Co-written with friend Eric Parrie, a Louisiana native and recent Yale Law School graduate who will soon begin teaching at Carver Prep Academy in New Orleans
Last month a young gunman’s bullets tore into a second line parade, New Orleans’ signature neighborhood celebration. 19 people, including two 10-year-old children, were hit in the barrage, shot down as they danced through the streets in honor of Mother’s Day.
The New York Times and the Washington Post buried the story. By 11:30 pm on the night of the shooting, it had disappeared entirely from the Times site. The next day, despite the release of horrifying photographs and the launch of a full manhunt in New Orleans, the most prominent story on the paper’s website was about interesting and colourful snakes. A few days later, the Times wrote a quasi-anthropological piece about the risks of attending a New Orleans parade.
The refusal to treat this New Orleans nightmare as news, much less a national tragedy, shows a cynical, unhealthy attitude toward people of color that denies Americans of all backgrounds an opportunity to mourn and reflect together. Major media outlets should own their responsibility to report suffering on this scale with urgency and attention. When they fail in that, we lose the crucial ability to recognize ourselves in one another’s sufferings. We become weaker as a national community.
Last year, nearly 200 people were killed in New Orleans, which puts its homicide rate at ten times the national average. On the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, visitors can watch the steady accretion of bodies on a murder-ticker. The crime map linked by the City can be more difficult to use, as it quickly breaks down with the overload error message “the map can’t plot any more crimes.” And as the parade shooting confirms, New Orleans’s violence cannot be written off as affecting only “criminal” populations; victims range from children at birthday parties to college students to parents and community volunteers.
Nevertheless, New Orleans tragedies have come to follow an established pattern. A lost life is measured by a newspaper blurb, a thumbtack on the map, and a name erased from the shifts at a local restaurant or the enrollment list at a neighborhood school. The annual “New Orleans Still A Violent Town” profile notwithstanding, these deaths go largely unremarked beyond the four corners of the Times-Picayune. “The general idea,” writes Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry, “seems to be that we should be used to all this killing, that we can take it all in stride.” Having, for that very Mother’s Day, interviewed five New Orleans mothers whose children had been murdered in the city, DeBerry realizes that this perspective is just wrong. Mothers who lost children as long ago as 1978 feel the pain every day; there is none of the “getting used to it” that outsiders presume the victims now have.
The nation raged and mourned in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, and rightly so. Yet after the fusillade of bullets in New Orleans on Mother’s Day, national outlets did not give America the chance to dignify the victims with their outrage and compassion.
To be sure, there were no deaths at the Mother’s Day parade, and the injuries were not as severe. But does anybody doubt that if 19 people had been shot at the Boston Marathon, one wouldn’t need to open to Page 11 to find the details, that one wouldn’t wait days for any serious mention, and even then find the events portrayed as a sad, curious fact of local life?
The sad truth is that the media does not give as much attention to violence in black and brown communities as it does to others. This was clear last summer in the aftermath of the Oak Creek massacre, when the largest race-based mass shooting in recent US history fell out of national discourse in six days. Now it is barely mentioned or remembered.
The scope and tone of the coverage of New Orleans and Oak Creek implies that the Times and its peers cannot imagine a world in which crowds of people aren’t mowed down in communities of color. By contrast, the British press looked at the tragedy with a sense of emergency: the BBC displayed the Mother’s Day shooting as the top headline in its U.S. news section.
Bombs and shooting rampages endanger the ways that we join together as neighbors, whether we are black or white, celebrating at road races or at second lines. Everyone should have the opportunity to mourn for that, reflect upon it, and carry into the future the sadness and resolve that follow. When national outlets fail to give New Orleanians the empathy and exposure they provide New Yorkers and Bostonians, they deny us all that chance.