By Steven Charleston
Have you been watching the media recently? If you have, I am sure you have been aware of the triple header from our nation’s campuses: Duke, Rutgers and Virginia Tech. Three major universities. Three major stories. And all involved in different shades of the perennial question of race in America. But what do these stories have in common? What do the good young men of Duke, the good young women of Rutgers, and the lost young man of Virginia all share that can help us discover a message about where this nation is in its efforts to find racial/gender equality?
There is more than one answer, but here is the most obvious: their stories were played out in the media. While the men of Duke were certainly caught up in a legal issue, it was one of those now familiar moments when the lines of distinction between the courtroom and the public media become blurred. Like the O.J. trial, it was a public spectacle as much as a legal proceeding.
In the same way, the women’s team from Rutgers received ten times more coverage from the attack by Don Imus than they did from their pursuit of the national women’s basketball championship. And the tragedy of Virginia Tech has been a media vigil that will stay in the public consciousness for many years to come. The face of a Korean American pointing his guns at the camera is too powerful to be easily forgotten.
White, Black, Asian: the issues of race and justice, race and violence, have become something like reality TV for the American public. But have we stopped watching long enough to notice that all of these news stories are about the outcomes of a broken society, not about its healing?
The Civil Rights movement was the first time that race broke into the media in a meaningful, life changing way. The images of Black marchers being attacked by police dogs or battered by water cannons riveted America, but their true impact was felt in other sectors of our culture, places where change could actually take place. The Civil Rights movement showed America its racism, but it also forced that question into action in our government, our justice system, our schools, our business community. We were not only watching race relations on television, we were translating those images into change where it counted.
Are we still doing that? Or are we content just to watch? Unless all of the images from Rodney King to the Rutgers team can be transformed into systemic change, what ultimate value do they have for us beyond shock value and sorrow? And unless the predictable media figures who always surface as color commentators for these tragedies can be replaced by leadership of the stature of a Martin Luther King, what hope do we have for moving the story from the flat screen into the real centers of power where they can effect genuine change? The answer is troublingly unclear and uncertain. Our will to confront causes more than images is unsure. Our leadership is content to be talking heads. In the meantime, we are watching more than we are doing.
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School. His daily podcasts are collected at EDS’ Stepping Stones.