Black Politicians and Media Mud

words by Christi Griffin

Adding to the victory in St. Louis County, the November Election Day also delivered the first African American ever to be elected to the office of Recorder of Deeds in the 254-year history of the City of St. Louis. Michael Butler not only became the first African American to hold that office, but the youngest to hold any citywide office. His was a meteoric rise from a state legislative assistant in 2010 to the first Millennial to hold any citywide office in the entire State of Missouri.

Yet, despite these exceptional accomplishments, one television network gave only cursory mention of these achievements, particularly in comparison to the bloodbath that came seconds later. While brief reference was made of the two African American officials sworn into office just hours before, the significance of those events was immediately marred by the far more extensive coverage given a whistleblower investigation into the St. Louis Agency for Training and Employment. Significantly, although the investigation was primarily about the mismanagement and abuse of tax dollars, it was the photo of yet another Black legislator, not the agencies manager that accompanied the story and graced the screen multiple times during the broadcast.

November 6, 2018, brought out record numbers of voters. With 87,000 newly registered voters, the turnout for the mid-term elections exceeded predictions by almost 60%. The prospect of unseating a prosecuting attorney that had used his office as a virtual tool to over-charge, over-incarcerate, and over control Black lives helped produce an astonishing voter turnout of 68%. Despite a recent article in which Bob McCulloch spoke of “retiring” as prosecutor, the numbers tell a much different story. Bob McCulloch did not retire as the St. Louis County Prosecutor, he was removed by an overwhelming mandate of the vote.

The timing of the story carried with it an apparent intent to diminish the accomplishments of two of our most recently elected African American men, detract from the power of the Black vote, and perpetuate a history of criminalizing African Americans. There was no urgency in airing the report that typically takes weeks to investigate. The decision to air the story in the same broadcast as that of our electoral victors lays bare the racial animus that continues to hang over our city. The broadcast not only overshadowed the accomplishments of these young men but of the tens of thousands of volunteers and voters who got them elected. The SLATE story, regardless of any degree of accuracy, robbed every citizen of a significant moment in our city’s history.

But this is more of the same; par for the course in a city that has attempted to change both rules and power each time an African American is elected to a position of power. The attacks have been relentless. Subsequent stories attacked the decision of Butler to fire certain employees and the new County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell, was in the news again when an internal memo surfaced that indicated his office would cease prosecution for non-payment of child support. No such coverage was given on the same news station when hundreds of prosecuting attorneys chose to unionize for the first time in the office’s history even before Bell was sworn into office. There was no such alarming coverage of either the City Mayor’s or the County Executive’s decision to clean house when they took office, or of any other previous mayor or department head. Indeed, Mayor Krewson fired the St. Louis City Police Chief on day one and subsequently fired the then head of SLATE. The racial overtones in coverage are palpable. 

While it is ideal that every person, regardless of position, act with a high degree of integrity, it holds especially true of those with whom we place our trust. By virtue of race alone, our Black politicians enter office with a target on their back. This week’s news cover proves exactly that. Like anything else about being Black in America, expectations and standards are always higher and different. When it comes to wielding political power, it is imperative that they keep their noses clean. There will always be those, usually those with the dirtiest hands, that will be ready to point a finger.

Christi Griffin, is the Founder of The Ethics Project, a non-profit organization addressing the impact of crime, injustice and incarcerations. She is the author of Incarcerations in Black and White: The Subjugation of Black America that draws attention to the destruction of Black communities to support an economy dependent on prison labor. Dr. Griffin received her Juris Doctorate from St. Louis University School of Law and practiced law for 23 years. She has served on numerous civic boards and has received numerous awards including the President’s Call to Service Award and the Dr. Martin Luther King Drum Major for Justice Award.

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