July 15th, 2020


Bell and Howl: How a TV Anchor Grabbed the Racial Third Rail

Mark Goldblatt

By Mark Goldblatt

Published April 11, 2016

Bell and Howl: How a TV Anchor Grabbed the Racial Third Rail
One of the more painful lessons of adulthood is the realization that people who tell you what you want to hear are not necessarily your friends, and people who tell you what you don’t want to hear are not necessarily your enemies.

If, in 2016, there existed a critical mass of black adults—you know, the kind of folks who, in the 1980s, petitioned the government to impose longer prison terms on the young men terrorizing their inner city neighborhoods#151;then there would now be a loud and lingering outcry in the black community over the firing of Pittsburgh news anchor Wendy Bell.

Bell’s offense? Following the massacre of a black family at a backyard barbecue in Wilkinsburg, a predominantly black suburb of Pittsburgh, she took to Facebook to vent her heartbreak and anger... and had the temerity to say publicly what anyone who cares a whit about the truth already knows privately. Here is the offending passage:

You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday. I will tell you they live within 5 miles of [the crime scene] and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested. They’ve made the circuit, and nothing has scared them enough. And now they are lost. Once you kill a neighbor’s three children, two nieces and her unborn grandson, there’s no coming back.

It’s worth noting, before we delve into the racial aspect of this, that Bell reflexively assumes the assailants were male. No outrage has been expressed over that assumption. Why? Because there’s no grievance industry for males in general that launches like a smartphone app at the slightest touch, and because the overwhelming probability is that the shooters were indeed male. Though it’s conceivable that a cell of transgender jihadists ran amok in Wilkinsburg, that’s not the way to bet, is it?

But, of course, Wendy Bell went much further than sexual identity in her conjecture. She speculated that the perpetrators are local (okay), black (uh oh), come from broken homes (double uh oh), and that those homes are headed by hardworking but personally irresponsible mothers (yikes!). As of this writing, no arrests have been made. But if it turns out that Bell got every particular correct, will she be vindicated? Will her critics apologize? Will she get her job back?

I’ll wait until the laughter dies down….

The truth is that we’ve reached a stage of cognitive exhaustion in our endless national conversation about race—a stage at which the truth itself can be dismissed (literally, in Bell’s case) as racist. To point out the extreme statistical likelihood that the perpetrators in Wilkinsburg massacre will, at least in their ethnicity, fit Bell’s description of them…well, it’s not something polite people do. (Though if you’re curious, have a look.)

As for the socioeconomic details she laid out—the wrecked family structures, the breakdown of behavioral norms…you know, those incidentals that correlate so exquisitely with street crime—let me respond in the form of a question: Have you ever noticed that the cops never shoot anyone whose last name is the same as both of his parents? Do you really need a PhD in sociology (though, ironically, that may now be a disqualifier) to acknowledge the link between growing up in a single-parent household and engaging in the sort of behaviors that lead to confrontations with law enforcement?

I don’t mean to sound glib about any of this. Six human beings died in Wilkinsburg. But we—and by “we” I mean all of us—must be able to pursue and voice the truth without fear of reprisal. Even when the topic is race. Even when it hurts people’s feelings. It’s not a difficult proposition. Either you believe that dark-skinned people have the same intellectual and moral capacities as light-skinned people, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re literally a racist…but at least you can consistently argue that dark-skinned people should be cut slack on all things intellectual and moral.

On the other hand, if you do believe that dark-skinned people have the same intellectual and moral capacities as light-skinned people, then it logically follows that dark-skinned people should be held to the same intellectual and moral standards as light-skinned people…and called out, openly and vigorously, when they fail to meet those standards.

Is there a historical context to take into account? You bet. Many black people are still feeling the residual effects of America’s sordid past of race-based slavery and separate but unequal allocation of government resources and protections. That history is real, but those days are long gone. (Yes, they are, and it’s no longer even worth debating.) If “institutional racism” is defined as a concerted effort to deny black people their human or civil rights in the United States, it no longer exists. Full stop.

To be sure, many black children are still born behind the eight ball. Structural inequality along racial lines persists. Black kids often grow up in chaotic homes, in crappy neighborhoods, and never acquire the discipline of delaying gratification#151;and thus make disastrous personal decisions. They screw up their lives early and often, and they marinate in a culture that celebrates their screw ups as signs of racial authenticity and casts blame in every direction except toward the individual.

If there were a broad-based government program that could rescue them from this insidious downward pull without robbing them of personal autonomy, normalizing dependency and deepening resentment, I’d say bring it on. But there isn’t.

Even worse, every attempt to create such a program has arguably retarded progress: from LBJ’s expansion of welfare benefits (which subsidized out-of-wedlock births and child-rearing, exacerbating the attendant pathologies among black children), to affirmative action (which mismatched black kids and colleges, resulting in greater need for remediation and higher dropout rates, and stigmatized black achievement across the board), to the Community Reinvestment Act (which pressured banks to make housing loans to black applicants who often couldn’t afford the monthly payments).

What Saul Bellow called “The Good Intentions Paving Company” has smoothed the way for generation after generation of real hardship and outright misery among black people. So what’s to be done to alleviate that hardship and misery? How about…nothing?

It’s not a new idea. Back in 1862, Frederick Douglass asked the rhetorical question, “What shall be done with the slaves if emancipated?” Then he answered it, in a passage that should be committed to memory by every politician, every policy wonk, and every activist in America:

Our answer is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs. Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone. They suffer by every interference, and succeed best by being let alone.

No doubt many well-meaning people will be disappointed, and perhaps offended, by the suggestion that butting out is the best way to help black people overcome generations of socioeconomic stagnation. But if we’re truthful with ourselves, we’ll recognize that that stagnation no longer represents a collective failure; it represents a collection of individual failures—the pissing away of their life’s potentials by individual human beings.

If you truly believe in the equal intellectual and moral capacities black people, you need to stop making excuses for them. You need to tamp down the outrage when their failures are highlighted. Judge them by the same standards you’d judge yourself. Here is the truth, offered in the spirit of friendship: black Americans do not have a white supremacy problem; they have a black inadequacy problem. And they themselves are the only ones who can fix it, one life at a time.

G0D rest the souls lost in Wilkinsburg…and G0D bless Wendy Bell for having the courage to speak the truth.

Mark Goldblatt is chairman of the Educational Skills Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of, most recently, the novel Finding The Worm.