When symbols compete with reality


Sam Smith

One of the hard things about journalism these days is how much time is spent by reporters, sources and the public on symbols, words and their meaning and how little on what is really is, or could be, happening.

The roots of this include the rise of advertising and public relations as well as several generations of college graduates trained to analyze, deconstruct and assign meaning to words and phrases.

One small but revealing example has been the recent disappearance of so much of the press coverage of police ethnic brutality and other forms of misbehavior kicked off by the Ferguson story.

Suddenly – and without analysis or deconstruction – much of the coverage shifted first to a white woman who claimed to be black and then, in the wake of murders in a southern black church, to the issue of the Confederate flag.

Issues as important as what led a young man to mass murder or how to reform urban police departments was overwhelmed by a national debate about symbolic matters such as Rachel Dolezal’s true ethnicity and the Confederate flag.

This is not to say that these were not worthy topics but to fly them, so to speak, as prime markers of America’s ethnic problems seemed more than a little distorted.

Yet we do that all the time, with no little aid from the mass media. It is infinitely easier, for example, to report on the symbolic debate about granting Cuba recognition than it is to deal with the failure of 50 years of conflict with that country.  

Ethnic issues are especially easy targets. Thus a court ruling on the symbolism of the Washington Redskins name got three times as many Google news hits as a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the Fair Housing Act’s approach to discrimination.

The fact is: symbols are just that. If they symbolize a problem, the primary cure lies in dealing with the problem and not the symbol. If, for example, you want white guys to stop sticking Confederate stickers on the back of their pickup trucks, promote some policies that help them understand how much they have in common with lower income black guys. This is one of the reasons that the lack of a strong alliance between black, latino and labor groups is among the saddest absences in our country.

You take away someone’s symbol and often you just piss them off. You give new meaning or a new approach to their lives the symbol may disappear on its own.  That’s what has happened, for example, to many anti-gay parents who sons’ came out. Or to anti-black parents who became in laws to one. Or to a white soldier whose life was saved by a black one.

We love our symbols until reality interferes or enlightens. Which is why improving our police departments is so much more important than who displays a Confederate flag sticker.



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