The Victims of the Backlash

More good stuff from Naunihal in this morning’s email:

WHY ARE THE VICTIMS OF THE BACKLASH FACELESS? Consider two individuals who have been in the news lately: Sher Singh and Balbir Singh Sodhi. You might not recognize either name but you know the face of one of them. Both of them are Sikh Americans – they wear turbans and have beards. Neither had anything to do with Osama bin Laden.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona who was tragically shot dead, presumably in a racist attack. Although there has been some coverage of this event, it is considered a minor story. His face is never shown, so the audience doesn’t have a chance to imagine him as a person, tragically shot down for “looking wrong”.

Sher Singh was on the train from Boston to Washington DC when it was stopped in Providence. He was wearing a green turban and had a long beard. He was interrogated for looking “suspicious”. Although he established his innocence, he was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor charge and led away in handcuffs. This picture was ubiquitous. It was repeated on CNN, and in the local papers. Why ? This was a non-story. A misdemeanor charge of a man who had no connection to the attack. But by showing him being led away in handcuffs, and mentioning that the train was stopped because of suspicious individuals, the media managed to associate him firmly with the attack even while they said he had no connection to it.

Why do we know Sher Singh’s face but not Balbir Singh’s ? Why was Sher Singh’s story major news – when he as known to have no connection to the incident – and Balbir Singh’s minor news – even though his death is part of the backlash ?

Nobody is commenting on the ethics of this, even though the bias seems clear. Indeed, nobody is asking why we are spending more time talking about the loss of curb-side check-in than the death of a fellow American.

It goes further than this, however. While I am pleased to read the backlash stories, they are in some way token. There are other articles about “The American Experience” in dealing with this event, and these in no way show the complete face of out country. Even though I know there were lots of brown-skinned Americans who worked near ground zero – in every capacity from janitor to CEO – most of the faces I saw in the personal stories pieces were white.

The backlash is implicitly reported as a “minority” issue, rather than one which is intertwined with all the other topics being reported. It was only a year ago that people were reporting on the number of brown faces in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, yet somehow stories on the economy only cover people’s fear of flying and not their fear of being assaulted. Have we forgotten all the census stories about the “browning” of America? If not, why is the experience of brown America peripheral ?

In order to be fully effective against the backlash, the media has to report the experience of brown-skinned Americans and Muslim-Americans in the mainstream discussions of “America” as well as in separate pieces on the backlash itself. We need to be seen on page one and above the fold as it were. It is only if the media makes the point that we are all Americans implicitly and explicitly that this point will be heard.

Honor the dead. Fight the Backlash.

For those who don’t know him, Naunihal Singh is a doctoral student at Harvard University and a member of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force. He’s a Sikh, an American, and his high school prom was held at the World Trade Center.

Michaele wrote [18.9.01]: I confess that I have been puzzling about how to respond to Naunihal’s concern about which images of Sikhs make the news and which do not. I should preface this with the comment that I really do not mean to be offensive, and that I am only trying to understand the depth of the charges that Naunihal is making about bias in the media.

Naunihal, since you do seem to be well-networked in the North American Sikh community, do you know if anyone has provided pictures of Balbir Singh Sodhi to the media? I can imagine perfectly benign reasons why the media would not show his image: a) they have not been able to obtain any photos of him, in spite of their best efforts, b) his family has actually requested that his image not be shown on television (as sometimes happens in cases of death that do not in any way seem linked with race). If�I am�to blame the media in this case, then�I need to know that a) the media has access to pictures of Sodhi, and b) they have permission to use those pictures, and c) they have nonetheless decided not to use them. If a, b, and c are demonstrably true, then I think the case against the media is quite damning. But if not, then I have to reserve judgment (although I admit to being generally sceptical of the intentions of the media).

It seems to me that there is a perfectly plausible and non-racist explanation for why the media would have images of Sher Singh and not Sodhi. Singh is still alive – they could capture his arrest in action. Sodhi is someone who came to the media’s attention only after his death – so they have to go out of their way to find people with pictures of him when he was alive. That does not excuse the media for overplaying images of Sher Singh in an inflammatory fashion – and without having any confirmed information that he was, in fact, a suspect in the recent attacks. But it might do something to explain why images of him are comparatively easy to come by.

I sincerely hope that you take this in the spirit intended – as a question about the severity of�your charge against the media – and not as an attempt to whitewash the recent coverage.

Naunihal replied [18.9.01]: When they showed Sher Singh they had already been told that he had no connection to the attack. it was a photograph of somebody who had no connection who was being arrested for an unrelated weapons charge. That’s what they said, but the photo made it look like something else since it was put in the middle of news about the bombing. (It turns out he was harassed and chased by an angry crowd. There were some interesting follow-up articles on this subject, but he was again faceless).

As for the photo of Sodhi – there is no reservation either religious or cultural about photographs. Reporters have spoken extensively to his family, and I can’t believe that a man who has been living in the US for some time has no family snapshots anywhere.

As a matter of fact, none of the three people who were shot this weekend have had their faces shown, either in the news stories I read or in the TV news I watched.

Other people I know agreed that it was strange, given that there were 250 South Asians dead in the blast (an unconfirmed number) and many more who worked in the area, that none appeared in the news coverage.

Furthermore something else strange is happening. A month ago, probably one out of every three stock analysts on TV from the brokerage houses were South Asian. I watched two hours of financial coverage and saw only white faces. Not one East Asian either. It’s a noticeable and visceral difference if you’re tuned into these things.

I’m not claiming a conspiracy. I am claiming that in times of stress we revert to a 1950s image of “America” and it shows. Then again, Brit Hume on Fox news said someting about returning to more traditional values and music (!?!) in the face of the attack.

I sent that piece to the Poynter Institute, the main journalistic clearing house, and they agreed to put something up on the subject so I struck a nerve with some professional journalists. You’re right it could all be coincidence, but my gut isn’t happy. I had expected to see the faces of the people who had been shot on TV and in the news … and instead the stories are buried deep in the paper. I wish I had the time to do a proper news analysis … but I’ll bet all images on national TV have gotten substantially whiter. As for the lack of photos of the three who were shot – I think its guilt, pure and simple. We’re in the middle of victimhood and self-righteous anger, and this would spoil it.

Michaele, again [18.9.01]: Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. Funny – the commentators have gotten noticeably male-r, too. News anchors are still female, but the pundits aren’t. I’ve had a number of feminist emails about that issue. It doesn’t surprise me that you would notice a correlation having to do with race as well. (I confess that I have been avoiding TV news these past two days, and getting everything online and via public radio, so I can’t really comment on the recent past.)

Naunihal, again [18.9.01]: I was talking to my officemate Oxana and commented that they were older, whiter and maler. Maybe something about looking establishment and conveying security. This is definitely true for the financial sector cable news where they had been young and minority.

Naunihal, again [19.9.01]: I saw a photo of Balbir Singh Sodhi on the ABC special last night between 10 and 11. it’s out there, but this is the only time I’ve seen it on TV.

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