Carl Paladino speaks before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump  at JetSmart Aviation Services in Rochester, N.Y. in April

Carl Paladino speaks before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at JetSmart Aviation Services in Rochester, N.Y. in April

Asked about his hopes for 2017 by a weekly newspaper, Buffalo, N.Y. school board member Carl Paladino said last month he hoped First Lady Michelle Obama would “return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

News outlets’ descriptions of Paladino’s remarks ranged from “vile and racist” (The Washington Post), “widely condemned” (The Wall Street Journal) and “racist” (The New York Times). The Associated Press declined to use an adjective, simply calling the statements “insults.” The spectrum of characterization reflects the media’s uncertainty when writing about racism.

What’s the difference between comments that are ‘racially charged’, ‘racially offensive’ or ‘racially insensitive’? What raises an incident to the nuclear option of ‘racist’? And how much does readers’ (mis)understanding of race in America stem from journalists’ (in)ability to describe an increasingly polarized world with precision and context?

Race and racism aren’t topics on which most journalists have formal training. And there’s little incentive to develop an expertise. Job postings ask for proficiency with Nexis and Pacer, CSS and JavaScript. But I’ve never seen a job posting that asked applicants to demonstrate a deep understanding about the difference between stereotypes and prejudice, or discrimination and racism.

This matters, because racist associations have real-life consequences.

In a 2008 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of researchers found Americans make unconscious associations between apes and African-Americans. The team, led by Phillip Atiba Goff, then at Penn State, and Jennifer Eberhardt at Stanford University, conducted six experiments to test the association.

In one, participants were primed with a set of words associated with apes or another set of words associated with big cats. Then they watched videos of police beating a suspect they believed to be white or black. “Participants were more likely to believe that the beating the Black suspect received was justified when primed with apes than with big cats,” the researchers wrote. “Black-ape association … increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects.” Even though few participants said they knew about the stereotype of blacks as apes, the association persists, the researchers wrote, “without the benefit of explicit cultural knowledge.”

In another experiment by the same team, researchers reviewed stories about 153 death penalty cases covered by The Philadelphia Inquirer between 1979 and 1999. The stories were then scored for ape-relevant words like ‘beast’, ‘hairy’, ‘jungle’, ‘savage’ and ‘wild’. “Black defendants are more likely to be portrayed as apelike in news coverage than White defendants,” the researchers wrote. “This portrayal is associated with a higher probability of state-sponsored executions.”

Words matter, warns Meta DuEwa Jones, an associate professor of African American literature at Howard University. “Words are the bricks in the house of language,” she says, and the mortar used to make the bricks “has been sullied by anti-black and anti-brown belief systems. These subtly and not so subtly undermine even writers with the best intentions when they work to describe racist actions.”

So what can journalists do?

GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization, has a LGBT media guide that can help journalists avoid unintentionally offensive language. But the National Association of Black Journalists’ style guide doesn’t include an entry on racism, although the guide does caution that ‘bias’ and ‘discrimination’ “are not interchangeable, even for the sake of a good headline count.” Bias is an attitude or state of mind against a person, the guide says, while discrimination is an action sparked by that bias.

Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation has perhaps the most detailed race reporting guide, but it doesn’t distinguish between ‘racially offensive’ and ‘racism’. It defines ‘racism’ as an “historically rooted system of power hierarchies based on race—infused in our institutions, policies and culture—that benefit White people and hurt people of color.”

The Associated Press Stylebook offers only general rules about racial identification.

Still, the absence of industry-wide guidelines is no excuse. Journalists can and should wrestle with the language we use to describe these incidents. Failure to do so is a disservice to our readers, listeners and viewers.

Here’s why Paladino’s comments about Michelle Obama were racist.
They were racist because comparing black people to animals in general—and primates specifically—is a centuries-old trope employed to dehumanize black people and justify their subjugation. Insinuating that Michelle Obama’s rightful place is in the company of a gorilla also serves to reinforce white people as the superior race, which is the dictionary definition of racism. That context may be too long to make it into every story, but a shortened version could certainly be included by thoughtful reporters and editors who want to write responsibly about race and racism.

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