The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

If the recent post about white journalists grappling with their own racism made you wonder about black journalists, California Newsreel may have some answers.

For a brief time, the folks at California Newsreel are making one of their films available for free viewing online.   The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (86 minutes, 1998) is a documentary by Stanley Nelson that is the first to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. It recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

It’s an excellent resource for teaching about news media, race and ethnicity, or popular culture.  It also comes with a facilitator guide with ideas for discussion questions.

New Research: Journalists “Grappling With Our Own Racism”

There is interesting new research just published about journalists and racism in the production of news. The research is reported in an article, “Coming to Terms with Our Own Racism: Journalists Grapple with the Racialization of their News,” by Emily Drew, Assistant Professor at Willamette University, and appears in the October issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication (behind a paywall).

It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that from 1990 to 2005, 28 major metropolitan newspapers in the United States sought to grapple with race relations and racism by devoting significant time, staff, and financial resources to launching systematic examinations of the ‘‘state of race.’’ (p.2)

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Drew’s research was well-designed.  She interviewed 31 of the editors and writers who brought their newspaper’s race series into being.  In this research, she argues that explicit and intentional ‘‘racial projects’’ can foster antiracist consciousness in their producers and promote changes in news production. (p.3)

Specifically, she examines how a journalistic project that was seemingly about ‘‘them’’ (society), ultimately became about ‘‘us’’ (news media). Drew found that as journalists sought to ‘‘discover the facts’’ about how racism manifested in their communities, they began recognizing its manifestations in their own profession. As one editor put it, her paper’s race series, ‘‘challenged us to go beyond the rhetoric and hold up a mirror, an honest mirror . . . one that was not tainted by our own thinking that we were too sophisticated to be part of that.’’ (pp.2-3).  Here is one of her respondents, explaining the change:

“We thought we were reporting on ‘them’ . . . those people, and organizations, and institutions that were still disenfranchising racial minorities. As it turned out, racism was about ‘us’ in the media, our news production, our editorial decisions and our own lack of diversity. (Editor of a ‘‘Race Series’’ at a major U.S. newspaper)” (p.1)

Returning to Drew’s analysis of this process, she writes:

“In the process of investigating how ‘‘new racism’’ operated in their local communities, journalists began engaging in a reflexivity, one that illuminated the need to probe their own institution’s relationship to race and racism. Most interviewees indicated that analyzing the media — let alone their own newspaper — was not a part of their agenda or design when they first began. But once the series began publication, community responses and discussions in the newsroom meant they could not avoid examining the racialization of their newsroom. As one interviewee noted, newspapers across the country, for 20 years, had been ‘‘guilty of their own sort of ‘benign neglect’ towards race as a newsworthy issue’ ” (p.8).

She concludes by talking about the dismay that some of the white participants in her research expressed about the lack of opportunity to address race:

Having undergone significant learning through the race series, one white journalist expressed tremendous frustration at the lack of opportunity wite people have to learn and grow. ‘‘There is not a forum in which we can discuss race, genuinely, with people listening. How can we have such a risky and honest [conversation] without a reason?’’ he asked. When white people have reason, and people of color have safe opportunities to address race and racism with openness and intentionality, they interrupt the mechanisms of racism that socialize people into blindness and silence about the structures of privilege and oppression” (p.16).

There are a number of things to note about this study, perhaps foremost is the focus on the process of news production which is often lamented for its role in the production of racist images, but too little studied. I also appreciate the nuance here in examining people who are “well-meaning” and filled with “good intentions” not to replicate racism, yet find themselves in an occupation and industry which does this in many unexamined ways.

If you’d like to read more about racism in the production of news, I recommend Pamela Newkirk’s Within the veil: Black journalists, white media. (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000) and Darnell M. Hunt’s Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (NY: Oxford UP, 2004).(H/T to @dr_grzanka for that second ref.)

Race and the U.S. Census: Hey NPR, Your Hipster Hate Hides Diversity

NPR recently ran a story called “New York’s Hipsters Too Cool For The Census.” This story has made the media-rounds with outlet after outlet (yes, even Stephan Colbert ) unable to resist grabbing the low-hanging fruit that is hipster-hate by arguing that hipsters in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn are too “cool” and busy Twittering to mail back their census forms.

(Creative Commons Image Source)

What is clear is that the very sizable non-hipster and non-affluent populations in Williamsburg are largely invisible to NPR and the others. We know that both non-whites and the poor are historically undercounted in the census (something the Bureau, to its credit, has been trying to solve). However, most in the media refer to Williamsburg simply as a hipster enclave and overlook the other populations in that diverse neighborhood.

You hear it all the time – that “Williamsburg is full of hipsters” (here, I’m trying to avoid the trap of defining this group that so often rejects definition). Yes, Williamsburg does have many “hipsters”, but the other populations seem to be mysteriously missing from discussions about the neighborhood. There exists sizable Hasidic, Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican), African American and non-affluent White populations as well.

Amazingly, NPR did mention that the true lower response rates come from the heavily Hasidic areas. Other bloggers have also pointed this out. However, faced with this obvious evidence for the low response rates, the title of NPR’s report, as well as most of its content and final conclusion (that the census needs to be “cool” for hipsters to respond), focuses on the largely affluent, white hipster.

Instead of using this as an opportunity to discuss the structural reasons why disadvantaged populations are undercounted in the census, NPR instead fuels (1) the invisibility of non-hipsters (primarily the Hasids, Hispanics, African Americans) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and (2) the knee-jerk reaction against self-presentations outside the norm that has taken the form of hipster-hate. Hipsters develop a self-presentation that is different than the norm, which causes confusion and, expectedly, leads to hate –hence the ridiculous knee-jerk conclusion that Williamsburg has low response rates because hipsters must be too cool or technologically connected to participate in the census.

~ Nathan Jurgenson, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland

912 Protesters Fueled by Racism, Hatred of Obama

On Saturday (9/12), thousands of protesters gathered in Washington to express their disdain for President Obama and his policies – particularly health care reform.   The crowd was populated by white political conservatives — – organized by a loose-knit coalition of anti-tax, small-government proponents, and widely promoted by sympathetic voices in the blogosphere and on TV and talk radio.  The protest was scheduled for 9/12 – the day after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks – as way to mark a point in time when Democrats and Republicans supposedly “shared a sense of purpose and unity and all Americans were patriotic.”

What few, if any, of the mainstream reports included in their coverage of the event was any discussion of the racial composition of the 912 crowd which was overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white.   According to The Washington Independent (the only news source I could find that was talking about this issue), the crowd was “99 percent white.” The reporter noted, “in my four-plus hours at the event, I’d only seen three African-American demonstrators.”   When the reporter asked Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the organizers of the event, about the lack of racial diversity in the crowd, DeMint blamed the event’s timing and the media coverage.

“If anyone does a fair analysis of the crowd, it’s a cross-section of the population. It’s probably just the time and organization and the media that promoted it,” DeMint said.

Now, just because it’s an exclusively white-folks event doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fueled by racism, but it does give one pause.   I certainly think it’s possible to oppose the policies of the Obama administration and not have those views fueled by racism.   Yet, you can tell a good deal about a protest from the images and iconography that protesters choose to convey their message.  And the signs people created and carried provide another kind of other evidence that the rhetorical and visual strategies of the protesters drew on a deeply embedded white racial frame.

While at least one news report (CNN) characterized the signs carried at the rally as “particularly distasteful” (e.g., “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy”), none in the mainstream media have called out the protesters for the overtly racist signs many of them carried.   Here’s just one example (via Alternet):


The crudely drawn ‘monkey’ image in the middle of this sign suggests the deeply racist imagery of Obama that appeared during the campaign and has continued throughout his presidency.  There are some more of these racist signs posted here.   This is the same kind of racist hatred that is fueling the 400 percent increase in death threats to Obama that I mentioned here yesterday.

Although it’s possible that mainstream news outlets are not reporting on the racism at these protests out of some sort of concern for stoking the flames of racism, it seems more likely to me that those deciding on what is – and is not – newsworthy are steeped in a white racial frame that hinders them from accurately perceiving the many ways that the 912 protest is rooted in racism and white supremacy.   The combination of this racism and the intense hatred of Obama makes for a dangerous combination.

The Racism in “The Great White Hope”

Keith Olbermann and Rep. Maxine Waters do a nice job of calling out the use of the phrase “great white hope” as steeped in racism. Here’s a clip on the long side (6:10) but worth watching all the way through if you missed the live broadcast:

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I really appreciate Olbermann saying “as a white guy” the recent political events make him uncomfortable. And, then poses the question to Rep. Waters, “are we going backwards or forwards?” It’s about the frankest discussion of racism on mainstream media that I’ve ever heard.

Fox News’ Racism

Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade revealed a glimpse into the depths of his own racism on the air recently. During a discussion of a study based on research done in Finland and Sweden which showed people who stay married are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, this exchange happened (short, less than 1 minute):

In this clip, Kilmeade questions the results of the study saying, “We are — we keep marrying other species and other ethnics and other …” The co-host tried to distract Kilmeade, but he goes on to add, “See, the problem is the Swedes have pure genes. Because they marry other Swedes …. Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society.”

The argument Kilmeade is making, and to their credit that his co-workers at Fox News seem appalled to hear, is one that’s rooted in the discredited racial pseudo-science of eugenics.

Eugenics, which reached ascendancy in the U.S. and Europe in the 1930s, advocated social progress through encouraging those deemed “fit” to reproduce to have children and discouraging, even coercing through forced sterilization, those thought to be “unfit.” One of the intellectual factories producing knowledge steeped in eugenics was at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, just outside New York. While claims about “fitness” and “unfitness” were sometimes tied to inherited disease, just as often these designations were linked to poverty and race. Thus, people who are poor or not considered white are designated “unfit.” Indeed, in the extreme version of eugenics, some people were considered “less than human” or of “another species.” This kind of thinking is part of what fueled the Third Reich’s calculated extermination of six million Jews. Following the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the camps, the theory of eugenics fell into disfavor.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics (NY: Routledge, 2nd Ed., 2003), sociologist Troy Duster explores the ways that current practices, such as prenatal detection of birth defects, gene therapies, growth hormones, are once again introducing “genetic answers” to what are fundamentally social questions. In Kilmeade’s ill-informed discussion of research about the length of marriage, he is stepping into a long tradition of eugenics as the scientific basis for racism and antisemitism. Fox News rarely disappoints as a source for broadcasting such retrograde thinking.

Optimism & Everyday Racism

Time for shoppingA recent article called, “Voices Reflect Rising Sense of Optimism,” by Susan Saulny in The New York Times, trumpets the usual exuberance over the improvement in “race relations” in the wake the election of President Obama (Creative Commons License photo credit: Bjørn Giesenbauer).

I want to offer a different interpretation of some of the data in the article.

The reporting in this article is based on interviews in seven states throughout the U.S.    It is meant to add some personal stories (what newspaper people used to call “color” and what sociologists might refer to as “qualitative data”) to support findings in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll (the quantitative data) in which two-thirds of Americans said race relations were generally good.    Rather than a unequivocally optimistic story, as the headline suggests, the qualitative data (e.g., reporting) that the NYTimes presents here offers a glimpse into the micro-level interactions of how everyday racism operates.  Let me show you what I mean.

The article starts with a description of what the past 30 years have been like for one working-class black man – a Mr. Sallis, 69 –  in Milwaukee, WI, where being black “meant being mostly ignored, living a life invisible and unacknowledged in a larger white world.” Then, Mr. Sallis, 69, noticed a change.

“Since President Obama started campaigning, if I go almost anywhere, it’s: ‘Hi! Hello, how are you, sir?’ I’m talking about strangers. Calling me ‘sir.’ It makes you feel different, like, hey — maybe we are all equals. I’m no different than before. It’s just that other people seem to be realizing these things all around me.” [emphasis added]

Mr. Sallis is being euphemistic here when he says “strangers” – and the NYTimes doesn’t clarify – but he means “white people.”  So, the big improvement in “race relations” is that white people have begun to say “Hi! Hellow, how are you sir?” to a black man that they presumably walked past for thirty years previously without acknowledging.    I can see how this might qualify as ‘news’ but pardon me if I don’t quite share the optimism here.  It seems to me that the broader pattern here is that white people routinely ignore and try to pretend that black people are invisible.   So, yes, recognizing black people’s humanity is a big step forward.    Mr. Sallis’ story is not an isolated example.

There are other examples of the shift in the micro-level of everyday racism, such as that of Kevin Chaison, a 39-year-old telemarketer in St. Louis, who also says that, as a black man, he used to feel invisible.

“I get more of a sense that I belong now.  Now I’m getting more of a, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ than I was a year ago.”[emphasis added]

Again, note that Mr. Chaison is expressing optimism here about the fact that white people have acknowledged his existence with a simple, polite greeting.   While it’s certainly good news, it also highlights the fact that until the historic election of the first African American president, white people were in the habit of not speaking to their fellow citizens who happen to be black.  Perhaps this is what some white people mean when they insist that they’re colorblind and “don’t see race.”

A third black man quoted in the article, Chester J. Fontenot Jr., 59, a professor of English and director of Africana studies at Mercer University in Macon, GA, says that he has felt a shift on his campus in terms of the micro-level interactions.  Here’s Professor Fontenot:

“I think what’s happened with a number of white people who have come up and started talking to me is they feel comfortable with him (President Obama), and that makes it O.K. to come up and engage me. They feel like they have something in common with me now, we have something to talk about. Now you get the head nod, or a smile that you just didn’t get a year or two ago. For me, it was like, ‘I’m not even going to acknowledge this black person.’ They’d just keep on their merry way. But now, I get acknowledged.” [emphasis added]

Once again, the mere fact of being acknowledged is noteworthy because it is such a dramatic shift in the micro-level interactions that make up everyday racism.

While I think there’s room for some optimism, I also think that it’s important to recognize that what seems to have changed is white people’s behavior.    And, the changes being reported here are at an incredibly small, micro-level of interaction.    This is progress to be sure, but it’s a long way from dismantling the institutionalized discrimination that operates whether or not someone says “Hey, how you doing?”

Racism, Reporting and 100 Days

This week marked President Obama’s first 100 days in office (Creative Commons License photo credit: Alexander van Dijk).  Lots of reporters took the opportunity of this somewhat artificial marker to evaluate Obama’s achievements and popularity.  The reporting on his first 100 days was also the occasion for some racism in journalism that it’s important to call out.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, is right when he says that he finds Byron York’s (Washington Examiner) “incredibly racist.”  Here’s the relevant passage:

On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

Coates writes about his hesitancy to call out York for the racism in this passage because of what he calls “political correctness run amok” in which identifying racism is seen as more egregious than the racism itself.     Coates is more eloquent:

We live in a country that may well be offended by racism, but it’s equally offended that anyone might actually charge as much.

For evidence, he cites some of the recent examples of overt racist expressions by James Watson, Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Richards, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, which were then all followed by plaintive wails of racial innocence and crys of “offense” by these white folks at being labeled racist.

And, in a support show of support for Coates’ assessment, Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress, says:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an important post here that I think could probably use an “amen” from a white person. It’s absurd how totally disproportionate the volume of public concern is about black people “playing the race card” or about “political correctness” stifling someone or other to the volume of public concern about actual racism.

I can add another hardy “amen” to the white people that agree with Coates.   Of course, I agree with Yglesias that actual racism is a much bigger problem than the putative threat of “playing the race card,” and I commend him for saying so publicly.

Clearly, this is not a widely held opinion among the (supposedly liberal) readers at Think Progress.   Have a look at the comments (120 and growing rapidly last I checked) over there; most are from white people who do not agree with Yglesias.

Update @ 12:05pmET: Coates punches out another post about this ongoing controversy, “Byron York is Not a Racist.”

Open Thread: Tea Bag Racism?


By now, you’ve probably heard about the “tea bag” protests on April 15 (tax day for folks in the U.S. – image from HuffPo).  “Tea” here is an acronym that stands for “taxed enough already,” and is meant to be a play on the revolutionary war era Boston Tea Party.   The term “tea bagging” also has another meaning – not related to drinking tea – which has prompted no end of bad punning and adolescent humor.

The protests are, depending on who you ask, either a grassroots movement of angry citizens upset about high taxes, or an astroturf – or fake grassroots campaign organized by the GOP and pumped by FOX News, or this is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up,” as Janeane Garofalo said the other night.

So, time for a Friday Open Thread.  What do you think?   Is it a movement of angry citizens upset about high taxes?  Is it astroturf, or fake grass roots?  Or, is it racism straight up?   Why?

Take the poll (to the left of this post).  Or, if you prefer the short answer/essay version, drop a comment.   Be sure to answer the “why” portion.

AP Posts Tale of Segregationist, Now a “Reformed” Racist

08KKKfamilyPortraitThe U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities (Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.

Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961

Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.

For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.

According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.

Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.

Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.

The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.