That's not how racism works: Newscaster fired for racist remarks claims she's the victim of racism

A journalist lost her job over comments about "young black men"—now she's filing a lawsuit

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published June 21, 2016 8:06PM (EDT)
Wendy Bell   (WTAE)
Wendy Bell (WTAE)

Anybody can make idiotic remarks on social media. It's pretty much a rite of Internet passage. But it takes a very special person to make remarks so idiotic that they are career-ending. And it takes a really, special person to turn around and claim victimhood for doing just that. Congratulations, then, former WTAE news anchor Wendy Bell -- you're in a class practically all by yourself.

The Pittsburgh journalist began this year as 21-time regional Emmy Award winning anchor with a long and distinguished track record. That went off the rails this spring, when she shared a lengthy Facebook post on her thoughts and feelings regarding a horrific mass shooting in Wilkinsburg that killed five adults — including an eight-months pregnant woman, along with her baby. Two suspects — Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas — have since been named in the case and are currently being held on previous charges.

But back in March, Bell decided she'd already halfway cracked the case, writing on Facebook, "You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday. I will tell you they live within 5 miles of Franklin Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested. They’ve made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough. Now they are lost. Once you kill a neighbor’s three children, two nieces and her unborn grandson, there’s no coming back. There’s nothing nice to say about that." The suspects are indeed black, in their twenties and have previous drug and weapons charges. They are also still just suspects, in a crime in which, by the way, the victims were also young and black.

In her post, Bell then went on to contrast the killers with an African American teenager she witnessed working and "hustling like nobody's business" in a local restaurant, and pondered "I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special."

Her post provoked an inevitable number of dropped jaws, and she soon edited it, then deleted it, then apologized on Twitter, then briefly ghosted on social media entirely. In a March interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she admitted that her words had been "insensitive and could be viewed as racist” but also that she hadn't been given "a fair shake." Writing soon after for Very Smart Brothas, Damon Young expressed that he didn't want Bell to be fired, but that her "abject obliviousness" qualified her as "a White privilege turducken." She was subsequently dismissed from her job.

In April, she launched a new Facebook page, and claimed to be "#PittsburghStrong" — a self diagnosis local blogger Virginia Montanez countered with "You are now the Queen of Self-Centered." On Tuesday, she posted another message on Facebook, reminiscing about her early career and declaring, "Today's going to be a tough day for me. But -- like that monster ball pit and the plastic jungle gym -- I'm taking off my sneakers and going in." She was immediately greeted with hundreds of supportive comments. And now we know what she was cryptically referring to — on Monday she filed a lawsuit against WTAE, claiming she'd been dismissed "because of her race," in violation of her civil rights.

In her lawsuit, her attorneys say that "Had Ms. Bell written the same comments about white criminal suspects or had her race not have been white, Defendant would not have fired her, much less disciplined her. Ms. Bell's posting of concern for the African-American community stung by mass shooting was clearly and obviously not intended to be racially offensive." Okay, I'm not a lawyer but, ha ha ha ha ha.

For starters, the "This wouldn't have happened if someone here were a different race" argument is pretty much the definition of racism, so there's that. You don't get to talk about other races the way you would about your own — especially you're a member of a race that has historically held all the cards. But even if we cast that absurdity aside, there's the matter of whether she really would have been disciplined had she been making comments about members of her own race. Here's a tip — it's not responsible for anyone, and certainly not a professional journalist, to mouth off based on zero actual information about what color you imagine murderers to be. That is just a bad professional strategy, period. The problem was then exacerbated in her snap judgment about the kid she saw at the restaurant, whom she assumed had not experienced enough praise before she generously bestowed it. And as for the part of her lawsuit where that argues comments were "clearly and obviously not intended to be racially offensive" — again, that's how racism usually works. It doesn't really matter if you intended to be ignorant and offensive; it only matters if you were. And what looked like a single incident of tone deaf behavior a few months ago has now become, absurdly, a full blown legal proceeding of one.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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