Thursday, August 12 1999, 11:36 PM
Two violent events happened in southern California within a day's proximity.
In the first, a vanload of immigrant Mexican workers travelling in an unsafe vehicle in the early morning hours plowed into a tractor trailer rig. Thirteen workers died; the only two passengers who did not die were seriously injured. As a "certified agricultural vehicle" this transport van was exempt from California road safety requirements, and even that certification was years out of date. Accidents in agricultural transport are common. There are no seats in these vans and trucks, only benches, and they travel at high speed. In this instance, the driver was unlicensed, his license having been revoked for drunk driving, and with even minimal care could never have held a driver's job.
On the face of matters, there was criminal neglect of occupational safety. This news story received a deep interior page in the New York Times.
In the second event, a gunman — the suspect having a lengthy history of white supremacist associations — burst into a Jewish day care center and opened fire with an automatic weapon. Five people were badly wounded, and a five year-old boy remains in critical care. This assault followed shooting and arson attacks against California synagogues earlier this summer. Later, in a reported confession, Buford Furrow apparently stated that he shot a Filipino-American postal carrier an hour later in his white supremacist rage.
The day care shooting story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, at the page top and with a color photograph, which is where reasonable readers might also expect to find the workers' van story.
The difference between the stories and their coverage is not simply one of egregious criminal intent versus accidental deaths, so that the news interest of a neo-Nazi attack on a Jewish institution and children merits greater attention.
Rather, the difference lies in a consciousness of an internal social structure of race and racism. The externally visible explicitness of racial violence in the case of an assault on a Jewish community center, with all of its atrocious historical resonances, creates news value. The internalized and less immediately visible conditioning presence of racial formation and hierarchicalism, with a more diffuse but no less effective causality, is of lesser news value.
The daily violence of racialized life for American minorities, such that a murderous case of occupational safety failure is commonplace, receives far too little attention. Why, for example, does agricultural labor transport receive safety exemption? Might it be because those brown-skinned people being hauled to and from farm fields have far less political power than do growers and agro-corporations, and that this difference reflects a heavily racialized social power structure? The systemic racism involved in calculations of the cost of safe transport versus profitability loss, where risk is shifted to the lives and health of poor brown people, is ultimately just as deadly as an explicit racism.
While the New York Times condemned this situation editorially, it did so with the classic American political rhetoric that smoothes over issues of race and class. Thus their editorialists concluded: "Steps must also be taken to force growers to take more responsibility for the general safety of their workers. Their political muscle has allowed them to abuse the system for too long." This is language that elides the ethnic identity of made-anonymous "workers" and leaves out the generations of economic coercion and social violence they have faced.
Similarly, the daily gun violence casualty reports from impoverished inner cities express the results of a systemic racism that has never been staunched. The astonishing domestic armament campaign — falsely couched in distorted recitations of the Second Amendment — that made possible the Los Angeles attack is the historical expression of deep-rooted American racial fears and animosities. A vastly disproportionate rate of death and injuries among black and Hispanic youth results from city streets flooded with handguns, with casualties far greater than those resulting from white suburban kids shooting up their schoolmates. Yet the nexus of guns and race is almost entirely absent from political discussion of violence in the United States.
Racism does not need to be egregious or employ overt violence to be deadly. It requires an education of resistant public consciousness to introduce an awareness of the pervasive effects of racism, effects that appear underneath the surface of news stories as well as at the surface.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.