Black, White, Read

News orgs are serving up the Sudan conflict as a race war. Sadly, it's not that simple.

For news outlets covering the conflict in Sudan, the killings, rapes, and razing of villages boils down to one factor—race. The Washington Post and The New York Times have repeatedly characterized attacks by the Arab riders of the government-backed Janjaweed as a war against "black Africans." The Associated Press has referred to the turmoil in the Darfur region as fighting between Arabs and "ethnic Africans."

Clinging to race as an explain-all theory might make for more readable stories, but it has a central flaw. Many of the Sudanese "Arabs" are as dark as the "ethnic Africans" they are at war with.

It is as if the media can't conceive of the possibility that there might be black Arabs. "If you look at most of the media coverage, you get the impression that Sudan is made up of white people, who are mostly Arabs, attacking black people who aren't Arab," says Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum. "Some of the Africans in question are Arab, some are not. But they are almost all black—at least the way we understand it. Being Arab is a matter of culture and language. Arabs look all kinds of ways, but you'd never get that impression."

The narrative of Darfur involves issues of religion, climate, and competition for land. When asked to sum it up, Fletcher gave an answer that defies readability: "It is a conflict that was generated by an ageless issue between the Arab nomads and the non-Arab farmers, as the Sahara Desert expanded, and has been manipulated by a clique in Khartoum that has held power and used, in a very opportunistic way, Islam in order to unify its supporters."

Nuanced and accurate, this kind of explanation has little chance of making it into the morning papers, certainly not at a time when Iraq dominates the news.

In an era of shrinking foreign desks, the Times has been a leader in print coverage of international news. The paper maintains bureaus in the west, south, and east of Africa. No one can accuse it of slighting Darfur—since May the Times has published several prominent articles covering the war on the ground, as well as picking up on policy angles from the U.N. and Washington. Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly invoked Darfur on the op-ed page.

"The way I would look at it is that there are things that happen in the world that, whether the public wants to read it or not, we cover them," says foreign editor Susan Chira. "I really feel strongly that we have to be very committed to Africa coverage."

Yet in much of its coverage, the Times has been sucked in by the siren song of race. An August 20 piece cited "the war in western Sudan, pitting the Arab-led government against black Africans in Darfur." Chira argues that the paper's coverage has reflected the many intricacies. After being read that sentence, Chira replies, "That's a shorthand. But if you read the whole story, what you see is that, in fact, this is part of a complex issue. If you have to reduce it to a sentence, that is an accurate sentence, but we go past that."

Still, the prominence given by the Times to race creates the feeling that, more than anything, Darfur is a good old-fashioned race riot. Which is not to say activists have been totally displeased with the coverage. Iain Levine, program director for Human Rights Watch, applauds Kristof's columns in particular. The real difficulty, he says, is a lack of the sort of visual evidence that creates change.

"For those of us who work on human rights issues, one of the painful things is to see the incredible power of the images that came out of Abu Ghraib," says Levine. "They were so raw, they were so graphic. Contrast that with the fact that we haven't had that kind of graphic imagery [in Darfur]. . . . The problem is that the op-ed pages of the Times are not going to mobilize people the way TV images can."


The Simmons show

On a severely lighter note (smart people, stop reading now), Russell Simmons has joined with Court TV to create a new series of specials called Russell Simmons Presents: Hip-Hop Justice. According to Simmons, the documentary program will highlight clashes between rappers and the law, from the perspective of the rappers themselves. Simmons argues that this will, in turn, shine a light on problems that afflict the hip-hop generation, like racial profiling and police brutality.

"When everyday people are profiled and when people are abused, it's deemed not newsworthy," says Simmons. "Someone gets 65 years for selling weed and happening to have a gun, that's a story that should get us to change the drug laws. But if that story happens to a famous rapper, and the story catches a lot of gas, it maybe changes the system."

The first installment of Hip-Hop Justice focuses on the case of C-Murder, who was convicted last year of, yes, murder. But don't expect Simmons's show to attempt objectivity. "Our job is to point out the worst situation," says executive producer Will Griffin. "Which is worse—the cop who is crooked or a rapper who's crooked? If the rapper's crooked, his individual victim loses. If a cop's crooked, we all lose."

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