White racism flourishes in the United States in America for a variety of reasons. Its historical roots stretch back hundreds of years, to even before there was officially a USA. But it has staying power in a rapidly diversifying nation because of a compliant, or cowardly, overwhelmingly white media unwilling or unable to commit to one of its supposed principles: to call a thing by its true name.
A white president of the United States who first made headlines in the 1970s because his family’s business refused to rent to black people, who kicked off his campaign deeming most Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, who has a long history of saying, doing and proposing racist and bigoted things, in a series of racist tweets tells four congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries they came from.
It is one of the most well-known racist tropes in American history, up there with comparing black people to apes or talking about our supposed fetish for watermelon. There is nothing subtle about the insult. Instead of editors and writers in newsrooms throughout the country just calling this tweet by its true name—racist—they hemmed, they hawed, they made up mean-nothing words … for what end, I don’t even know.
In a moment in which clarity is worth its weight in gold, media once again stumbled down the confused path when most Americans are desperately looking for some direction so they can figure out what the heck is going on and what the heck they should think and do about it.
‘Yes, this is what racism looks like,’ we should be screaming to them—not as an editorial opinion, but as a fact.
If what Donald Trump has done, including rising to national political prominence after spending five years being the primary bullhorn of birthers, doesn’t constitute racism, nothing ever has and nothing ever will. If you don’t want to say he is a “racist” and want to split the same hairs we split between “Is he a liar?” or does he just tell a lot of lies, the “He has said many racist things over the course of decades” escape hatch is there for those who need it.
But not many seem to be strong enough to do even that. This is just a replay of the tired “economic angst” debate about Trump voters, which continues to this day even though study after study has shown that racial animus or fear were stronger predictors of the Trump vote than economic factors.
As Paul Farhi of The Washington Post detailed, news organizations struggled to “accurately” label Trump’s words:
“Tweets critics are calling racist”
“Racially charged tweet”
“… what they call racist comments”
“… many people saw the tweets as racist”
Let’s just be honest. This handwringing would not be happening if most newsrooms were mostly populated and led by people of color rather than white people.
For those who need further nuance: Of course, there is not a “white” way and a “black” way to do journalism. But it’s hard to deny that if you randomly chose 100 black journalists to start a new publication and randomly chose 100 white journalists for another, the publications’ focus, tenor, feel, style would likely differ. That’s one of the reasons having a critical mass of diversity in a given newsroom should be a primary goal everywhere. We shouldn’t delve into racist stereotypes; neither should we deny that race is a central factor in how we experience and are viewed by the world.
At this point, there is no other plausible explanation. Every sensible journalistic principle—the proper use of context, the need for accuracy, holding the powerful to account, using the right damn word, not the almost right damn word—would lead to the use of “racist tweets,” if simply followed. You either have to ignore or bend those standards to land on mean-nothing “racially charged” or some other derivative.
Journalists of color have simply not had this problem in the Trump era, likely because we have the most experience with the issue. But instead of mostly-white newsrooms doing what they do on other issues, relying upon those with the most insight, experience and expertise to guide us through, they’ve either ignored us—thinking we are the ones blinded by race, because the possibility that it is white journalists who are blinded by race never registers as even a stray thought in their brains – or even pat us on the head by inviting us to intense meetings, telling us how invaluable our voices are, then commit to producing gobbledygook in their copy like “tweets some are calling racist.”
But I’m convinced part of the reluctance is just good old-fashioned cowardice. For many white journalists, having to confront the issue of race this way can be uncomfortable for personal reasons. Maybe they’ve told a colleague or a former friend or stranger to “go back” to where they came from in a heated moment. Maybe they’ve heard their mom or sister or brother or beloved cousin—or pastor or favorite teacher—do that, or other relatedly racist things.
And if they label Trump racist, or what he said as racist, what does that say about their loved ones and friends? What does that say about themselves? Are they racist, too?
While I understand that internal struggle, white journalists have to get over themselves and get their race blind spots out of the way.
That doesn’t mean any of them are racist—any more than it means that I am or was a racist because I, too, occasionally gave into those voices. I’m a black dude who started my daily news career in red state South Carolina in a market where white conservatives were the most numerous and boisterous. I got to love and respect them on a personal and professional level, which is why it made it difficult for me to just call a thing by its true name then. Gentle, good-natured prodding was my preferred approach.
I don’t regret relying upon that kind of tool—just that I sometimes cherished it more than the unvarnished truth.