White people do it so it must be okay.

In its lead story on the front page this past Sunday, The New York Times continues its recent policy of injecting old-fashioned racial attitudes into the continuing discussion of the struggles many face in the current recession.  And again, the Times does it with photographs. 

The article, co-written by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff, details how and why food stamp usage has soared in the U.S., with one in eight adults and one in four children now part of the program.  The premise of the article is that the stigma has faded concerning food stamps, which it backs up with many charts and interviews in an article that runs to one and one quarter full newspaper pages.  The authors propose that once food stamps were scorned as a failed welfare program by Americans, but now people are accepting its necessity. 

The article uses six case histories, all of white persons or families.  There are three photos in the print edition, all of whites.  There is also a slide show of 17 photos on the Times website.  Sixteen of these photos are of whites only or of their possessions, and all the whites in all these photos are named.  The one photo that has African-Americans or obviously Hispanic people in it is a shot of nameless people on line to buy food at a store (with no statement that any of these people actually take food stamps!).  Included among the 17 photos in the online slideshow are one of the empty fish tank of one white family on food stamps and a shot of a white (Christian) cross in the garden of another.

The subtextual message of course is that food stamps are okay when whites get them.  This racist expression reflects a more virulent variant that has served as the American attitude towards all welfare programs throughout our history: the programs are okay when only whites get them, but are no longer okay once blacks start taking advantage. 

Remember that the lead story on the front page of any Sunday Times will end up on the front page of hundreds of newspapers across the country that take the Times distribution service, so the words, images and subtext of what the Times prints quickly become part of the nation’s consciousness and inform the national dialog on issues. 

In recent months I have written three times on the Times’ use of photographs to subtly draw racial distinctions that reflect old prejudices, i.e. only blacks and Hispanics get welfare (August 10, 2009 and September 2, 2009) and only whites are among the highly skilled professionals who can’t find a job in the recession (August 10, 2009).  At the time I wondered if it was sloppy reporting, i.e., using one case history because you don’t have time to get any others.  Now I’m convinced that it’s part of the current New York Times ideology.

One comment on “White people do it so it must be okay.
  1. paul sheldon says:

    Personally, I wonder if the authors might be excessively concerned about being politically correct and thus want to counter any assumptions that food stamps are basically for blacks or other minorities. My sense is that both food stamps and welfare are still seen that way by many. At http://www.blog.peacefulways.com/ I comment on a recent NYTimes article about Political Correctness by Stanley Fish

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