June 24, 2024

Opinion | How the White Press Wrote Off Black America (Published 2021) – The New York Times

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Brent Staples

Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.
Newspapers that championed white supremacy throughout the pre-civil rights South paved the way for lynching by declaring African Americans nonpersons. They embraced the language once used at slave auctions by denying Black citizens the courtesy titles Mr. and Mrs. and referring to them in news stories as “the negro,” “the negress” or “the nigger.”
They depicted Black men as congenital rapists, setting the stage for them to be hanged, shot or burned alive in public squares all over the former Confederacy. These newspapers entered their bloodiest incarnations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inciting hellish episodes of violence during which white mobs murdered at will while sometimes destroying entire Black communities.
African Americans who fled these Southern horrors found the white Northern press only marginally less hostile. Yankee papers that congratulated themselves for opposing lynching in the abstract justified it in practice by depicting the victims as naturally disposed toward heinous crime.
As the historian Rayford Logan writes in his iconic study of this period, the white Northern press cemented the stereotype of the Negro barbarian by making Blackness synonymous with crime. Headlines included phrases like “Negro ruffian,” “colored cannibal,” “dissolute Negress” and “African Annie.” By portraying Black people as less than human, the white popular press justified the reign of terror that the South deployed, while stripping African Americans of the rights they had briefly enjoyed during the period just after the Civil War known as Reconstruction.
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