(The Guardian) May 25, 2016
Over the course of 2014, America seemed to reawaken to one of its oldest preoccupations: the reality of how race is lived in the United States, and in particular the many stark disparities that persist between black and white people.
The continued existence of racial inequality in the United States was not exactly news – but the shocking deaths of a series of unarmed black men at the hands of the police made the issue impossible to ignore. The killing of Eric Garner, who was wrestled to the ground and choked to death by police on a New York City sidewalk in July 2014, confronted the public with a disturbing question: how was it possible that a black man could be killed for the trifling infraction of selling loose cigarettes? Garner’s dying words – “I can’t breathe” – captured on video, would soon become the rallying cry of a nascent movement, Black Lives Matter.
When Michael Brown was killed by a policeman the following month, enormous protests erupted, and the attention of the entire country – and much of the world – turned to Ferguson, Missouri. Television news was filled with scenes of mostly black protesters surrounded by heavily armoured riot police, evoking images from an era that American liberals liked to believe was long in the past.
Brown’s death, in the heat of the summer, produced a huge swell of anger and a fierce debate, but a tentative conclusion soon emerged: though his death had first seemed disturbing, many came to see him as a flawed victim. Brown had not led an unblemished life: he had shoplifted minutes before his demise, he had smoked pot, and investigators insisted that he had resisted arrest, tussling with the policeman who shot him. He was “no angel”, in the uncharitable words of a New York Times story published two weeks after his death. This tone could be heard in much of the coverage of Brown’s killing and the ensuing protests in Ferguson – and not just at that newspaper. What this tone suggested was that a black person who died at the hands of police needed to have been perfect, and utterly blameless, to justify outrage at their death and national attention to the problem.
But such a case came along soon enough, when police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, encountered Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun on a deserted playground. What ensued was captured on video, otherwise many would have dismissed an objective account of the incident as the product of fevered black imagination. A white officer is seen jumping out of his car and without pausing even to exchange words, immediately opening fire, leaving the child dead. Here, for all those who had demanded it, was the immaculate victim. A grave problem, it seemed, could no longer be denied.
By late 2014, newspapers and TV networks had begun to dedicate substantial time to the subject of excessive force routinely used by police against black people, and to the protest movement that grew in the wake of these incidents. Television news channels – even the very conservative Fox News – devoted hours of their nightly broadcasts to discussions of this problem, often heated, and to a consideration of its roots. Not coincidentally, minority voices suddenly proliferated on the air.
Having rediscovered the crisis of American race relations, there were reasons to hope that the media might make the colour line, as the eminent early-20th-century black American intellectual WEB Dubois famously called it, the focus of even deeper and more serious ongoing attention. But the attention of US journalism – and along with it, the attention of the nation – soon drifted away. What happened?
The easy part of the answer is that 2015 marked the start of a seemingly endless season of obsessive American political coverage, in the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Journalists descended on Baltimore to cover the protests over the death of Freddie Gray in April, but in the months that followed, reporters started to turn their focus to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where Republican candidates were already visiting county fairs and meeting voters in greasy spoons.
But what was less predictable, and much more striking, was the brazen way that the Republican candidates competed in pandering to white voters using racial themes. Perhaps they sensed that, after two terms under Barack Obama, many Republican primary voters were incensed by the appearance of cracks in what might be called the hegemony of whiteness. Donald Trump led the way, and provided the most famous examples – describing immigrants from Mexico as criminals and rapists, proposing to ban Muslims from entering the country – but he was far from alone.
Only months after the country had begun a tentative interrogation of its history of racism, that had all been forgotten. Early on, Trump was criticised for the unusual crudeness of his racial appeals, but by the time the candidate had eliminated the last of his Republican rivals, in early May, the media seemed inured to Trump’s rhetoric. But even as the US media has devoted vast time and resources to covering every twist and turn of the primary campaigns, almost none of this journalism has posed deeper questions about the social pathology of racism that makes nativist demagoguery so appealing to white voters. Instead, this fact is simply taken for granted – much like the persistent disparity in rates of unemployment and incarceration between black and white people, or the staggering gap in household wealth between the races. One could say much the same about the crude contempt for Barack Obama that has become a powerful undercurrent in Republican politics over the last seven years.
With Trump all but certain to be the Republican nominee, all signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign – and one that will pose a severe test for American journalism, which has been as beset by the crisis of race as the society it claims to rigorously examine.
The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air.
But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.
These problems are not new, and they are not unknown: they have been confirmed by survey after survey measuring diversity in the country’s newsrooms and on its airwaves, but this is not how I discovered them. The lessons I received in the matter all came through direct experience, inside what many consider America’s foremost news organisation.
When I first arrived at the New York Times in 1986, fresh from freelancing in West Africa, I was as eager as anyone can possibly imagine – but more than a little bit nervous about trying to break into the big time of American journalism at the age of 27, as a new father working in a city I had never lived in before. I had never worked in a newsroom; I had never even worked under the close supervision of editors. So there was much to learn. I would have been lying if I had said I was looking forward to covering what seemed to me mundane things such as cops and courts – but, looking back, there is no doubt that my three years in New York gave me an education in journalism I could not have received anywhere else.
This was not the only invaluable education I received in New York – far from it. As an idealistic young black man there was a whole universe of knowledge to be acquired about how this industry handles the question of race in America, and this was vital to one’s survival. One quickly learned that the newsroom was a place rife with powerful networks, which nurtured and anointed a few golden boys – and occasionally, although much less frequently back then, golden girls. These networks took shape along lines of educational pedigree, social status and religion – all categories that helped make it appear that race was not relevant. Indeed, to the casual onlooker it all passed for merit.
Some of my first lessons came while paying my dues, working weekends in the nearly-empty newsroom, where I was asked to monitor the police blotter for noteworthy crimes. Early on, I was bluntly reproached by an editor for bringing the uptown murder of a black person by another black person to his attention, as if I didn’t know that these were “penny crimes”, in his words, meaning things that could never rise to the level of interest of New York Times readers on a Sunday. If a black man had killed a white man, or if there was white-on-white murder, he explained, this, of course, would be a different matter.
This was not the only kind of race logic common in the business, as I was just discovering at a place that was regarded – and regarded itself – as a bastion of liberalism. I had watched in surprise one winter evening, when a power outage in the Bronx sent editors casting about the cavernous old newsroom for black reporters, something that immediately made painfully clear how few of us there were. In a cast of hundreds, it seemed that it would not take much more than two hands to count us on. It was freely said that white reporters were uncomfortable venturing to that part of the city in the dark – the first of many times I would hear such thinking in my career. These were the high-crime, crack cocaine years, and so off black reporters were sent, based on the theory that even dressed in business suits and ties, as nearly all the staff were in that era, we would be safer and more comfortable in the dark of a ghetto.
Around that same time, I was sent to cover the aftermath of a huge shootout in the Bronx between a notorious drug dealer, Larry Davis, and the police, in which the suspect briefly escaped. My reward, after Davis was captured, was being assigned to cover one of his trials, which an editor advised me not to take too seriously, regarding it as a foregone conclusion – despite Davis hiring a famous civil rights attorney, William Kunstler, who tied the prosecution up in knots by emphasising what most black people intuitively knew or suspected: a rich history of police abuse and procedural irregularities. After this, I was briefly assigned something called “the race beat”, which was basically intended to mean covering black civil rights complaints against the city in that highly polarised era. This was in keeping with perhaps the oldest tradition in the business, since its integration began tentatively in the 1960s: let black people cover black topics, which were perceived as impenetrable, if not outright dangerous.
In those days, a tiny coterie of black reporters often huddled together to fume over coverage of the 1988 presidential race by an all-white political staff, whose dismissive treatment of Jesse Jackson, the sole black candidate, often bordered on insulting – repeatedly describing him with code words such as “street smart”. Early one morning, a pair of black colleagues successfully goaded me into challenging the brilliant and deadly serious managing editor, Joseph Lelyveld – then the second-most-powerful person in the newsroom – over one story’s description of Jackson as “flamboyant”, which seemed to us gratuitously pejorative. Approaching Lelyveld to challenge him was as forbidding as seeking an audience with the Wizard of Oz. My friends stood in the wings, watching as the two of us, side by side, looked at the definition of “flamboyant” in a giant tabletop dictionary, which led Lelyveld to admit our complaint was correct.
My big break came when I was sent on a series of short-term deployments to cover a series of military coups and popular uprisings in Haiti – on the same logic that had seen black reporters dispatched to cover the Bronx. There was a white correspondent covering Haiti at the time, who was very good at gaining access to diplomats and political sources, but seemed to shun the frequently chaotic events in the streets, which were filled with angry and presumably dangerous black protesters.
I had been lobbying my editors for nearly three years for a full-time foreign assignment of my own, enrolling in Spanish classes, reading histories of India, and visiting Mexico. When the call came to tell me I had finally been named as the fourth black foreign correspondent in the long history of the newspaper, it was to inform me that I was being sent to cover the Caribbean. This was neither what I had hoped for nor imagined, but it was an innovation of sorts; the traditional move had been to send people like us to Africa.
Black colleagues on the staff were proud of me nonetheless, so much so that a fistfight nearly broke out when one of them, a friend named Don Terry, overheard a white reporter who was roughly our age grumbling openly that I had unjustly benefited from affirmative action. This was a standard complaint, a claim that filled the air with every word of our advancement: never mind that I had performed well enough in Haiti to repeatedly win in-house prizes at the paper, or that I spoke excellent French and was already becoming passably fluent in Creole. By this time, I was far enough along in my apprenticeship so as not be surprised by such sentiments.To read the entire piece, please click here.