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Charlie Hebdo coverage shows it’s easier to talk racism abroad than at home

In what’s being called the largest demonstration in French history, 3.7 million people took to the streets of France on Sunday to say “Je Suis Charlie.” The march and the outpouring of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo followed a deadly attack on the publication’s Paris offices last Wednesday. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the shooting, which took the lives of 17 staffers.

One trouble with the groundswell of support for Charlie Hebdo that has followed last Wednesday’s attack is its inability to distinguish between supporting the victims of a heinous attack and criticizing bigotry. As Richard Seymour wrote in Jacobin, “There’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” The staff of Charlie Hebdo had every right to life, and, contra Fox News’s free speech tirades, it was — in a charitable reading — in poor taste to depict the prophet Mohammed in the stream of Islamaphobic content in the magazine over the last several years.

Olivier Cyran worked at Charlie Hebdo for nearly a decade before walking out in 2001, after which point, he explained, the magazine took a turn for the worse. But Charlie Hebdo is a liberal, even leftist institution in France, one which — in its past and present — has spent time roasting conservative politicians and Christians alike. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, its editorial board’s penchant for anti-clericalism melded with the racism and anti-Muslim sentiment that characterized the West’s kick-off to the global War on Terror, falling in line with a “new normal” that made ridiculing all things Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern acceptable.

That turn, though, likely has more to do with France’s own, often xenophobic “culture wars” between a white, Christian majority and an influx of immigrants from former French colonies in North and West Africa. Cyran wrote that “belittling Muslims is no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but a ‘right to offend’ which is sanctified by secularism, the Republic, by ‘co-existence.’” Still, as Max Fisher argued at Vox, simply condemning the magazine altogether, or collapsing racism and Islamophobia into one category, ignores real nuance and the fact that “getting” satire relies on cultural context.

Understanding Charlie Hebdo demands at least a working knowledge of French politics and the magazine’s place in French society, even if Fisher’s generous reading of the magazine’s cartoons produces “the uniform and barely-concealed message that Muslims are categorically bad, violent, irrational people.” For leftists and progressives in the United States, the issue shouldn’t be whether Charlie Hebdo is racist, but how our own media cycle has capitalized on tragedy to feed an all too familiar narrative: freedom of speech good, Islam bad, war necessary, racist domestic terrorism not actually terrorism.

Writing for Ricochet, Tracie Powell pointed out that the Charlie Hebdo attack — as opposed to the one a day earlier at an NAACP office in Colorado Springs — has all the right trappings of a major news story for the post-9/11 24-hour news cycle: It’s a brutal act of violence for which Islamic terrorists have claimed responsibility, there is video footage of the gunmen and its primary victims are white. Pundits can spend literally hours speculating as to the exact geographic and ideological origin of the attacks, debate what can and can’t be seen from grainy surveillance images, and conjecture what future attacks on American safety this might signal.

News coverage is hardly a zero sum game: It’s possible and necessary to have good coverage of both the Charlie Hebdo attack and the bombing of NAACP offices. That said, even left-leaning journalists have been quicker to denounce the intolerance of a previously irrelevant (to a U.S. audience) French magazine than delve into the murky, uncomfortable waters of racism in the United States that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has made unavoidable. Especially for those who may have seen Ava DuVernay’s Selma this past week, the bombing of an NAACP office in the midst of a vibrant movement for racial justice smacks of a violent strain of racism thought relegated to the past. As organizers across the country and a steady stream of extra-judicial killings have soberly reminded those of us who might have forgotten, it’s much easier to talk about racism abroad than in our own backyards.