Africans Win Marathon, Press Coverage Looks Passed Them

by Philip J. Malebranche

Two runners from the African continent won the 2016 New York City Marathon, which took place, recently, on 6 November.  The New York Times seems barely able to acclaim the impressive achievements of the athletes, judging from the images in the section devoted to that event, the next day.  Mary Keitany, of Kenya, and Ghirmay Gebreslassie, the male winner, of Eritrea, finished first, leading a record number of entrants in the history of the contest.  There were some 50,000 runners participating in ideal weather conditions.

In a large cover-page photograph in the Marathon section of that edition, Ms. Keitany, 34, appears as she reaches the finish line.  She completed the race in two hours twenty-four minutes twenty-six seconds, well ahead of the second-place finisher.   Though she is near the center of the photo, it is the skyline and Central Park that dominate the scene.  Her finish is evident, but her identity is not.  The Times informs us that she is five foot-two and weighs ninety-three pounds.  The distant shot reduces her to a miniscule figure.  It is, rather, the real estate properties that seem to be particularly exhibited.  Another photo appears on the same page:  it is that of a woman greeting Tatyana McFadden, the winner of the women’s wheelchair race.  Both women in the second photo are white.  The newspaper, in a classic tactic, subtly pits two maligned groups against each other; in this case, an African woman and a physically-challenged woman.

Gebreslassie, finished in two hours seven minutes fifty-one seconds.  His photograph appears on page F5.  It is rather small, with a caption.  At twenty years old, he is the youngest to win in the history of the New York City Marathon.  He was followed by Lucas Rotich, of Kenya, who completed the course in 2:08:53.  Abdi Abdirahman, an American born in Somalia, and based in Arizona, finished third, at 2:11:23.  Abdirahman is thirty-nine years old.

The 2012 Olympic silver medalist, Sally Kipyego, of Kenya, placed second among women in the race.  Her time:  2:28:01.  The third place female finisher was Molly Huddle of the United States, running in her New York City Marathon debut.  He third place time was 2:28:13.

The matter of such oversight is significant.  It is similar to that which we often experience in the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) when applying for Public Assistance or fulfilling obligations at one of the Centers.  Stigmatization of the poor or those experiencing homelessness offers a skewered view of another.  A misperception ensues, and this may lead to slights, faulty decisions, conflict, inaccurate policies and the added stress or trauma that may accompany these.

The reduction of exposure of Africans in the photographic images in the press coverage of this year’s marathon resembles the Mercator projections of the sixteenth century.  These distorted the size of objects on a map, negatively influencing perspective.  Europe is known to have been represented, for instance, as larger than it actually is.  Africa was shown to be smaller.  Certain elements of American society still refuse to allow a just idea of Africa and the Continent’s descendants.

A related phenomenon may be the change we’ve observed in the section of the Sunday Times that was called the Week in Review.  The section that replaced it, the Sunday Review, nearly omits the foreign news analysis that was common in its predecessor.  Consequently, readers of that section are deprived of knowledge to which it perhaps should be privy.  This American newspaper of record seems to be abetting the gradual parochialism that some quarters of society prefer.  The practice is furthermore extended to insignificant press coverage of events in Africa.  As a reader of French newspapers during my student days in France during the nineteen-eighties, I was able to regularly learn about the political, social and economic developments in the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), Chad, Niger, Morocco, Namibia and so on.  Parochialism, nationalism and national chauvinism could hardly be good for Americans given our country’s status as world leader.

This sort of bias is problematic for those of us receiving services at HRA.  The stereotypes and prejudice to the detriment of the poor interferes with the mission of the agency to help decrease the number of those needing such services.  New York’s leaders must move to update the Mercator map of the social services system.