White D.C. Has Some Dumb Things to Say about St. Louis

by Daniel Foster

Julia Ioffe is a fine writer, but this TNR dispatch from Missouri — “White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson” — is not her best work.

Let’s start at the top. You’d think that to justify its breathtaking sweep, the “White St. Louis” named in the hed referred to some carefully constructed cross-section of St. Louis’s Caucasoid citizens, or maybe to white city fathers of note or other representatives of white officialdom. But it turns out that “White St. Louis” is the dozen-odd randos Ioffe bumped into at a Starbucks in Olivette — a suburb of The Lou with about 7,000 people.

Ioffe tells us that Olivette is about 60 percent white, and Ferguson is about 60 percent black. These are two raw facts that, lashed together, are supposed to do an awful lot of work, establishing Olivette as both importantly white and starkly contrasted with importantly black Ferguson. But Ferguson is only a little blacker, and Olivette only a little whiter, than St. Louis at large, and in any case both are significantly blacker than America as a whole.

More significant, I guess, is the fact that St. Louis is according to one measure the eighth most segregated city in the United States. But New York, L.A., Chicago, and Boston — hotbeds one and all of right-thinking New Republic readers — are nearly as segregated or more segregated than St. Louis. So the more-than-faint whiff of condescension with which Ioffe ethnologizes the Olivette white folk as walled-off yokels strikes the ear as not only off-key but off-base.

But, fine, leave all that to one side. By and large, the motley of latte-sippers Ioffe assembles to weigh-in on the protests in Ferguson spit anodyne clichés in response to her baiting. But a few say unsubtle things about how that troubled town’s black population hates white people, or are using the killing of Michael Brown as a pretext for mass looting. Ioffe, not content to let this coarseness stand on its own, sexes up the quotes with some mind-reading editorializing: the strip-mall focus group, she tells us, are “scared . . . implicitly, of black people” and assume that “black people, the lust for theft encoded in their DNA, are just barely kept in line by authority.”

This isn’t reporting, it’s servicing the prejudices of readers who’d rather not think that hard.

Look, I understand the appeal of man-on-the-street dispatches. I got my start working for a confederation of community newspapers in North Jersey, and every Friday I’d have to stand in front of a post office or a Stop-n-Shop and ask passersby what they thought about the new megamall at the Meadowlands or the noise at Teterboro airport. 

You learn some things about people after a year or two of doing that sort of thing. Number-one-with-a-bullet is that there’s a reason you call them “man on the street interviews” and not “discourses with perambulating cogitators.” There’s a sort of two-way selection bias at work. On the one hand, the kind of people who can be cornered into spit-balling sound bites on current events tend to give you either content-free bromides or the sort of ham-fisted takes Ioffe coaxed out of some of her lot. When you ask for people’s name and hometown, you get a lot more of the bromides. When you let them give you quotes anonymously, more of the ham fists. At the same time, from the reporter’s point of view, the ham-fisted takes are less boring than the bromides, and almost by definition, the occasional thoughtful, subtle responses you get are far too long to print.

Ioffe’s interlocutors, who probably aren’t representative to begin with, are one and all anonymous. And fairly or not, Ioffe’s decision to embellish their quotes with bonus racism invites us to question whether there were other takes — subtle takes, or bromides, or even ham-fists of a progressive flavor; prosciutto-fists if you will — that she decided to leave out.

It all adds up to not much of anything. In fact, there’s a kind of double dumbness to it. The gang from the Olivette Starbucks has nothing interesting to tell us about Ferguson, and Ioffe has nothing interesting to tell us about them.