Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Identifying James T.

I got back from being on the road for four days on Sunday, and began combing through the week’s news to see what I had missed. Naturally, the big story in Wisconsin was Milwaukee talk show host and blogger James T. Harris’ admonition to John McCain to “take it to” Barack Obama – which made national news.

Now, I recognize that this story has pretty much run its course, as it is five days old now. Stories in campaign season have the shelf life of mayonnaise in the sun – I might as well be writing about how the Bee Gees are bringing back the urban beard. But there is one aspect of this story that remains interesting to me.

As I scanned the web, I noticed this account of Harris’ confrontation with McCain as reported by the Washington Post:

“It is absolutely vital that you take it to Obama, that you hit him where it hits, there’s a soft spot,” said James T. Harris, a local radio talk show host, who urged the Republican nominee to use Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and others against him.

“We have the good Reverend Wright. We have [the Rev. Michael L.] Pfleger. We have all of these shady characters that have surrounded him,” Harris bellowed. “We have corruption here in Wisconsin and voting across the nation. I am begging you, sir. I am begging you. Take it to him.”

Is anything missing in that account? Maybe, maybe not. On this, I am torn.

You see, as Milwaukeeans know, James T. Harris is black. (Or, as he prefers, he is an “American of African descent.”) But the article doesn’t mention that fact. Should it have?

On the one hand, I think that in most cases the race of people identified in news articles is irrelevant. One of the first steps we can take to de-emphaisizing race in America is to wean ourselves off of constant racial identification.

On the other hand, race is often relevant to the crux of the story. This is especially true when crime suspects are still at large, and a description is needed. That’s why they provide a racial description in police reports – so when a gangland-style murder occurs at 27th and North in Milwaukee, the cops aren’t wasting their time chasing down the Osmond family. (Although it could be argued that the Osmonds have murdered good taste for a good 30 years now.)

But in this case, it would seem that Harris’ race was relevant. Clearly, the article was written to give the impression that this was an angry mob of Republicans, who tend to be white and older. Did they leave Harris’ race out of the story because that may have conflicted with the story they were trying to tell? Were they afraid of portraying an African-American as angry and bitter? Or were they purposely witholding a description of Harris because they didn’t want to send a message than an African-American could actually oppose Barack Obama?

So in some instances, I think it’s admirable for newspapers to move to less racial identification of the people they identify. As more and more members of diverse races procreate together, tagging an ethnic classification based on sight is likely getting to be more of a challenge anyway. But in the case of James T. Harris, it seems as though there was a systematic decision to withold a fact that would have added more complexity and depth to the story. And I guess we’ll never know why.


  1. Actually, it would be quite relevant, since the McCain people picked Harris out of the line waiting to get in, although several hundred people were ahead of him, and ushered him to a prominent spot inside. How did they pick him out? I’d say Affirmative Action, but he’s no doubt against that. I think the term is tokenism. He was chosen to speak because of his race. Whether it was mentioned in the post was rather irrelevant, since the McCain campaign got what it wanted — a black face on TV.

  2. Some website identified James t. Harris as Dr. James t. Harris, this website has this semi literate man confused with some one else, after watching his performance on CNN one would consider him lucky to have a GED.

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