John Stossel Deploys the White Racial Frame

In a recent column called “White Privilege and Barack Obama,” John Stossel, the co-anchor of ABC’s show 20/20, deploys the white racial frame – and hides behind the writing of African American neo-con Shelby Steele to disguise his own ignorance about racial matters in the U.S.

Stossel begins his piece by sharing his “assumption” about the significance of Obama’s success, then picking up on the widely circulated Tim Wise piece on Obama and white privilege, (which Adia Harvey wrote about here first), and then attacks Wise for his message. Here’s Stossel:

I assumed that the success of Barack Obama, as well as thousands of other black Americans and dark-skinned immigrants — many of whom thrive despite language problems — demonstrates that America today is largely a colorblind meritocracy. But a white campus lecturer, Tim Wise, gets tremendous applause from students by saying things like, “[W]hite supremacy and privilege continue to skew opportunities hundreds of years after they were set in place” and in America, “meritocracy is as close to a lie as you can come.” His message is in demand — he is invited to more than 80 speaking engagements a year.”

Stossel never refutes the charges that Wise and Harvey (and lots of others) make about white privilege and the way it operates in U.S. society and particularly in this campaign. Instead, he engages in a rhetorical strategy that’s best described as “nuh-uh, Shelby Steele says…” The line that immediately follows the paragraph quoted above starts like this:

But black writer Shelby Steele argues that whites do blacks no favors wringing their hands about white privilege.”

The rest of Stossel’s column consists mainly of lots of re-tread quotes from Steele’s book White Guilt. The bottom line: “nuh-uh, Shelby Steele says all that stuff is minor and he should know, ‘cuz he’s black.” So there. The only ground that Stossel ever concedes to racism is this bit:

Of course, there is still racism in America. At ABC News we’ve aired hidden-camera video showing sales clerks spying on black customers, cab drivers passing blacks to pick up whites and employers favoring white-sounding names.

Steele says those are minor problems.

Here, Stossel is referring to one 19-minute segment called “True Colors” that 20/20 did back in the early 1990s when Diane Sawyer was still on the show. It’s an excellent piece. I’ve used in classes and I include here on our list of recommended videos to use in teaching about racism. That’s one segment – in the twenty-plus years the show has been on. What Stossel fails to grasp here, and what Steele minimizes in his analysis, is that this discrimination is daily, ongoing, and life-threatening. In fact, in the very segment that Stossel references here African American economist and social commentator Julianne Malveaux points out how damaging and pervasive this sort of discrimination, when she says “it grinds exceedingly small.” Yet, this is not the African American Stossel chooses as his spokesperson to address racial inequality; instead, it’s Shelby Steele because his message is much more consistent with the white racial frame that Stossel deploys here. Once again, he quotes Steele to make his point:

“The fact is,” he adds, “we got a raw deal in America. We got a much better deal now. But we can’t access it unless we take … responsibility for getting there ourselves.”

He makes good points. White privilege does still exist, but Barack Obama’s success is more evidence that it’s not the whole story. There are plenty of people in America who want to vote for someone because he is black. Or female.

Next, Stossel trots out that tired old trope in discussions of racism: “political correctness.” And, he slips easily between race and gender here, deftly protecting white, male privilege as he goes:

It’s not politically correct to say that. Hillary Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro said she wouldn’t have been nominated for vice president in 1984 were she not a woman and that Obama would not have been doing so well were he not black. “Could I have said … his experience is what puts him there? No. Could I say because his stand on issues have distinguished him? No … If Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

For saying that, she was repeatedly called racist.

Yes, yes she did. (Including this excellent piece, again by Adia Harvey.)

In the closing line, Stossel makes the non-sensical claim that there is “black privilege” that is somehow the equivalent of white privilege. And, predictably, calls for a stop to “complaining” and for race-blindness:

There is black privilege — and white privilege. It’s time to stop complaining about past discrimination and to treat people as individuals, not as members of a certain race.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Kristof’s call to fellow journalists for more critical analysis of racism in the presidential campaign. And, as the election grows closer and the polling data continues to show that racism is costing Obama the votes of whites, such an analysis is sorely needed. Unfortunately, most journalists – like Stossel – are blind to the reality of racism and ill-equipped for such an analysis due to the white racial frame.