Covering Race: A Deep White Sleep

Covering Race: A Deep White Sleep

By Loren Ghiglione

Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 8-9

Can three voices from the past help us improve press coverage of race? Recall the messages of three Americans: Harry Golden, Robert Maynard, and Ralph Ellison. Cigar-chomping humorist Harry Golden kept alive his Charlotte, North Carolina monthly, The Carolina Israelite, from 1942 to 1968, despite advertising boycotts orchestrated by white supremacists. He used wit to express his support for desegregation, earlier than most below the Mason-Dixon line. Recognizing that bank counters, supermarkets, and department stores allowed whites and blacks to stand in the same line, Golden proposed his “Vertical Negro Plan”: Take the seats out of schools and have all students stand at their desks.

Golden also implemented his “Out-of-Order Plan” by persuading a department store owner to turn off the water to a “White Only” fountain and slap on an “Out of Order” sign. Within three days Golden wrote, whites — without even a whimper of complaint — were drinking “segregated water” from the “Negro” fountain. If Golden were alive today, he might be proposing, now that “Interngate” is over, a press quarantine plan for Washington. The nation’s news organizations would be required to remove all their reporters from covering the White House and other over reported Washington beats in favor of covering underreported parts of the world and institutions.

Suddenly The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, serving a city that sees itself as important to African-Americans and interested in Africa, would have a correspondent in Africa. Suddenly newspapers would be regularly covering nursing homes, mental institutions, and prisons — usually over looked by the press except for stories about executions.

Prisons are especially on my mind, I suppose, because I took my journalism ethics students to Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation. Accompanied by Wilbert Rideau, the “lifer” who edits the famous Angolite prison news magazine, the students interviewed prisoners, including several on death row.

If the press is struggling to find ways to introduce a serious discussion of race into its pages, then it might want to read and listen to Rideau talk about Angola. In an article titled “The Sexual Jungle,” for example, he talked about race as a factor in sexual violence. He quoted a study that showed 56 percent of Philadelphia jail rapes were black on white; 29 percent were black-on-black and only 15 percent were white-on white. Rape was not a matter of sex as much as a weapon of power and prestige, racial subjugation and revenge.

Robert Maynard was the first African-American owner of a historically white metropolitan daily, The Oakland Tribune. Robert and his wife, Nancy, pushed the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) to adopt in 1978 a goal for the newspaper industry — that its newsrooms be as diverse as the United States population by the year 2000. With months to go, people of color make up 26 percent of the population and only 11.5 percent of reporters and editors.

Last year, I was asked by the president of ASNE to present to its board a set of recommendations to ensure that the Year 2000 goal of racial ethnic parity would at least be achieved early in the 21st century.

As is the habit of academics, I responded with a long- winded 14,000-word report, filled with a dozen recommendations. But really the problem is not one of new ideas but of old-fashioned will. If you want coverage of the total community, you need news industry bosses de voted to achieving newsroom diversity.

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Newspapers know that minority internships — which appear to be gradually declining — work. They know that ASNE’s eight minority job fairs a year — which once numbered sixteen a year — work. They know that the setting of diversity goals by news organizations work. They know that offering “management of objective” financial rewards for achieving diversity goals works. They know that monitoring and measuring progress toward achieving those goals works for Gannett and other companies. As Wall Street Journal Senior Editor Joseph Boyce said

“This is a question of will. The editors who make up ASNE are the same people responsible for this not getting done.”

Ralph Ellison saw the black press as an antidote to white blindness.

“That [black press] has not been read and still isn’t read by most whites today is to their disadvantage and to our detriment,”

he wrote.

“This country cannot be run without adequate reporting from all levels, directions and frontiers.”

As a subscriber to the Atlanta Daily World and the Atlanta Inquirer, I agree with Ellison. But I also think Ellison is making a broader point, a point worth emphasizing. Bea Hines, who worked as a maid before she became the first African-American woman reporter at The Miami Herald, spoke eloquently at Emory University in Atlanta last year about her knowledge of white people — about what they ate from washing their dishes, about their personal life from cleaning their clothes and homes.

“But white folks aren’t as knowledgeable about people of color,”

Hines said.

I remembered her words while reading a Sunday New York Times column by Jana Wolff, a white woman who adopted an African-American infant boy.

“That’s when I woke up from a deep, white sleep,”

Wolff wrote.

“Suddenly racism, which had always existed outside my focus, became my focus. When children of color become your children, anonymous struggles become personal ones with names and faces that you know.”

I see the lip service paid to equality, diversity, and harmony as “the integration illusion,” to quote Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, authors of the recent book, By the Color of Our Skin.

“Integration really means managed tokenism,”

they write. Whites still flee neighborhoods when African-Americans buy houses or register for school. White reporters — and reporters of color — still socialize separately, for the most part. Businesses, including news companies, still maintain management ghettoes for people of color in public relations or community relations. College life, religious life, virtually every part of life divides along racial lines. Integration depends on tireless effort. Few people seem willing to make that effort.

Loren Ghiglione, former director of the Journalism Program at Emory University, is now director of the Annenberg School of Communication’s School of Journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) from1989-1990. This essay is excerpted from his talk at the “What’s Right and Wrong about News Coverage of Race” panel held at Emory in February of 1999. Photo of Harry Golden provided by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Public Library. Photo of Robert Maynard provided by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.