Edel Rodriguez illustration

Acknowledging that no one in the U.S. is immune to the influence of white supremacy may be the only way for journalists to effectively navigate the complexities of race

last June, I traveled to Ghana for the first time. For most of my life, I wanted no connection to the dark continent. I had been convinced, by whom or what I don’t know, that the American in my African-American was better than my African.

It didn’t matter that I could trace my familial line directly to the race-based chattel slavery in the region of South Carolina where I was born and raised and still reside. My place of birth was more important than the place somewhere in Western Africa where some still-unknown ancestor took her first breath.

That ancestor was likely born free while my great-great-great grandmother on my mother’s side lived a life shackled on the blood-soaked soil where I was later praised for catching touchdown passes and making the National Honor Society.

Neither did it matter that I was spending much of my professional life writing and teaching about the importance of grappling with our country’s brutal racial history and how it affects how we think and act in 21st-century America. Those thoughts bled over into my other thinking, including a belief that black people everywhere really are more violent and less intelligent than white people. I allowed my ugly thoughts about black people to convince me to avoid dating dark-skinned black women, strike historically black colleges and universities from my list of potential places to study, and become afraid of strange black men.

No one is immune to the influence of white supremacy…Acknowledging that truth may be the only way for journalists to effectively navigate the complexities      of race

My emotional struggles illustrate just how deeply such thinking has rooted itself into my brain. I fought back tears while watching video of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down by two white men in Georgia who had tracked him down like a wild animal that needed to be stopped because it was terrorizing the village. He was killed for the sin of jogging while black.

As I watched the video, my 18-year-old black son had not yet come home from his own jog. Kyle was training for a college cross-country and track career that begins this fall. I knew he was jogging through areas similar to that in which Arbery was hunted down. We live in the Deep South like Arbery lived in the Deep South, where my last living aunt told me tales from her childhood, about how black people would occasionally be disappeared, never to be heard from again during an era of Jim Crow and lynchings and “sundown” customs.

I had trouble breathing until Kyle walked through the front door. I had no words for him or his sister, Lyric, about how to stay safe if they found themselves in a situation like the one Arbery had been trapped in. I knew there was nothing they could do, that they would be at the mercy of the white men with guns and bad intentions. I felt helpless as a black parent, reduced to relying upon prayer to protect my children because I knew I couldn’t.

Then I heard the story of Breonna Taylor, a black EMT in Louisville. Plainclothes police officers who did not identify themselves broke into her home searching for a drug suspect who didn’t live there. They startled Taylor and her boyfriend, who picked up a gun believing it was a home invasion. Police unleashed a barrage of bullets, eight of which hit Taylor, killing her. They killed a black woman during a coronavirus pandemic that has affected black people more than most other groups.

Black people disproportionately suffered from health maladies before the pandemic began and have been disproportionately dying and losing our jobs since the coronavirus made its way to our shores. No matter. Taylor’s boyfriend was the one charged with felonies for defending his home, not the cops who killed a frontline worker desperately needed to corral Covid-19. (The charges were dismissed.)  The story angered me because I had recently spent a considerable amount of time trying to get readers in my community to know the name Julian Betton, a young African-American man who had been paralyzed by a drug enforcement unit in Myrtle Beach under similar circumstances just months before Dylann Roof committed a massacre in a historically-black church a two-hour drive away.

Then I watched video of a white cop in Minnesota killing George Floyd in broad daylight on hard pavement. Floyd was reportedly arrested because he “fit the description” of a man allegedly trying to use a fake $20 bill. For what seemed like an eternity, the white cop perched himself upon Floyd, his knee firmly planted into Floyd’s upper back and neck. He didn’t have to. Floyd had already been handcuffed and subdued. That action sent a message to horrified onlookers that he had power he would wield as he pleased simply because he could, not giving a damn about Floyd’s life, humanity, dignity.

When that officer and three others were fired from the police force, it brought me no peace. I knew that even when an officer kills an unarmed man in broad daylight on clear video, he is still unlikely to be convicted. I know because I know racial disparities have been embedded in the American criminal justice system since its creation, with black defendants punished more severely than their white counterparts even when they commit similar offenses, and black victims least likely to see justice.

That’s why I understood the anger of protesters who took to the streets in the wake of the release of the video of Floyd’s killing. I felt their pain. I feel their pain. Yet despite everything I know about race from personal experience, everything I’ve come to learn through years of study and reporting on the subject, despite knowing Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically said that a riot is the language of the unheard, I had to fight thoughts that what began to resemble a riot in Minnesota made black people look bad, maybe proved that we really were criminals who deserved to be hunted down like animals and killed or maimed in our own homes by agents of the state.

I knew that just a couple weeks earlier elected officials in Michigan had decided to postpone their legislative duties instead of instructing law enforcement officials to confront the large groups of heavily-armed white men who had taken over the capital building and had been threatening the governor.

Still, white supremacist thoughts trudged their way through my black brain as I watched televised images of police using rubber bullets and tear gas against largely black protesters who reportedly had been armed with rocks and were breaking windows.

I can’t tell you how I came to view Africa and my dark skin so negatively. Maybe it grew out of being taught from state-sanctioned history books in segregated schools that spoke of happy slaves, unsavory abolitionists, and heroic Confederate soldiers who were simply protecting their homeland.

Maybe it took root when my oldest brother murdered a white man when I was a 9-year-old, forever linking in my mind violent and black.

Maybe it was solidified by my sometimes-quiet acceptance of racial injustice and inequality inside newsrooms in an industry struggling with how best to reflect the nation’s emerging diversity. I’ve had former white colleagues who in one breath said my writings about race were radical and irresponsible and in the next admitted they had not bothered to even study the racial history to which I was alluding and had no plans to. I wasn’t being “objective,” no matter my depth of racial knowledge; they were “objective,” no matter their depth of racial ignorance.

Here’s the cold, hard, uncomfortable truth: No one in the United States is immune to the influence of white supremacy, not even a black Southerner like me. While it might be difficult for many journalists to accept, it is not a slur to speak that truth aloud. Acknowledging that truth may be the only way for journalists to effectively navigate the complexities of race as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic that has generated racist stereotypes and the harassment of Asian-Americans and an election cycle that will likely pit Donald Trump’s racism against Joe Biden’s uneven track record on race.

There are other reasons why journalists need to get coverage of white supremacy right. We are amid an unprecedented demographic shift. White Christians stopped being the majority during the tenure of the nation’s first black president, and a “majority minority” reality is fast approaching. We can’t afford to get this wrong or to be too slow to adjust.

I am as much proof of white supremacy’s persistence and limitations as David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and maybe the country’s best-known white supremacist.

Cherry-pick the right incidents, and my life can be used as evidence of America’s great racial progress – or its stunted racial growth.

That’s why I agree with the admonition to not overuse terms such as “white supremacy” and “racist.” Journalists must avoid an inadvertent flattening of racial truth. If such labels can be applied to a man like me and a man like Duke, have they lost all meaning?

Such a high bar also often ensures a deeper delving into the issue’s complexity. Under such a standard, a journalist must show why that label is accurate or even necessary, in the same way journalists should think before using race in police descriptions of suspects.

But we mustn’t be so timid that we ignore or inadvertently bury uncomfortable truths.

I’m proof of white supremacy’s persistence and limitations; that doesn’t mean I’m a white supremacist like Duke. It means I’m a carrier of white supremacy in the way I’m a carrier of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, an autoimmune disease I was diagnosed with in 2013.

My white blood cells began attacking my nerves and shutting down major muscle groups, my body turning against itself for reasons science still can’t fully explain. The aggressive treatment designed to stop the disease’s march nearly killed me. There were days I could neither walk nor had enough strength to fold a large towel.

Since those difficult days, I’ve made enormous progress. I’m in remission. I’m back to jogging six miles a day. I’m healthier than many people who have never experienced anything like CIDP. But my body isn’t like it was before. Scars remain, as does CIDP. I can still feel the subtle tingling beneath my skin that was with me long before my diagnosis but I hardly paid attention to because it caused no immediate or detectable pain.

What CIDP did to me, white supremacy has done to the United States. That’s why no one should be surprised by recent findings suggesting that when “intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.” White supremacy flows through this country’s DNA the way CIDP flows through my veins.

Just as it would be unwise for me to ignore the subtle tingling and only focus on the painful explosions, it would be unwise for journalists to believe white supremacy is only about self-avowed or violent white supremacists. White supremacy can’t just be about those carrying tiki torches or committing massacres in black churches or synagogues.

Racial disparities remain a central truth of the criminal justice system. Voter ID laws that target black voters “with surgical precision,” as the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals described a North Carolina law, have been rapidly enacted since the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Four percent of black children grow up in neighborhoods with low poverty rates and a good number of positive male role models. Such neighborhoods include the very few where researchers from Harvard, the Census Bureau, and Stanford found that poor black boys do as well economically later in life as their white counterparts. Those rare areas where poor black boys thrive also showed less discrimination in surveys and tests of racial bias.

Journalists must understand that white supremacy is more like a chronic disease that mutates and chooses whatever host provides it the best chance of survival. Too little of the cure – fearless journalistic examination of white supremacy – leaves it free to multiply; too much might make it resistant. Journalists won’t be able to discern when we’ve provided too little, or too much of the cure until we understand that, when it comes to race, contradictions abound.

For instance, the Civil Rights Act was made law by Lyndon Johnson, a white Southern president fond of using the N-word. Long before former Attorney General and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions became embroiled in a discussion about racism and his decision to make it harder to reform police departments with a history of abusing black and brown residents, there was Alabama Senator Hugo Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who became a U.S. Supreme Court justice who voted to end racial segregation – but also to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.

Justice Hugo Black

Addressing reporters in 1937, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black declined to comment on his alleged membership in the Ku Klux Klan

We mislead our audiences when we tell only the half those stories. As journalists, we mislead ourselves by not knowing the full complexity of such stories.

White supremacy convinced the U.S. to prioritize prominently honoring Americans such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson over Americans such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. In the U.S. capital, there are massive monuments for Washington and Jefferson, not Tubman and Douglass. Never mind that Tubman was as accomplished a soldier as Washington and Douglass as impressive a thinker as Jefferson, or that Washington and Jefferson enslaved others as they fought for their own freedom and Tubman and Douglass spent their adult lives freeing the enslaved.

And the issue isn’t going away. November’s presidential matchup is presumed to be between Trump and Biden, which will present yet another journalistic dilemma, as inadvertently explained by Biden himself when he said that Trump is “more George Wallace than George Washington.”

Washington “owned” black people because they were black, but he was also an architect of what became one of the freest nations in world history. Wallace was a prominent white segregationist who used overt white supremacy to gain and maintain political power but whose personal racial views were more nuanced. Before he used racism and bigotry to supercharge his political career, Wallace was a trustee at a historically black college. Late in life, he visited the church where Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor, apologized for his past, and was largely forgiven by black voters in Alabama. Civil rights icon congressman John Lewis said Wallace should be remembered for “his capacity to change.”

Biden was the choice of the nation’s first black president to be vice president, and he is the choice of most black Democratic voters – the voting bloc that resurrected his campaign and essentially turned him into the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. But he was also the architect of a crime bill that escalated mass incarceration that was already being built on the backs of black and brown men, a crime bill that was supported by two thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus and a bevy of black activists.

It is wrong to say that either Biden or Wallace was only about white supremacy. But it is also clear that each of them has helped root in white supremacy in different ways.

While I was processing my feelings about yet more black people being killed on video, Biden flippantly told a black radio talk show host that those who aren’t supporting Biden “ain’t black,” igniting a few days of coverage of an issue that will surely be revisited during the campaign. Journalists who don’t commit themselves to understanding the complexities and contradictions inherent in white supremacy – and the commonplace dilemmas groups such as black, Native American, and Latino voters are frequently confronted with – won’t be able to help their audiences understand the nuances at play.

It would be unwise for journalists to believe white supremacy is only about self-avowed or violent white supremacists

That’s why a Biden-Trump matchup would challenge journalists once again. To ignore Trump’s problematic association with racists and white supremacists would be journalistic malpractice. To suggest Biden’s history is just like Trump’s would be misleading.

“The language around race and racism has to accommodate the difference between people bent on racial supremacy and those who are ignorant, unwise or beset with bias, unconscious or otherwise,” says Keith Woods, NPR’s vice president of newsroom training and diversity. “I think the push to flatten the definition of white supremacy to all but eliminate motive and intent and the distinctions between someone like Trump and someone like Biden makes it nearly impossible to know where to put your energy in combatting bigotry.”

It would be as silly for journalists to call Biden a white supremacist or racist as it would be to call me a white supremacist or racist, even if Biden’s critics on the left sometimes label him as such. There is scant evidence that Biden chose his policies, including his opposition to busing, with the intent to harm black people or that he believes white people are superior. But the racial harm he caused is real and helped root in a white supremacy that was already pervasive.

And yet, even as I wrote this and interviewed others about this topic, I feared I would sound alarmist, even if I provided the kind of nuance and context necessary to be accurate on such a fraught subject. I feared that readers wouldn’t be able to divorce themselves from preconceived notions – especially journalists who spent the past few years seeming more concerned about the label “racist” being used to describe Trump voters than the harm caused to black and brown communities by Trump’s policies.

My hesitancy begs the question: Does the journalistic tendency to be so careful with race make it easier for racial distortions to take root?

Would stating the facts more forthrightly, and with labels such as “white supremacy” and “racism,” make it easier to identify and rid ourselves of racial disparities?

When it comes to dealing with the issue of white supremacy and racism in the Trump era, Dean Baquet of The New York Times prefers the “show, not tell” principle. He made that clear in interviews and during a town hall meeting in August of 2019 at the Times, during which many journalists disagreed. Asked by The Guardian if he believed Trump is a racist, Baquet responded, “I don’t know. I think Donald Trump says racially divisive things. I think that’s a little bit different. I’m not in his head enough to know whether he says them because he wants to stoke his base.”

He went on, “I will tell you the most powerful writing I’ve ever seen about race, as a black man who grew up in the South, did not use the word “racist.” It quoted people saying what they had to say, and described the world they live in. And you made your own judgment. And the judgment was pretty clear. And I think that’s the way to write about Donald Trump and everybody else. It’s just to let them talk.”

Woods, of NPR, also believes the bar for using those labels must be high. Just as many within The New York Times’s newsroom disagree with Baquet, many inside NPR disagree with Woods. “I think there won’t be a day where a rule or even guideline will adequately cover all the variations,” Woods says. “I’ll offer this one: our role is to report without equivocation what we know to be true; to attribute and contextualize characterizations, assertions, and labels for everything else, and to vigilantly seek to distinguish between the two. I think a standard that begins with the highest form of proof – I saw it; I heard it; I uncovered it; they admitted it – would leave us to attribute most things” rather than use those labels, Woods said.

How does that apply to Trump, who has a long and well-documented history of saying and doing racist and bigoted things?

Intent matters, of course, and it is true that intent is nearly impossible to determine. But why must we know what’s in Trump’s head when we have overwhelming evidence of words and deeds from throughout his adult life?

That standard would mean journalists can show that the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally — such as Jason Kessler, whom friends described to The Washington Post as a former Barack Obama supporter — are white supremacists but not say they are, because Kessler believes he is neither racist nor a white supremacist. That standard would make it a journalistic non-starter to use such labels for Trump, given that Trump says he is the least racist person in the world.

It would also mean we can’t call a white police officer who knees a black man in the neck as that black man pleads for help before losing consciousness racist or a white supremacist. The same applies to the white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, none of whom would consider themselves to be racist or white supremacist. Maybe we should avoid the labels and just focus on their horrific acts.

But shouldn’t journalists be able to say that a person who repeatedly does and says certain things over many years actually intended to do and say those things?

Journalists also struggled with how to explain the decision by a large number of white voters to flock to a candidate whose intimate association with white supremacy was well documented. I’m not talking about Trump in 2016; I’m talking about David Duke in 1990.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote about how the media tried to explain away why Duke won almost half the vote in Louisiana and nearly became a U.S. senator because so many white voters chose him. Journalists explained away Duke’s appeal among white Louisiana residents as “economic angst,” just as they would a quarter of a century later to explain Trump’s political success.

Think of that. Journalists could not bring themselves to grapple with the reality of white supremacy even as a large number of white people tried to make one of the most well-known white supremacists in U.S. history a senator two and a half decades after the Civil Rights Act became law.

It was my trip to Ghana that forced me to look anew at a United States that built monuments to honor the enslavers, not the enslaved. In Ghana, I visited a “slave castle,” where slaves were housed before they were shipped overseas into a forever bondage, that included two spaces where Christian church services were held for enslaved people. I saw indigent black men and women praising a white Christian God introduced to them by men who stole black bodies centuries earlier. I listened to black men apologizing for the role their ancestors played in a slave trade that demonized and then profited from dark skin.

I was there on a missions trip with my church, a church founded by a black man who has been involved in the civil rights fight for decades. I went because Ghana is one of the West African countries from which I’m most likely descended. I needed to see the place, touch the people. I led a journalism workshop for Ghanaian journalists, assisted a dentist who pulled rotting teeth, and explored poverty-stricken areas that reminded me of scenes I experienced growing up in St. Stephen, South Carolina.

It was my way of apologizing for having allowed white supremacy to color how I viewed the continent, though even after that experience I tended to highlight places such as New Zealand and South Korea when talking about countries that had successfully managed the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic and ignored all the successes of African countries that also managed it well despite fewer resources.

It was a surreal experience, the first time I remember ever letting my racial guard down. I didn’t have to wonder if the subpar service or side glances from strangers we received at restaurants, hotels, and in villages had anything to do with my skin color, which is always top of mind in my native South Carolina. In that way, race didn’t matter. Most everyone had dark skin like me.

Does the journalistic tendency to be so careful with race make it easier for racial distortions to take root?

Still, I knew that they knew I was more American than African, that white supremacy had forever stamped their country, not just with the slave trade, but an untold number of foreign policy decisions made by presidents in the United States of America.

I was in awe of the hope there despite the destitution too many of them faced. I was also saddened that much of that faith was inspired by a white American form of Christianity that has never been incompatible with white supremacy.

While Ghana forced me to look anew at my relationship with racism and white supremacy, the Trump era has done the same for a media that hasn’t settled on the most appropriate way to even label such things. Today, does it really make sense to only explore this issue through people like Richard Spencer and Dylann Roof and not Trump? Or Trump voters? Or Democrats? Or even black men like me?

We go wrong on the issue of race – particularly white supremacy – when we treat it as a kind of third rail of journalism instead of dealing with it as we do all other difficult-to-understand topics: Commit to learning everything about it we can.

When as a young journalist I was charged with creating the first full-time real estate beat at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that’s what I did. I knew little about mortgage rates and less about what made it a “strong” year for sales in our area versus a weak one. That’s why I began by quizzing veteran real estate journalists across the country. I had to learn about the relationship between gas prices, the 10-year-bond, and the unemployment rate. I had to tailor what realtors and analysts meant by “affordable home” in our area compared to other markets. I had to be able to explain why rapidly rising home prices were great for the market overall, particularly homeowners, and horrific for those trying to buy into a market where the average weekly wages were among the lowest in the nation.

To provide better, more sophisticated coverage, journalists must commit to not treating race and white supremacy as things unknowable or only to be explored in ham-fisted ways after a white supremacist kills an equal rights activist at a high-profile white supremacist rally.

To get this right, we need to be able to see the complex interplay of racism and everyday American realities. In the South, black residents like me are told to make peace with public monuments and memorials honoring the men who raped and murdered our ancestors and state constitutions in which white supremacy was purposefully embedded. Nationally, few of us are bothered that enslavers are honored on the currency we carry in our wallets and purses, though we’d condemn Germany had that country forced Jewish residents to use money that honored the Third Reich.

The 1619 Project by The New York Times made these uncomfortable and inconvenient truths harder to ignore. Our audiences would be served well if more of us followed their lead. Given the recent killings of black people and how the coronavirus has disproportionately affected black communities, such unflinching explorations of our racial history are more urgent than ever. If uncovering and presenting the truth is the goal of journalism, there’s no other way.

An earlier version of this story, in reference to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, did not adhere to our style regarding the use of “murder.” “Murder” is reserved for a homicide in which a person has been convicted of that charge.

 

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