Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, is the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida. Gillum is African-American. He won an upset victory in a Democratic primary. As soon as his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, found out who he’d be running against, he declared that Florida voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by voting for him.
The comment was widely called out for exactly what it was – a racist dog whistle.
There are striking parallels between this incident and the behavior of the Fox News of child welfare, the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.
I refer of course to the infamous column in which the Chronicle’s one-time “blogger of the year,” Marie Cohen, used an ugly racial stereotype about a poor African-American mother.
I do not believe Marie Cohen – or Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel – is a racist. I am sure both believe they are genuinely helping to “protect” children from child abusers. But that doesn’t make the column any less ugly. I’m sure a lot of people at Fox News sincerely believe they’re helping to “protect” America from illegal immigrants. Good motives are no excuse for stereotyping or bullying. Cohen’s column engaged in both. And now, Heimpel is publishing Cohen again.
The column and the stereotype
In seeking to rebut a New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” Cohen implied that one of the parents who told the Times about the needless removal of her children was wasting money buying sneakers – something that is never mentioned or suggested in the Times story itself.
As I noted at the time,
I don’t know why Cohen brought sneakers into the discussion. I do know that there is a crude, pernicious racial stereotype that says African-Americans are poor because they waste money on expensive sneakers.
It’s a staple of right-wing rants on internet comment boards. In one such rant on Glenn Beck’s site, The Blaze, about “HOW TO PREVENT BLACK CHILDREN FROM GETTING MURDERED” (caps in the original, of course) a commenter writes: “#5 INSTEAD OF BUYING THEM EXPENSIVE SNEAKERS AND SMARTPHONES - BE A REAL PARENT.”
Heimpel, the Chronicle publisher, should have apologized for the column and attached an “editor’s note” disavowing it. Instead, he promoted it on his personal Twitter feed.
If anything, what Cohen and Heimpel did was worse than what DeSantis did. At least DeSantis picked on someone his own size. Cohen used the stereotype against one of the most defenseless members of society, a low-income African-American mother whose only “crime” was daring to tell her story to The New York Times. That isn’t just stereotyping. It’s bullying.
The point is not that the mother should be immune from criticism by those who may disagree with what she did that got her into trouble with child protective services. The point is that there are ways to do that without stereotyping and without bullying.
The column was not Cohen’s only blunder on matters of race. In another column, she falsely claimed that the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare had “quietly suspended its work.” The Chronicle didn’t check the false claim before publishing it, and knew the claim was false for weeks before finally correcting it.
In still another, her defense of the use of “predictive analytics” in child welfare was almost identical to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s defense of stop-and-frisk.
In yet another column, Cohen complained that “As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple low-quality, heavy-handed trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases.”
Now, the encore
And now Heimpel, the self-proclaimed “child welfare expert” whose own extremist rhetoric includes dismissing concerns about racial bias in child welfare as a “panic” and suggesting that the spread of family preservation is analogous to cancer, has brought Cohen back for an encore.
She coauthors a column that tries to draw false distinctions between what Donald Trump and his administration did to children at the Mexican border and what child protective services agencies do all the time. No, I will not link to the column because, though this column did not stereotype anyone, I try to avoid linking to people who have sunk to using racial stereotypes. But their claim can be summarized as follows: When CPS does it it’s different because we mean well and we only take children from horrible abusers.
It is reasonable to have a debate over the extent to which the two forms of tearing apart families are similar. No one, in fact, claims they are identical – only that there are far more similarities than people such as Cohen – and Heimpel – want to admit. What is unreasonable is including in the debate someone who previously invoked a crude racial stereotype and used it against a low-income African-American mother. Once you do that you’ve crossed a red line – and journalists should recognize that line.
There are plenty of people who sincerely disagree with the analogy between what Trump did at the border and how the foster care system works who do not resort to racial stereotyping. In fact, the Chronicle already had run a column by one such person, who attempted to make the same case as the Cohen column. Since that author has not used racial stereotypes, I will link to it.
The Cohen column was redundant. Perhaps Heimpel published it because he is such a fan of that point of view – and of his former “blogger of the year.” Or perhaps he published it because what Trump did has indeed brought home to millions of Americans just how awful it is for children to be taken from their parents, and some of those Americans might indeed reach a conclusion the Chronicle doesn’t like: that U.S. child welfare agencies can and should take away far fewer children.
Other parallels to Fox News
This is not the only way in which Heimpel’s behavior mirrors that of Fox News. In a recent post to this blog I wrote about how Trump has exploited the death of Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly killed by an undocumented worker, to push his agenda of fear and hatred toward immigrants. As Columbia Journalism Review noted, the White House rushed out a video featuring relatives of people killed by undocumented workers – and, of course, Fox News was glad to amplify the message.
All of it was in support of the Big Lie of American immigration. Or, as CJR explained:
The president’s hardline immigration stance is grounded in the false belief that undocumented immigrants represent a clear and present danger to American citizens, and Tibbetts’s murder fits the narrative that has been a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric since the first moments of his campaign.
(CJR should have said false claim – we don’t know if even Trump really believes it.)
The exploitation of the Tibbets case by Trump – and by Fox News - is very much like the way Heimpel exploited another tragedy, the death of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver in Massachusetts, in support of the Big Lie of American child welfare – that family preservation is inherently at odds with child safety.
Heimpel co-authored an op-ed for the Boston Globe with Elizabeth Bartholet, one of the most extreme advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, and a leader of a movement that denies the existence of racial bias in child welfare. Heimpel and Bartholet used the Oliver case to attack “differential response” an approach to handling child abuse allegations that has been found safe and effective in more than two dozen studies.
It would have been bad enough to exploit the tragedy had Oliver’s case actually been diverted to differential response. But it wasn’t. Heimpel and Bartholet admit this – in the fourth paragraph. Then, they argue, Trump-style, that it’s o.k. to exploit the tragedy because other cases that might be like Oliver’s might be diverted to differential response.
Just the kind of argument Fox News would love.
In recent months the Chronicle had tried to pass itself off as more mainstream – more Shep Smith, less Sean Hannity. It even publishes dissent from its party line once in awhile, just as Fox News occasionally brings on a liberal pundit. And because of all the cutbacks in newspapers, editors may find it tempting to reprint material that the Chronicle hands to them.
But any potential partner should understand: This is an organization that accepts, and condones racial stereotyping. Almost everything it publishes comes with an agenda. Until that changes, the Chronicle should be viewed as a conduit for extremism, not a news organization. Just like Fox News.