ‘Simpsons’ stalwart rejects $14M deal

And the top three stories are about the Amtrak train crash, which will probably dominate CNN and the other outlets for several weeks, leaving behind the search for more clues in the German airline crash into the Alps a few weeks ago — old news now.

Checking out other outlets like FOX News, CNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC will result in much the same material.  In addition to giving us bad news, the providers are also constantly trying to test the political, ideological, moral, and religious climate of their viewership.  Since the country is so deeply divided along those lines these days, we find the media organizations making choices about coverage and slanting their editorial content accordingly.  On top of sensationalism, we are also fed a steady diet of partisanship and divisiveness.  This isn’t comprehensive news — it’s very carefully selected information designed to keep the customer happy and coming back for more.  It’s like abandoning fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and meat for fast food and convenience-store snacks.  Some of like burgers while others like fried chicken, but none of it is very good for us.