Harold Michael Harvey, JD

While skin color should not matter, the suspects sought by authorities in the Boston Marathon bombings are light-skinned males. Initial reports had this wrong.

Two days after the bombing occurred near the finish line of the premier marathon in the world, veteran journalist John King reported on heretofore reliable CNN News that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was looking for a man described as being dark-skinned. This description was later changed to a brown-skinned man.

CNN’s descriptions of the suspects were subsequently used by other news agencies which caused the National Association of Black Journalist (NABJ) to issue a press release condemning the practice of mentioning the race of a suspect without any evidence that race factored into the bombing.

“The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) urges all news outlets to use extreme caution when reporting on the tragic events which occurred in Boston this week,” the NABJ directive stated.

“There have been various reports identifying a potential suspect as ‘a dark-skinned individual.’ This terminology is not only offensive, but also offers an incomplete picture of relevant facts about the potential person of interest’s identity. When conveying information for the public good, and which can help law enforcement with the help of a vigilant public to keep the country safe, it’s important that such facts be put into proper context,” the NABJ further stated.

The NABJ is the nation’s largest organization for journalists of color. It was organized in 1975 in Washington, D. C., as an advocacy group for black journalists.

In taking news agencies to task on this issue, NABJ said that with respect to ethnicity and race: “The mention of a person’s race should not be used unless relevant. This also applies to references to ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. Derogatory terms or slurs aimed at members of a racial or ethnic group may not be used unless having a direct bearing on the news…”

At one point in John King’s reporting on Wednesday, April 17, he said: “I was told that they have a dark-skin suspect in custody. I don’t want to say much more than that about this individual…”

Not only was King flat-out wrong about the FBI having a suspect in custody, it now appears he was wrong to report the suspect is a dark-skinned male. Yesterday, the FBI in a press briefing seeking help from the public in identifying two suspects, issued photographs, of two light-skinned males.

It is interesting to note, that following the release of photographs of the two suspects, there were no news reports that the two suspects were light-skinned males. The description of the two suspects centered upon clothing: pants, shirts, ball cap and backpack. This is as it should be.

The NABJ’s style Guide can be found at http://www.nabj.org/?styleguide.


Today’s leading news organizations are primarily owned and managed by light-skinned people. One wonders what unconscious biases they bring to the news gathering apparatus that bombards us with the daily news.

Did it make light-skinned Americans feel better knowing that the authorities were not looking for a white person? I am not white, or at least the white genes in my DNA have never been overpowering in my perception of myself nor in how I am perceived by others I interact with on a daily basis. So I am not competent to answer this question. It would be interesting to learn from white-skinned people about how this news made them feel.

When I, an American with dark skin, heard this news, I felt like I did in 9th grade, back in 1965, when Ms. Chapman played a news reel that was critical of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for leading a demonstration in Albany, Ga. I was the only dark-skinned person in the classroom and I wanted to hide under my seat. After CNN changed their terminology to “brown-skinned” I felt a little relived in the fact that maybe the suspect was not African American.

But then what of my brown-skinned countrymen and countrywoman of Asian, Latino, North African or Euro-Asian descent, how must they have felt that one of their own may have committed this horrendous act? It would be interesting to hear from them too.

CNN, once a news leader has recently gutted its staff of dark-skinned journalist, for instance with the failure to renew the contract of Soledad O’Brien and Roland Martin, both members of NABJ. In fact, Martin is slated to receive an award from NABJ as Black Journalist of the year at this summer’s convention. One way to avoid these obvious snafus is to have sufficient members of all racial and ethnic groups represented in the company and to make use of them by consulting with them over issues that may be sensitive to their community.

Seemingly, white America wants everyone to blend into an Anglo-Saxon ethos, at a time when its citizenry wishes to be accepted in the full glory of their diversity.

Two light-skinned dudes are suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon, should we now be suspicious of every 20-something light-skinned male we encounter on the street? When I go on my daily walk through the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta this morning, should I tiptoe past the two Turkish brothers who sell sunglasses from a kiosk in the mall?

My thoughts, my questions; what are yours?

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