I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, December 02, 2005

CNN strips "Black Woman" down to her race has an article today reporting that newly elected New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is considering appointing State Sen. Nia Gill to fill the U.S. Senate seat which Corzine vacated when he ran for Governor. The only thing CNN seems interested in with this story is the fact that Gill is a black woman.

Beginning with the fact that the headline of the article is identical to the headline which the Ku Klux Klan would use when alerting its membership to this story -- "Black Woman May be Appointed to Senate" -- the article seems strangely obsessed with stripping Gill of all of her attributes other than her race (and, to a lesser extent, her gender). In doing so, the article provides an excellent illustration of how overly-sensitized, highly condescending approaches to seeing an individual primarily as a function of their race travels full circle into old-fashioned, garden-variety racism.

Undoubtedly, Gill, as an attorney and State Senator, has a long career of substantive accomplishments and clear positions on a variety of important issues which she would face as a U.S. Senator. But you won't learn about any of those from reading the CNN article, which, despite its length, tells you virtually nothing about her beyond repeatedly pointing out that she's a "black woman."

If the appointment of Gill to the U.S. Senate would be groundbreaking in some way, there would at least be a justification -- not a convincing one, but still a justification -- for the article's virtually exclusive focus on the fact that she's black. But that is not the case. As the article itself points out:

If Corzine does select Gill -- a 57-year-old attorney -- she would become only the sixth black, and second black woman ever to serve in the U.S. Senate.

And, as race-obsessed approaches like this almost invariably do, the article negates any of Gill's achievements and substantive virtues by outright stating early on that her appointment has nothing to do with any of her talents, intellect or accomplishments. Instead, the article claims that Corzine's motive in selecting her is that she's black, because Corzine wants a black appointee as a reward for black voters in New Jersey ("Corzine won nearly all the black votes cast in New Jersey's gubernatorial race"), and in order to establish his progressive credentials:

Political analysts say that by choosing Gill, Corzine would be seen as rewarding a faithful base that turned out for him on Election Day -- and possibly sending a signal about his higher political aspirations.

"It would certainly cement his status with African Americans and progressives in general, and would come in handy down the line if he's thinking about running for president," said David Bositis Sr., a political analyst at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. He studies black politics.

Isn't it unavoidably apparent how this obsession with seeing individuals like Gill as nothing more than an embodiment of her race does more to undermine their achievements, and does more to bolster odious racial stereotypes, than almost anything else? If Gill is appointed by Corzine, she will now arrive in the U.S. Senate with the albatross around her neck -- placed there by articles like this one from CNN -- that she was only appointed because she's black, not because she's smart, accomplished or talented. This reductionist, supposedly well-intentioned focus on a person's race to explain away virtually everything they achieve is somehow acceptable and, in some circles, even obligatory, despite its obviously destructive impact on the individual whose accomplishments are condescendingly dismissed in this way.

The fact that one can read a long CNN article about an individual who appears to be on the verge of being appointed to a seat in the U.S. Senate, and learn almost nothing about her other than the fact that she's a "black woman," is really quite amazing. That the article reduces her to "black woman" with a patronizingly celebratory and oh-so-sensitive tone does not alter the fact that they have reduced her in this way, nor does it change the fact that they have attributed her success -- as these sort of articles always do -- almost exclusively to a substance-less, politically cynical desire to exploit her for her race.

This sort of unseemly race-obsession is seen as constituting progress in many quarters, but it's exceedingly difficult to see how it can be reasonably viewed that way. If all CNN has to say about Gill is that she's a "black woman" who is being appointed because she's black -- which is really all they have to say about her -- it's impossible to imagine how the article could be any less flattering or more dismissive of Gill and her abilities.

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