mainstream-media’s-white-gaze-on-black-neighborhoods-is-an-irritating-eyesore

Mainstream Media’s White Gaze On Black Neighborhoods Is An Irritating Eyesore

Ronald “Moe” Moten and creative partner Natalie Hopkinson founded Don’t Mute DC, a coalition that uses art for social change. Clarence Johnson

It was a warm spring day, and I sat at a fold-up table at the construction site of the Go-Go Museum & Café, my latest project, located in the heart of Washington’s historic Anacostia neighborhood in a retail strip The New York Timeshailed as the new epicenter of Black-owned businesses. 

The door popped open. The stranger walked in wearing work slacks and a light button-down shirt and a swooping curly haircut. By the furtive, stuttering way he moved and surveyed the building from the other side of a glass wall, I took him for a real estate vulture. I was wrong. I raised a curt eyebrow and cocked my head in a way that said: State your business, MF. 

He never did. He mumbled something about wanting to buy a bumper sticker and left. 

Later, I learned the real identity of the surprise visitor. It was a former GOP candidate for Congress in his 20s, Matthew Foldi. Despite being listed as a political reporter, Foldi described himself as an “investigative reporter” for The Spectator, a magazine established in the United Kingdom in 1828. Motto: “firm but unfair.”  

Foldi scurried out the door, his “investigation” complete: He suspected we were operating a front using $4 million in city money to sabotage local political enemies. With a few weaselly caveats, Foldi tied the payments to an unrelated activism campaign to stop the Washington basketball and hockey teams from leaving the district. The piece landed in The Spectator a few days later. A whole story based on an unproved, logistically impossible and unreported theory. 

I think they call this sort of thing “fake news.”

* * *

In mass media, “stereotypes are shortcuts to character development,” as my former Howard University professor Clinton Wilson II has explained. The fastest way to build a career in mainstream journalism is to color in the lines that draw Black people as criminals and buffoons. 

Especially green reporters in search of copy to feed the 24-hour news cycle of ravenous editors like to wade into the wilds of the Chocolate City, in places like Anacostia, to see what characters they can “discover.” 

I call it the “Welcome to the jungle” exposé. It’s a whole genre of mass media and journalism, part of a long and sordid history of quasi-anthropological studies of Black people without the immersion or real reporting. It’s fringe viewing, full of misconceptions and preconceived ideologies about who Black people are. It’s generally tainted by the white gaze, wealth, access and a belief that there are bootstraps dangling from hood street lamps just waiting for Black bodies to pull themselves up.  

I first came to Washington in 1994 as a 17-year-old freshman studying political science at Howard University and working part time as an intern journalist for The Palm Beach Post in South Florida and the Cox Newspapers chain, roaming the halls of Congress right after Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution.

Washington Post journalist Leon Dash visited my freshman English class to talk about his multi-year study of a Black family of addicts and petty thieves in Washington, “The Rosa Lee Story,” that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. In 1998, as an intern at The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in the District of Columbia, I crossed paths with journalist Ron Suskind, who was then promoting “Hope in the Unseen,” the book version of his investigation of “inner city Washington, D.C.” which also won a 1995 Pulitzer. Suskind investigated a young Anacostia high school student who was the only person at his school who wanted to learn or had any human-resembling qualities. We even saw the genre recently, in a Washington Post “deep read” by Emily Davies, a tear-jerking dive on a Washington teenager solemnly waiting for his turn to have a funeral. The Jan. 20 report is destined to land in journalism award submissions.

These narratives are problematic not because they are not technically true. They are problematic because of their parachute focus on maximizing pathology and limiting character development, ignoring historical structures and assets. My students call it “trauma porn.” The genre reveals a mass media blinder to the complexity, vitality and agency of Black people in these neighborhoods. 

They miss some damn good stories, too. 

These media distortions have consequences for democracy. We feel this acutely in D.C. because of the city’s status — not a state but essentially a colony of Congress with limited “home rule.” Our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation” because any otherwise irrelevant junior member of Congress could read a headline and decide to stop us from making decisions about our own rules or tax dollars.  

Washington’s elected officials try to make policies that respond to their constituents. But they know that the Big Brothers and Sisters in Congress are watching, ready to shoot half-cocked. We saw this with the fevered national debate over the Washington crime bill. We also saw this when the mayor at first left student protests about Gaza alone and then changed her mind when Congress demanded it. City officials stay in a defensive position, trying to make sure they evade their colonial overlords. 

* * *

Over the years, I’ve worked as a staff writer, editor, columnist, etc., for many “mainstream” publications. These days, when I’m not researching books or curating museum exhibitions and other art projects around the world, I am teaching journalism to undergrads. A lot of what I do is coach 18- to 22-year-olds to overcome a natural aversion to walking up to strangers and asking them invasive and sometimes rude questions. But it comes with the job. This is how you speak truth to power.

This brings us back to The Spectator’s intrepid young reporter Matthew Foldi. I was able to reach his editors in Washington and London, but he himself declined to answer written questions or be interviewed for this story. From his website, it appears that he grew up in wealthy, white Montgomery County, Maryland. All I can go on is what I saw when I witnessed him venturing into the dark, throbbing heart of Anacostia. Kudos to him for attempting to do the bare minimum expected of a journalist — stepping away from his home office. When I saw him in the flesh on that spring day, he was at the museum construction site investigating a piece on my creative partner, Ronald “Moe” Moten, a community organizer, and founder and CEO of the Go-Go Museum & Café. He’s also co-founder with me of Don’t Mute DC, a coalition of scholars and activists that uses art for social change.

I was absolutely shocked to see what came of Foldi’s “investigation.” His article in The Spectator implied the museum construction site was a front funded by the city. The headline labels Moten based on a prison stint that ended 30 years ago. Foldi cataloged management problems with previous nonprofits Moten organized but left out his subsequent exoneration by the city’s attorney general. 

Foldi’s theory was that the city was paying Moten millions in city grants in exchange for his successful “stop the move” campaign to halt Monumental Sports owner Ted Leonsis’ attempt to move the NBA and hockey teams from the District of Columbia to Virginia. He said it was “big business” ― implying Moten was getting rich by speaking out. 

Within a week after Foldi’s story was published, city officials showed up for a surprise inspection. Ah. I was right there. I know I may seem scary, but I’m really just a soccer mom of two. I have a doctorate in journalism and public communication. I could have helped! If Matthew Foldi had found the courage to state his business, there are so many things I would have told him. 

For one, I would’ve said he was on sacred ground. Black enslaved people built the nation’s capital for free. He stood in sight of a Civil War plaque near the 11th Street Bridge commemorating the enslaved people who marched across the district line to claim their freedom during the war. Just last November, just steps from the home of the Go-Go Museum & Café, a street was renamed Marion Barry Avenue, for the late four-term mayor.

Foldi’s theory of city grants to the Check It program being political payoff for the Stop the Move campaign that started in December is legally and logistically impossible. First of all, the deal about Check It is far from a secret. Moten’s work mentoring and getting the fierce LGBT gang off the streets of D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood and into their own clothing business in Anacostia was the subject of a 2016  documentary produced by Steve Buscemi.

Foldi listed about $4 million in grants to Check It. To get money to acquire the land and begin museum construction, Check It and the Go-Go Museum went through rigorous public processes that began in 2020-2021. This was more than three years before anyone knew that Leonsis’ company had plans to leave the district. 

A lot of Foldi’s “investigation” drips with details that invoke stereotypical urban crime narratives.He suggests the press is ignoring Moten’s past missteps in past working lives. But Foldi mentions nothing of the way the press seems to have forgotten about Leonsis’ own history of violence at his place of business in Chinatown. Leonsis, who is white, once choked and body-slammed a season-ticket holder. Despite thousands of witnesses, police were never called. Charges were never pursued, and The Washington Post downplayed the incident that bloodied and bruised a 20-year old fan, reporting it was “out of character for Leonsis… a gregarious team owner who routinely speaks with fans during games.”

Keep things in perspective. The $4 million to Check It pales in comparison to the city’s $50 million investment in Ted Leonsis’ company expansion into southeast Washington for the WNBA Mystics arena, where he only had to put up $5 million. I would have told Foldi that the $4 million the city has invested in the museum is not nearly enough. In 2020, we commissioned a study by the museum firm Gallagher & Associates, which estimated the Go-Go Museum project would cost $8 million, not including money to acquire the property. 

We are grateful for the city’s support, and we are even more grateful to the thousands of people who joined us and demanded it over the years. Thousands of Washingtonians took to the streets as part of the Don’t Mute DC movement to protect go-go music, which Moten and I are co-founders. We pushed hard for the city to pass a new law making go-go the “Official Music” and to support the years-long effort to create the museum. The museum is part of a People’s Plan required by city code. A Black radio station hosted a telethon for the museum in 2020, hundreds of people stopped by and many donated— some with crumpled $5 bills, raising $18,401 of people’s hard-earned, post-tax money. 

We need them all. We don’t have enough money. We’ve been cobbling things together with volunteers and begging favors and a zillion partnerships, and we are so close to opening this summer. 

I would have told Foldi that I could not be prouder of the real accountability work Moten and other activists are doing now that local journalism is a shambles and more watchdogs are needed than ever before. 

Don’t Mute DC fired one of the first warning shots against a plan to stop Ted Leonsis from running from hundreds of millions in city investments and shaking down our neighbors in Virginia. It took real brass for Moten to stand nearly alone, in the snow on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with a handful of young activists and musicians at Capital One Arena. Early stories leaked to The Washington Post reported on the deal as a done deal, baked and immovable. Moten was out there, hammering away without a huge groundswell of support. 

Weeks later, we learned the full extent of the sham of a deal, but only after other groups issued Freedom of Information Act requests to see the details of the plan unredacted. Turns out Virginia taxpayers would be taking out more than $1 billion in bonds to pay for the privilege of gentrifying their own sporting experience with $75 parking and $730-a-night hotels

This month, the city announced it had struck a deal for the sports teams to stay; it was only the Black press there, to document and demand questions on why city officials turned Motenaway from the news conference. 

I would have told Foldi that if more people don’t start finding their voice in this country, billionaires will continue to demand public subsidies for getting richer. We are going back to the days before democracy, when we had to bend to the will of a permanent elite. 

Agree or disagree — it’s not complicated. This is America. Everyone has a right to say their piece. Don’t character-assassinate the messenger. 

I mostly wish that when Matthew Foldi had arrived on the scene, he had taken a few deep breaths, calmed himself and worked up the nerve to have a conversation with Ronald “Moe” Moten, the man he’d asked Spectator readers to “meet.” Moten was wandering somewhere around MLK Avenue. Foldi could have learned a thing or two about democracy and real courage.

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