How Can They Think It’s Not Racist?
What do Watermelons have to do with Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland and the Houston Police Department?
Absolutely nothing in terms of describing the overall performance or issues facing the police chief or his department.
So, why did the Houston Chronicle allow Bill King, one of its editorial writers, to write an anecdote about the department that was not only offensive to African-Americans and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, but also raises questions about racist innuendo in writing.
“What was written was insensitive to African-American history, culture and heritage,” McClelland said. “As one who grew up hearing the jokes, taunts and experiencing Jim Crow and walking past the signs (that promoted discrimination and racism), it is not right to still see and hear such things from a newspaper in the nation’s 4th largest city – and an international city too.”
On June 7, Bill King wrote about HPD in editorial that stated, “Before we boost HPD, let’s look carefully at How it’s Run.”
King’s subtitled stated, “Don’t throw good money after bad: The police budget has soared in the last decade, but results have been decidedly mixed.”
However, to open the piece King wrote what appears to be a racist business anecdote, “There’s an old saw about a fellow who was in the watermelon business. He bought watermelons for $2 each, loaded them on his truck and took them to market, where he sold them for $1 each. Not surprisingly, he found he was losing money. After agonizing over the problem for some time, he came up with the solution to his problem: He bought a bigger truck”
Chief McClelland, who is Black, runs the Houston Police Department, who the anecdote was written to describe.
McClelland was sworn in as Chief of the Houston Police Department on April 14, 2010. He has served 35 years at the Houston Police Department, joining the department as a patrol officer in 1977 and rising through ranks to his current position as Chief of Police. His management experience has touched virtually every aspect of law enforcement throughout his career with the Houston Police Department. His duties include managing the 5th largest police agency in the United States with an annual budget of more than $695 million dollars and a staff of 5400 sworn police officers and more than 1600 civilian employees.
“To suggest the Houston Chronicle is racists is patently false,” said Jeff Cohen, Houston Chronicle Executive Editor, Opinions and Editorials. “The Houston Chronicle in the Mr. King’s column suggests a third party review is needed to ensure taxpayers get the services they are paying for. Instead of answering the criticisms of internal management needing a third part review, the police chief and the police officers union chose to say the newspapers questions are racist and they are not.”
But why is the use of this anecdote offensive? Maybe it takes the true Black Press to help the Houston Chronicle be more sensitive and understand why using watermelons when describing Black people or any innuendo directed towards a Black person is off color and uncalled for.
Lisa Wade, Ph.D and professor of sociology at Occidental College examined the connection in piece called, “Watermelons: Symbolizing the Supposed Simplicity of Slaves”
Historically, when you see racist portrayals of African Americans, you will notice the frequent appearance of watermelons. racist portrayals of African Americans, you will notice the frequent appearance of watermelons. Why watermelons? The trope has its roots in American slavery, Wade notes.
According to David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity.
Pilgrim notes that African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves. “They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.”
“The association of Black people with a love of watermelon isn’t just a neutral stereotype, nor one that emerged because there is a “kernel of truth” (as people love to say about stereotypes). Instead, it was a deliberate tool with which to misportray African Americans and justify slavery.”
“If you don’t think statements relating to watermelons, fried chicken and other stereotypes against Black people is not supporting racism or indeed is wrong, then you need to be out of the newspaper business, if you don’t understand that or can’t see that something is wrong with the statement,” said African-American News&Issues Publisher Roy Douglas Malonson.
This is an issue of poor judgement and poor choice on the part of the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board.
Defending the lack of sensitivity to African-Americans in using the anecdote, Cohen said the Houston Chronicle stands by King and offers no apology or clarification about being insensitive at this time.
“The Houston Chronicle has criticized people of all stripes over the years, no matter if they were White, Black, Brown, Jewish, Muslim, old and young,” he said. “Asking questions and seeking answers is what we do. There have been 20,000 crimes that an independent study says have gone without investigation and many victims are African-American. The newspaper’s job is to question that and question management.” That’s what media organizations do.”
Something that may have been meant written to hook readers, has actually offended a segment of the Houston community and casts somewhat of a negative shadow in the Black community on the premise of fair, unbiased, non-racist reporting tactics of Mr. King and the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board, when it comes to covering African-Americans and the Black community.
The title may have seemed fair enough game and the questions also, but the opening anecdotal statement used a stereotypical anecdote that muddied the water, is totally offensive and out of line. It not only offends the Black police chief, the police union, but also many in the African-American community.
The Black community calls on King, the Editorial Board and The Houston Chronicle to make it right.
Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues