Despite my love of aviation and fascination with aircraft of all sorts, I am a nervous flyer. Years ago, when I was in high school, I was trying to justify this irrational fear to my dad by pointing out the instances of plane crashes in the news.
"For heaven's sake, Laura," he retorted. "Those are exceptions. That's why they make the news. No one's going to get on the air and say, '100,000 planes landed safely today!'"
I was reminded of his words as the media exploded with pictures of more riots in Ferguson, Missouri, on the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting. Discussions about racial inequalities are all over traditional and social media. On a friend's Facebook page earlier this week, a number of his followers pointed out with chagrin that people do not know enough about Africa's contributions to world history. Closer to home -- and even more shamefully -- there is insufficient knowledge about the contributions of blacks to America's history, and to its present.
Today's news is tomorrow's history. What stories do we see about black Americans in the news every day? Riots. Robberies. Mayhem. Murder.
"If it bleeds, it leads" is a media mantra regardless of the race of the people in the stories. But the constant negative news coverage does manifest damage to black Americans struggling to escape racial stereotypes. It is also hampering the aspirations of African-American youth who should be seeing role models in the media, instead of a daily barrage of criminal defendants.
It is a national scandal how little attention is paid to black achievement in this country. Here's a test for you. How many of these questions could you answer correctly?
- How many African-Americans serve in our armed forces? (Over 250,000, or 17.8 percent of the nearly 1.5 million armed forces members on active duty are black.)
- How many wars have seen fighting by black Americans? (All of them, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, as well as every single conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.)
- How many black police officers are there? (About 58,000 or 12 percent of state police forces.)
- How many black students are graduating from high school? (92 percent -- if you allow for more than four years to finish. This is up from only 78 percent in 1976. And black families are aggressively pursuing better educational options for their children. Of the 8.5 million black children in K-12, nearly 500,000 are in public charter schools, with another 430,000 in private -- largely religiously affiliated -- private schools.)
- How many are enrolled in degree-granting colleges and universities across the country? (Over 3 million, or 15 percent of the 20.6 million total students enrolled. This is up from 10 percent in 1976.)
- How many African-Americans are full-time faculty members in higher education? (About 90,000, or 6 percent of the total number of faculty.)
- How many black-owned businesses are there in the United States? (Over 2 million, and they employ nearly 1 million people, with total payrolls of nearly $24 billion.)
For every one of these statistics, the claim can be made that the country can still do better, and that African-Americans need to be able to take advantage of more opportunities. All true. The ability to achieve more is directly tied to strengthened families, the alleviation of poverty, and access to better educational resources, among other things. But the achievements of our black citizens who have made it must not be shuffled aside because of attention-grabbing headlines.
To be clear, it is not that the unrest in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore -- or the conditions that prompted it -- should be downplayed, any more than we should ignore concerns about the number of black men in prison, or the number of black children growing up in fatherless homes. But it is not the complete story of the black experience in the modern-day United States, and it cannot be all we talk about.
National media should do a better job of promoting black achievement. But all of us have much more control over the news coverage at a local level. We can insist upon coverage of the "good news" -- and then promote it through our local media and through social media. We should be just as aware of the local spelling bee winner or college scholarship recipient as we are of the kid who got arrested trying to rob a convenience store.
Angry mobs generate headlines. The desperate plight of people who are suffering grabs our attention. But like all news that focuses on the negative, ultimately it is exhausting and dispiriting. People -- especially young people -- are motivated more by inspiration than by desperation. And nothing inspires like good news.
Black news matters. But black good news matters most of all. And the good news is, there is plenty of it.
We just need to get it out there.