Monday, September 19, 2011

What Is Yesterday's Media Racism Tomorrow?

Inspired by a post on the "We Are Respectable Negroes" blog, a favorite, I decided to search for a few choice keywords on the vast archives of the New York Times. To explicate the irony of its own name, WARN was looking for historical uses of the phrase "respectable negroes." I wondered what other keywords might be searched. I chose the racist epithet "darkies." Having recently returned from a holiday in Bermuda, one of the 1,390 search results caught my horrified attention. From the April 8, 1883 issue of the New York Times: (You can lick on the graphic above to read the whole thing)


The steam-ship Orinoco came in last Sunday, bringing a large number of passengers and valuable cargo from Bermuda. This is the season when Bermuda vegetables are beginning to ripen, and when they bring the highest prices in the New York market...."

The article goes on to explain how this ship did not contain onions and potatoes, but barrels of whiskey. An early form of tax sheltering, whiskey was taken to Bermuda, and then reimported, saving duties and presumably interstate taxes. But oh the wry nags at the NY Times have "humor" on their minds in this tale of complicated corruption:

"Among the 8,000 or more colored persons in Bermuda, there are several who have a liking for strong drink, and who are particularly fond of American whisky. When the officer on duty [at the port of Hamilton] is at the other end of the town such unrighteous persons have only to conceal themselves among the barrels of whisky, produce a gimlet and a straw, and operate. In this way Bermuda darkies have been known to intoxicate themselves so thoroughly in 10 minutes that it took them a fortnight to straighten out. Whisky sucked out of a barrel through a straw would not ordinarily be considered an enticing beverage, but to the Bermuda colored mind, it touches the right spot. This gimlet and straw act has come to be so well understood on the balmy islands that when one of the dusky bacchanals remains sober longer than seems natural it is said of him that 'he's lost his gimlet.'"....

Perhaps this was a normal display of white editorial racism in 1883. It probably was. But it should serve as a cautionary tale about time, context, and the mutability of point of view. When today's media, even today's New York Times, the avowed American flagship of mainstream liberal journalism of record, wax wryly or even authoritatively on the politics or cultural affairs of others outside its own narrow frame of reference, how much horror-provoking nonsense are they recording for future generations of students of media?

I think particularly of the attitude of American media to the Palestinian people. How quick the media are, even liberal media like The Times, to follow up the word "Palestinian" with "terrorism." How quick they are to establish that the editorial point of view, the us talking about them is you know, Americans and Israelis together. How quick is the media to line up behind conventional wisdom and popular sentiment. How horrifying in a town where a recent special congressional election having nothing actually to do with Israel was won on the basis of which candidate was more slavishly devoted to ensuring total obedience to Israel in foreign policy, to the point where the winning Republican had an Israeli flag on the dais behind him at his election night victory rally. The media could know better, if it chose to, right now, not in 130 years.

Hopefully The Times is embarrassed by its casually repeated use of the word "darkies" (much less "dusky bacchanals') a century ago. Though I did not note an apology for said usage. Let's just say that in the future more embarrassment, more apologies, need to be forthcoming. And a little sooner.

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