The stark facts

The headline was in all-caps, bold:


The article beneath presented disturbing statistics. In middle-class suburban schools, African-American students were failing the state’s high school assessment tests. In suburban Baltimore County, a third of the high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or lower, and below 50 percent in neighborhoods that are largely African-American.

A colleague buttonholed me to say that the headline was stark and disturbing. I agreed. This is an outcome that no one wanted, and it is disturbing. The people quoted in the article found it disturbing. I find it disturbing and discouraging. But it is a fact, though an ugly one, and the headline states an ugly fact in a straightforward manner.

It is true that blacks can look a little starker than African-Americans, but both terms are widely accepted in current usage, and there is only so much space in a headline. It is also true that The Sun’s design guidelines call for an all-caps headline on the front-page “centerpiece,” which makes the headline even more emphatic.

Emphatic is perhaps a little mild. The headline undoubtedly jolted readers. But it is true, and it tells the reader something that was not widely known but which is important to know. African-American readers may not like to see it, may regret that it looks unflattering. But it is true. Racist readers — and despite their frequently expressed disgust with The Sun, we appear to still have a few — will see their belief confirmed that black people are biologically inferior to white people. But that is not a fact; it is a prejudice unsupported by science.

What is important is that something — educational environment, home environment, social environment or some combination of these elements — is going badly wrong for these children and must be addressed by public policy. The Sun, like all reputable newspapers, presents facts.

We struggle to verify factual statements and place them in a comprehensible context. They may not be facts that you want to see. But they are facts that you need to know.

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