Advertisement
Op-ed

Racist narratives about Baltimore do lasting damage | GUEST COMMENTARY

Fox News’ top-rated pundit Tucker Carlson yet again aimed his facile racism at Baltimore, recently, calling our city “one of the worst places in the Western Hemisphere” and “a little bit of Haiti in the mid-Atlantic.”

As The Baltimore Sun’s editorial pointed out, it was an “especially egregious” outburst, even by the very low standards of Fox News and Mr. Carlson, who has lobbed casual, racist insults at Baltimore before. And yet, it will likely fade from our collective memory relatively quickly, blending in with the wave of right-wing hate that has become so commonplace in recent years.

Advertisement

But make no mistake: Racist narratives about Baltimore and other majority-Black cities — weaponized so viciously by right wing media and politicians in recent years — have done and will continue to do real damage to the people of Baltimore, people of color generally, immigrants and refugees, and other historically marginalized groups. We ignore the power of these narratives at our peril.

Needless to say, Mr. Carlson and the right-wing media did not originate the negative narratives that dominate the regional and national discourse about Baltimore. “The Wire” was such a lasting cultural force that it is still being used as shorthand for the “reality” of Baltimore. But the right, including Mr. Carlson and former President Donald Trump — who targeted Baltimore via Twitter several times — have recognized that they can leverage this false narrative to create fear and push candidates attached to the right-wing agenda.

Advertisement

On a national level, we saw how the Republican Party mischaracterized the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd to create and weaponize a racist, fearmongering narrative about dangerous, out-of-control cities during the run-up to the 2020 election.

On the local level, the false narratives may be even more harmful. People working relentlessly to build up Baltimore face the daily onslaught of doubters, naysayers, cynics and skeptics who insist that their work is meaningless or nonexistent. The real trauma that many Baltimoreans face from poverty and violence is compounded with the trauma of being told again and again that they live in a hopeless “slum,” to quote Mr. Carlson. This only serves to sustain the structures, policies and practices that we so desperately need to dismantle and re-imagine in more healthy, equitable and restorative ways.

Mr. Carlson’s segment went on to present a series of distortions, exaggerations and outright lies — for example, referring to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby as a “George Soros puppet,” even though Mr. Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, has never supported Ms. Mosby’s campaigns. These he mixed in with hard truths about the homicide epidemic.

No one who cares about Baltimore City would deny that we face real challenges, including poverty, homicides and a long history of chronic public and private underinvestment. But we also know that is not the complete picture. There are countless residents, neighborhood leaders, community-based organizations and public servants working tirelessly to help Baltimore thrive. Grassroots and community-based movements like Baltimore Ceasefire, Healing City Baltimore and Safe Streets bring people together to increase peace, healing and joy in our city. Our arts and tech sectors are thriving. And before the COVID pandemic, graduation rates and test scores for Baltimore City schools were rising.

It’s notable that all of the local news stories that Mr. Carlson referenced were from Sinclair-owned Fox45, which has an established reputation as a right-wing media company disguising its work as unbiased local reporting. Fox45′s unrelenting, distorted reporting on city schools led to the proliferation of so much significant misinformation that the district set up a page on its website to set the record straight after misleading media coverage (as they did after Mr. Carlson’s segment).

These false narratives have specific policy implications. Distorted reporting about Baltimore City Public Schools — no we don’t spend the fourth-most per student in the U.S. — has made it incredibly difficult to secure equitable education funding for Baltimore’s children. The relentless, unnuanced reporting about violence, typically presented without context about poverty and other roots causes, leads our governor and other leaders to push for ever more police funding, even though such funding doesn’t reduce crime and is not what Baltimore residents want.

Tarana Burke, who launched the #MeToo movement, recently said “Narrative work is movement work.” While residents, communities, and advocates continue to build a better Baltimore, we must also work to dismantle false narratives and promote a more accurate picture of our resilient, beautiful city.

Danielle Torain is the Director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Her email address is danielle.torain@opensocietyfoundations.org.


Advertisement