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(DV) Street: Terri Schiavo, 84,000 Black Men, and Dominant Media's Selective Morality







Terri Schiavo, 84,000 Black Men,
and Dominant Media's Selective Morality

by Paul Street
April 1, 2005

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Some readers may know that I published a piece in Black Commentator last week under the title “Savage Morality: Selective Concern and Dominant Media in an Age of Empire and Inequality.” The point of this essay was that United States media authorities make revealing class-, race-, and empire-selective choices in determining what should be on the table of Americans' moral concern.  By the perverse moral calculus of dominant American media, I argued: 


* The potential development of a few nuclear weapons by an Arab state trumps Israel's already massive thermonuclear arsenal as a matter of public concern.


 * The death of 1500 U.S. soldier-occupiers in Iraq morally outweighs the demise of 100,000 occupied civilians in the same nation.


*Bill Clinton's amorous misadventure with Monica Lewinsky was a terrible crime but his murderous missile and bomb attacks on the Sudan and Serbia were reasonable and appropriate.


* Affirmative action in college admissions for historically oppressed people of color is a big concern but Legacy admissions for super-privileged whites (including the former drug offender who currently occupies the oval office) is a minor matter.


* The occasional public racial bigotry of some white personalities is a source of considerable outrage (e.g., the Trent Lott fiasco of late 2002) but deeply entrenched racist social structures, institutions, and values are generally ignored.


* The cost of suburban highway tolls to white commuters is a bigger  issue than the enormous public expense and terrible social consequences of the nation's massive, racially disparate prison-industrial complex.


* The murder of a powerful white federal judge's mother and husband is a huge public drama but the murders of thousands of poor blacks and Latinos are of slight concern. 


* The adulterous behavior of The Boeing Corporation's CEO is a hot topic but the murderous technology and heavily taxpayer-subsidized super-profits of that CEO's imperialist "defense" corporation is outside the spectrum of serious ethical inquiry.


Now I need to add another instructive contrast to this short catalogue of dominant U.S. media's savagely selective morality: the death of Terri Schiavo versus recent reports showing that unequal health care contributes to more than 100,000 black Americans dying earlier than whites each year. Thanks to that media's obsessive coverage of the Schiavo tragedy, nearly every moderately cognizant American adult has an opinion on whether it is right for doctors to act to release Schiavo from her dreadful vegetative state.


Sadly, only a small number of Americans have any kind of opinion on a recent report showing that middle-aged black men are dying at nearly twice the rate as white men of a similar age. According to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher in a paper published in the March-April issue of Health Affairs, elimination of this racial gap would prevent an estimated 83,750 early deaths each year.  In another paper published in the same Health Affairs issue, David R. Williams of the University of Michigan and Pamela Bradbury Jackson of Indiana University showed that black infant mortality is two and a half times higher than white infant mortality.  Numerous factors contribute to these appalling racial health disparities, but lower income, poorer access to health care, differential neighborhood quality, and residential segregation play critical roles, according to Satcher, Williams, and Jackson.  The nation's abysmal failure to guarantee health care to all its citizens combines with savage racial wealth disparities and persistent residential race apartheid to inflict a de facto early death sentence on hundreds of thousands black Americans.


Do a Lexis-Nexis and then a Yahoo or Google search to determine which issue receives more media attention -- this heavy national black death toll or the death of one white woman in Florida.  If you care about social justice and racial equality, you will be chilled to the bone by the outcome.


While you are at the computer, punch in some searches on Harvard University's currently embattled president Lawrence Summers. Compare the heavy attention given to his recent claim that women lack the innate mental capacity to climb the highest tiers of the academic science and math professions with the relatively moderate attention received by his 1991 memo (written when he was the World Bank's chief economist and Vice President) to the effect that poor nations are under-polluted.  


People in “less developed countries” don't live long enough, Summers argued, to lose all that much, well, life to toxic waste. When Summers’ memo became public in February 1992, Brazil's then-Secretary of the Environment wrote to tell Summers that his “reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane. Your thoughts,” the Brazilian official argued, “[provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness, and arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”


Both of Summer's statements are odious, of course. His most recent comment elicits more media concern, however, because it primarily offends predominantly white Americans of highly educated privilege.  The earlier comment affronts officially unworthy and marginally significant non-Americans of color.


But then Summers’ might never have gotten in a position to offend the professoriate if the media and academic elite had paid appropriately outraged attention to his earlier “totally insane” and “ruthless” comments about the (alleged) under-contamination of the Third World.     


For another window on the racially disparate concerns of dominant media, finally, wait a few weeks and compare the coverage given to the notorious April 1999 teen slaughter at predominantly white, suburban, and middle-class Columbine High with the media attention received by the recent mass murder at the high school on the relatively poor and isolated Native American (Ojibwe) reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota. You'll certainly see dominant communications structures judging the Columbine victims and the circumstances leading to their deaths as vastly more worthy of concentrated attention than Red Lake's victims and circumstances.


Such are the curious moral priorities of American “mainstream” media under the combined and interrelated imperatives of empire and inequality. 


Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL, April 2005). He can be reached at:


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