MONDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2021
Quickly today, a pet peeve: According to yesterday's New York Times, it happened rather quickly:
The creation of a mural in a public school cafeteria quickly produced a type of culture war between the pro-mural and anti-mural communities.
(Chekhov: "The appearance on the front of a new arrival—a lady with a lapdog—became a topic of general conversation.")
The news report in yesterday's Times barely scratched the surface concerning the basic facts of the case. But we'll admit that we were annoyed when the Times reporter offered a demographic breakdown of the two New York City schools which use the cafeteria in question.
We were annoyed by the oddness of this presentation. We'll describe it as a pet peeve:
DE FREYTAS-TAMURA (10/31/21): In the two schools, the largest contingent of students is Hispanic, with a sizable number of white students; Asian students make up 9 percent of the elementary school and 13 percent of the middle school; Black students account for less than 10 percent of the student body. Overall, half of all students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Although the group of muralists included children of Latino, Asian and Black heritage, some school leaders and parents said the mural did not capture the racial, religious and ethnic dynamics of the school.
For the record, two schools use the cafeteria—P.S. 295 (an elementary school) and M.S. 443 (a middle school). In the highlighted material, the Times reporter attempts to describe the racial/ethnic demographics of the students in the two schools.
It may well be that the highlighted statements are accurate in every particular. (Or not.) But since the dispute about the mural involved issues of ethnicity and "race," we were especially annoyed by the peculiar way in which the information was presented.
"In the two schools, the largest contingent of students is Hispanic, with a sizable number of white students?"
That fuzzy formulation could mean almost anything! Meanwhile, for some unexplained reason, readers were given precise formulations concerning the number of Asian kids in the two schools, and a fairly specific statement about the number of black kids.
Why would a reader want precise statistical information about the smaller components of the student population, but only vague characterizations concerning the larger components?
Only The Shadow knows! The Shadow, and the frequently puzzling powers-that-be within the New York Times.
At any rate, there it was! For no apparent reason, readers were told that Asian kids were maybe 11 percent of the student population, and that black kids were less than 10 percent.
That said, how many Hispanic and white kids attend the two schools? Readers were given a strikingly vague formulation—with no link, and no reference, to any data source.
Skillfully, we decided to check! This is what we found:
The only official data we could find involved the 2019-2020 school year. According to the New York City Public Schools, this was the demographic breakdown at these two schools during that school year:
P.S. 295, 2019-2020:
White kids: 41%
Hispanic kids: 40%
Black kids: 7%
Asian-American kids: 7%
M.S. 443, 2019-2020:
White kids: 47%
Hispanic kids: 31%
Black kids: 8%
Asian-American kids: 11%
Those were the official numbers for 2019-2020. For whatever it may (or may not) be worth, Hispanic kids were not "the largest contingent of students" at the two schools that year.
The situation may be different now (or not); within the context of the report, we can't see that it makes any obvious difference.
That said, we're left with our rather obvious question: Why in the world would the New York Times present the current enrollment data in such a fuzzy way?
Assuming these statements are actually accurate, that presentation is strikingly fuzzy. It could mean almost anything. Within the context of the news report, it's hard to know why a newspaper would report the enrollment figures that way.
We're not suggesting that there is some nefarious reason for the way this reporting went down. We're suggesting that, to the extent that the data are relevant, it makes no apparent sense to present them in the way the New York Times did.
We're not suggesting a nefarious motive. Instead, we're imagining that a type of journalistic ineptitude may perhaps have prevailed.
There would be nothing new about that at the Times! By the way, this identity line appeared yesterday for the reporter in question:
Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura was previously based in London, where she covered an eclectic beat ranging from politics to social issues spanning Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Born and raised in Paris, she speaks Japanese, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Why would the highlighted information matter? Only The Shadow knows!
We expect to write this week about the spread of our flailing society's Otherization Rules. We'll focus on the journalistic treatment of political Others.
We expect to return to Michelle Goldberg's latest column, We expect to discuss the opening segment of last Friday night's Maddow Show—and there's so much more!
Beyond that, we may discuss the substance of The Not So Very Great Mural Dispute. The dispute involved a mural which briefly appeared in a cafeteria used by two New York City schools—a pair of schools which are full of good, decent kids of a wide array of descriptions.
We're not sure that anyone got otherized during The Mural Dispute. But a whole lot of "identity" issues were involved, and a focus on identity can lead to otherization.
Our nation is splitting into various political tribes and various identity groups. This is happening in ways which sometimes make sense, but quite often don't.
Reporting on this, we have the Times, where one reporter can speak Portugese but can't seem to deal with statistics.
Increasingly, identity and otherization rule. Attempting to set pet peeves to the side, we'll ponder this matter all week.
Starting tomorrow: The Otherization Rules