The Problem With Identifying a Suspect as "Dark-Skinned"

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 17 2013 4:04 PM

The Problem With Identifying a Suspect as "Dark-Skinned"

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John King was the first to report, wrongly, that police had arrested a suspect in the Boston bombing on Wednesday

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

John King of CNN caused a frenzy today when he was the first to report that a possible suspect in the Boston bombings was in custody. King told his colleague Wolf Blitzer that a law enforcement source had given him one bit of physical description: The suspect was “dark skinned.”

“A physical description was given to me of the suspect, Wolf. I want to be very careful here because this is very sensitive information, but the description given to me is a dark-skinned individual,” King said, according to the Daily Caller. “And I want to just stop there. … There was some further descriptions used, but just for sensitivity purposes until we get more information, I think it’s best to stop there.” King also added, "There are some people who will take offense for even saying that.”

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It’s not entirely clear why King thought people “will take offense.” Was it because he was feeding them incomplete information? CNN has now walked back its original report entirely, and CBS later offered that the man sought as a possible suspect was a “white male, wearing white baseball cap on backwards, gray hoodie and black jacket.” Or perhaps it was because he used the term “dark skinned.” I’d argue that it’s warranted to take offense for both reasons.

There is a huge difference between a specific description of a suspect—white supremacist, African-American, Mexican, Pakistani—and an incredibly vague term like “dark skinned.” The latter, in the great tradition of orientalism, is designed to be open ended enough to allow for the (terrified, exotic-hungry, racist) imagination to fill in the blanks. It is an insult by inference, a way of conveying something we on one side know about that person on the other side, wink wink, without saying it outright. It also brings out the worst in most people, including Blitzer, who followed up with a frantic,"We can't say whether the person spoke with a foreign accent, or an American accent?" No, we can’t, so how about for the moment we just say nothing.

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.