With Rachel Dolezal's story, Huffpost fishtails all over the info-highway

Give Huffington Post credit for not driving the already-worn road on what a liar Rachel Dolezal is, claiming to be black when she's really white. Instead, at least in this story, Huffpost takes the road less traveled: the religious/spiritual facet.

Unfortunately, the story fishtails all over that road. In working the religion angle, Huffpost adds all kinds of things that don’t fit, however it tries.

For those who came in late, Dolezal is former president of the NAACP in Spokane, Wash. As Huffpost reports, her white parents publicly accused her last week of posing as a black woman in order to rise through the ranks of the civil rights organization.

My comments here are no defense of Dolezal's attempt to claim a different race than the one in which she was born. I'm frankly puzzled at her stated belief that she might have been less effective as a white NAACP officer; after all, most of the founding members were white. Furthermore, Donald Harris, president of its Maricopa County chapter, told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he works his job just fine as a white man. And as Huffpost reports, regional NAACP leaders stated that "racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership."

No, my focus here is the classic GR fixation: how religion is treated in mainstream media coverage. Huffpost quickly identifies the parents as "deeply conservative evangelical Christians" who raised Rachel -- and their four adopted black children -- in the same beliefs.  Ruthanne and Larry tell the publication that Rachel's social justice advocacy is an extension of the values she learned at home.

Then the article awkwardly tries to link "fundamentalism" with Rachel Dolezal's drive for social justice:

Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, both residents of Troy, Montana, have been advocates for social justice in their own way. They practice Young Earth Creationism, a fundamentalist branch of Christianity that takes the Bible’s stories about the beginning of the world quite literally. Young Earth Creationists believe that God created the world in six consecutive 24-hour days, that humans and dinosaurs once walked together and that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. To Young Earth Creationists, the great flood described in the Bible isn’t just poetry -- it's historical fact.

The definition of young-earth creationism seems accurate, except labeling the movement a "branch of Christianity."  It's no more a branch of the faith than any other belief on origins, like theistic evolution or the "day-age" theory. But what does Young Earth Creationism have to do with social justice? Huffpost never says.

Next stop in the story is South Africa, where the Dolezals moved in 2002 to found a branch of Creation Ministries International. But the article doesn't say that their stay in Africa inspired their drive to adopt black children; one of their adoptees is from Haiti, and the other three are American-born.

The article then quotes the Dolezals on their commitment to adoption as an alternative to abortion. Is that why they adopted? No indication. And that's just the start of the random facts Huffpost throws in:

* Many evangelical leaders, like Russell Moore and Rick Warren, have urged the faithful to "consider adoption as a way of practicing their faith."

* Author Kathryn Joyce says some evangelical parents see adoption as a way of "saving" or "redeeming" them, mirroring the way God adopts people spiritually.

* Some evangelical churches are interested in adoption as "a form of racial reconciliation, according to Joyce -- a way for white evangelicals to atone for the sins of the past."

Which of these trends affected the adoption practices of the Dolezals? No answer. In fact, Huffpost acknowledges:

The Dolezals said they weren’t motivated by race when they chose to adopt black children. Larry was already 40 by the time they decided to adopt, and they wanted to do it quickly.
“We discovered that minorities are often hard to place,” Larry told HuffPost. “We adopted African-American children because they were available and we were willing.”

See what I mean by fishtailing? It's almost like Huffpost dug up a lot of background material and, by golly, they were going to use it. And toward the end, the article nearly veers off-road into a ditch:

Izaiah Dolezal, one of the couple’s adopted sons, reportedly sought emancipation from his parents in 2010. According to CNN, Izaiah, who is now 21, claimed the Dolezals “had sent his brother and sister away to group homes because they didn’t cooperate with the couple’s religion and rules.”
Larry said that his kids were expected to participate in church events. However, he said, there was “no enforcement” in their house growing up. For the most part, he said, his children seemed to accept their parents' interpretation of the Bible.

I'm glad the article got Larry's denial, but it left out two important facts in the CNN story that it referenced: (1) Izaiah's petition for emancipation was eventually dropped; (2) Rachel became his legal guardian, with the approval of her parents. And shouldn't the parents have had  chance to answer Izaiah's accusation about group homes?

By now, you may have seen the biggest hole in this article: No direct quotes from Rachel Dolezal herself. Does she think her evangelical upbringing affected her advocacy for blacks? If so, in what way(s)? I see no indication that Huffpost tried to get in touch with her for this article. 

Again, I can't fault the publication's enterprise. Indeed, I wish more media tried digging into the religious/spiritual/social context of the news. And some have done much worse with this story -- such as Slate, which starts out with this snide headline: "Rachel Dolezal Was Raised by Christian Fundamentalists. No Wonder She Wanted a New Identity."

But for background facts to help pave your story, you have to connect them with current events. As educator Lawrence J. Peter said: "If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else."


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