Was UNT's Dorothy Bland Really Racially Profiled? Good Question. Too Bad She Didn't Ask It.
Based on what we know, calling University of North Texas journalism dean Dorothy Bland a race-card-playing, self-aggrandizing, lying, cop-hating bigot is entirely unfair.
Not that some people care. Trolls, mainly.
Still, some serious humans are upset with Bland too. She's the target of an online petition demanding her firing for writing an op-ed column published by The Dallas Morning News in which she said she was targeted for racial profiling by Corinth cops while she went for her morning walk on October 24.
Can you read her column and come to the conclusion she is a terrible race-baiter? If you want, sure. Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, but that's the sort of lazy, shallow, self-serving faux analysis that right-wing websites — and some really heinous white power ones — have undertaken in their vicious attacks on Bland.
It's also the sort of thing she did to those two Corinth cops who stopped her. And that's the problem with Bland's column: bad journalism.
But that's just one white man's opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
Here's the story, in case you've missed it: On October 28, the News published Bland's column, in which she wrote about being stopped for “walking while black” in her own neighborhood. “I guess I was simply a brown face in an affluent neighborhood. I told the police I didn’t like to walk in the rain, and one of them told me, 'My dog doesn’t like to walk in the rain.' Ouch!”
She roped in mentions of Sandra Bland (no relation) and Freddie Gray. She pointed out that she's little and the cops are big and carry guns, so she had no desire for her “life’s story playing out like Trayvon Martin’s death.”
Along with her column, the Morning News published a rebuttal from Corinth Police Chief Debra Walthall and a copy of the police dashboard video that showed two white officers politely suggesting that Bland face traffic when she's walking down a street with no sidewalks. They also asked her for her identification and ran a check on her, which Walthall says is SOP for police stops.
And then comes the standard racial blow-up on the Internet. In addition to the usual slime from the web's distressingly huge racist population, real people like former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk lined up against Bland, accusing her of self-aggrandizing by puffing up a polite, routine and reasonable police encounter. She had her supporters, as well. The middle-road position is that the video is a Rorschach test or a Rashomon moment. What you see in it depends on what you are.
So true. Bland's error is that she didn't deal with that point in her column, didn't put a little more thought behind her words. Her sin is that she tried to excuse that failure with one of the weakest rationalizations in the Book of Bad Journalism.
“I wrote the column to share my perception of my experience. This happened to me. It was my opinion. I respect law enforcement and respect they have a difficult job,” she told the Denton Record-Chronicle.
It was just her opinion, so that's OK then.
No, it's not.
This is stuff a journalism dean should know in her bones, but just in case, let's explain: “I think strawberry ice cream tastes better than vanilla” is just an opinion. “I think those two white cops are vaguely menacing racist pricks using the color of their authority to hassle a woman because she's black” is also an opinion, sure, but lose the “just.” Vanilla ice cream's feelings — or career prospects — aren't going to be damaged if you print the first one in an op-ed in a large daily newspaper. It's generally considered good form in the news business to move cautiously before engaging in character assassination.
The latter is also inflammatory. If it's not backed by a solid argument, it's just food for the ku klux trolls. Rule 1 of anyone in the serious journalism biz right now — a university dean, say — is DON'T FEED THE GODDAMN TROLLS.
UNT seemed to get it, maybe. “It is important to keep in mind that Dorothy Bland is recounting her personal perception of an interaction she had while she was on a walk in her neighborhood and on her personal time,” the university said in its statement. “That said, among UNT’s greatest assets is the collective diversity of thought at this university, our willingness to respect and examine differing perceptions and viewpoints, and our ability to engage in constructive dialogue in a civil manner.”
One might quibble with the word "important" there, but she blew it on that last point.
Bland's job gives her opinion a little more heft than the average Facebook commenter, and when she decided to share it in a newspaper, she owed to those two cops, to her readers and to her field to put more effort behind her words. If she had stopped to examine her reaction and consider the viewpoints of others — if she had taken the Rorschach test herself — she might have explored the better question: Why did she feel profiled when so many others think she wasn't? Instead, she left that to others, after she introduced more shallowness into an important debate. At least mentioning the video in her column — assuming she watched it before she read it — would have been a good start. Or maybe she could have gone whole hog and talked to the damn cops. They seemed nice enough. (Again, that's just one white man's opinion.)
“I told her, 'I wish you would have talked to me before you wrote the article,'” Walthall told the Los Angeles Times. Walthall said they could have watched the video together and talked about it.
Good plan. Too bad Bland didn't have an editor who insisted on that before publishing her column. Too bad Bland didn't just do it herself.
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