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No room for grace?

Outrage at a supposed blackface incident reveals a deeper political pathology

A young Kansas City fan during a Chiefs game in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 26, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by David Becker

No room for grace?
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When it seemed the only major story in the NFL was the romance between Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift, the sports website Deadspin managed to find something else to cover. The story was blackface on a child (wearing an Native American headdress) who was cheering on the Kansas City Chiefs. A single photo with a profile angle demonstrated that the child’s face was clearly painted shoeshine black. Deadspin, one of the original clickbait sites from the glory days of blogging, raced to draw attention to the retrograde child and to demand that Roger Goodell do something.

Like so many stories of this type, this one turned out to be deceptive. Additional photos showed the other half of the child’s face was painted red in keeping with his black and red ensemble, which included a Chief’s jersey with black long sleeves worn underneath. The young fan was clearly nothing more than an enthusiastic fan who had gone all out, perhaps hoping for some screen time on national television or at least a shot on the jumbotron.

Now, the family is suing Deadspin for its hasty (and arguably vicious) portrayal of the boy as a practitioner of blackface. They claim that the publication of the story resulted in death threats, insults, and emotional damage that affected the child’s performance at school. It would appear that the settlements a number of media outlets paid in the wake of their misrepresentation of Nick Sandmann’s encounter with a Native American activist in Washington, D.C., failed to inculcate a higher standard of care.

But let’s leave aside the analysis of the law or the case the Armenta family has against Deadspin. It is likely that damages can be established and that the family will make a financial recovery against the media company. That much is straightforward. Hopefully, the vultures of culture will be more cautious in descending upon apparent carrion.

The bigger question is what is happening in our culture when the first impulse of a writer is to run with a photo of the type in question and to attack a child completely heedless of the possible consequences? Incentives are not difficult to understand. Writers on salary have to produce to justify that salary. Those who are paid by the piece have to generate enough content to make an income. In a 24-7 media-click world, even an accidental appearance of a thing becomes an occasion to treat another person as a means to a mercenary end. Was Marx correct that the logic of capitalism is so powerful that it will never stop expanding even into the most unsavory directions?

There are sectors in our society that have wholly succumbed to a Machiavellian preference for winning rather than retaining a bedrock commitment to truth and principle.

Rather than submit to Marx and put our hope in the bankrupt solution of a savior state that is supposed to melt into a kind of eschatological secular collective (rather than a dystopia), I would argue that we must recover Biblical virtues of grace and truth.

Consider grace. To what extent do we owe our fellow brothers and sisters the simple obligation of grace? A person is caught in an unflattering light for some reason. Should we, being obviously imperfect and prone to error, go blundering forward like bulls in moral china shops without regard for subtleties that might turn a red flag into a harmless rose? Given a healthy appreciation of our sin and limitations, we should learn to extend the same grace and slow development of judgment that we would hope to receive from others. That sort of compassion and recognition of our need for the benefit of the doubt seems to be increasingly lacking in a culture where any young person who achieves something immediately becomes the subject of an unforgiving forensic scan of their teenage social media profiles.

And then consider truth. Did the writer of the story about the young Armenta boy care whether the child was wearing blackface in the furtherance of some nefarious purpose? Or did that person simply seek to claim a digital scalp? How likely was it, really, that a child wearing a Chiefs jersey would have actually been trying to harm African Americans through mockery instead of simply getting into the spirit of a major sporting contest? The answer is fairly obvious, but that didn’t stop the writer or Deadspin from jumping into the fray with both feet, making a toxic accusation, and calling for immediate action from the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. There are sectors in our society that have wholly succumbed to a Machiavellian preference for winning rather than retaining a bedrock commitment to truth and principle.

Deadspin is likely going to receive its comeuppance. The Armenta family will receive compensation. But we need more than a snapshot moment of an overreach being punished. We need to grasp that journalism becomes destructive when unmoored from virtue.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.

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