The exclusion of all reporters except African-Americans from a Savannah mayoral event raises something. Concerns? Sure. Profiles? Most definitely. The Associated Press gave national coverage to a meeting that might not have otherwise made the newspaper in other Georgia towns, as did NBC through its publication of the AP article and coverage by a local affiliate:
Organizers of a meeting to discuss an upcoming mayoral race in Georgia barred reporters from attending — unless they were African-American.
The Wednesday meeting at a church in Savannah was held to try to unite the city’s black community behind a single candidate for mayor in the Nov. 5 election. Signs at the door said “Black Press Only!”
White reporters were denied entry, while at least two black reporters and the publisher of a local African-American newspaper were allowed inside, the Savannah Morning News reported. Television cameras and recording devices were also prohibited.
The purpose of the meeting itself seems straightforward enough from an electoral-strategy point of view. Savannah’s mayoral elections are non-partisan and have a single round of voting. The Bolton Street Baptist Church event organizers want to ensure that only one African-American candidate qualifies for the ballot so they can keep the black vote from splitting in the election. The current mayor, Eddie DeLoach, is white, the first white mayor of Savannah in two decades. If the African-American vote splits, they will have a tough time unseating him.
But why limit media coverage to only black reporters? As one man declares in the video above, it’s a statement of control over the message and the process, which might be the motivation. However, it’s tough to discount the fact that this meeting would likely have gotten zero attention outside of Savannah and perhaps not much inside of it either without creating a controversy around it. Suddenly, this mayoral race has become a hot topic, and with it an opening on debate over minority empowerment. That fits right into the presidential-nomination buzz, right?
Even so, two of the African-American candidates vying for the mayoral position didn’t like this kind of attention, nor did one of the public officials who attended:
Former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson declined to comment before going inside, as did Chatham County Commissioner Chester Ellis. “This is not my idea,” Ellis said. …
Savannah Alderman Van Johnson, who is one of three African-Americans who have stated their intention to run for mayor, said afterwards that during the meeting he had talked about his vision for an inclusive and progressive Savannah. With regards to the discriminatory policy at the door, Johnson said that he believed people have the right to assemble and determine the rules of their assembly.
“It’s not my meeting,” Johnson said. “I was asked to come and give a statement, so I came and I gave a statement. What I said in there, I’ll say out here.”
Indeed they do, but that’s a novel argument from a civil-rights perspective. Johnson later sounded a little more regretful of that argument:
I was made aware that the organizers restricted this event to “Black Media” only. I chose to give my statement as scheduled and afterwards made myself available to the media gathered outside. I have expressed my concerns to the organizers of this event as my history of service in this community has ALWAYS been one of inclusion, of partnership and of communication.
While this decision of this group is unfortunate, I work toward the day when we trust each other enough to be inclusive in all of our gatherings.
There will be no end of “what if the situation were reversed” outrage, which is so obvious as to not require much discussion. A more interesting point might be to ask those black reporters why they went along with it, but that’s still more of a local story. As a community-building strategy, the policy and the cooperation with it were reprehensible. As a profile-raising strategy, it’s brilliant. How long will it take for Van Johnson to start getting buzz as a potential running mate for Democrats in 2020?
Update: A longtime reader whose opinion I respect is annoyed that I didn’t address the racist and unconstitutional aspects of this policy. As I wrote in the concluding paragraph, I thought the racist aspect speaks for itself. If you’re barring people from an event on the basis of race, well, that’s racist no matter how it cuts.
Constitutionally, there’s more of a theoretical question. This was a private group that can set its own terms for admission to an event or private business, not a government event. In practice, though, courts usually take a dim view of such measures, as Christian florists, photographers, and pizza makers can attest in other contexts. It would be nice indeed if we all chose one way or the other on freedom of assembly issues.