The New York Times' coverage of a new report on lynchings in American history in a piece published today failed to mention the race of the people who were responsible for these acts.
The report, released by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, chronicles in painstaking detail, the "racial terror lynchings" of black people by white people that took place the South between 1877 and 1950.
But when it comes to those details, the Times' coverage leaves out one key word: "white" — and readers have noticed.
If you’re going to just mark sites of lynching w/o more, what is the damn point? "A black man was hanged here." "By whom?" "Oh, y’know."— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) February 10, 2015
If you're publishing a historical piece about the yet hidden history of lynching, at least mention that it was white mobs that did it.— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) February 10, 2015
If you didn't know any better, the way the story reads now could make you think black people did the lynching themselves.— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) February 10, 2015
The word "white" only appears in the article to describe women and girls the lynched men were accused of attacking.— Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) February 10, 2015
It's no secret that black Americans were the victims and white Americans were the perpetrators and supporters of lynchings, and most people reading this most likely understands this context. After all, it's not as if these were random crimes. Rather, they played a central role in maintaining white supremacy. The report itself says, "some 'public spectacle lynchings 'were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination."
Yet, as critics have pointed out, the only time "white" was used in the article was to describe the women and girls the black men who were lynched were accused of killing or assaulting.
This sort of oversight is in no way something that only happens in the New York Times or that only happens in the media. But this is the most recent example of the clunky awkwardness that accompanies discussions about the ways white supremacy shaped our nation's history.
This sort of oversight has also been interpreted as going hand-in-hand with a widespread reluctance to see white supremacy (versus individual racist acts by bad people) as a driving force in America's history, or a contributor the country's present racial inequality.
That's why, even if "white" was omitted unconsciously by writers and editors who truly wanted to do justice to the lynching report, it's still troubling because it obscures a key part of how racism works. When we're talking about the ways black Americans were terrorized by these horrific lynchings, it's also relevant to note that white Americans were doing the terrorizing.
The mainstream media has become comfortable — especially during Black History Month — talking about the various ways black people have been oppressed throughout America's history. But if we don't become more comfortable being explicit about the racial identity of the people doing the oppressing, we're failing to tell the whole story.