Articles about "Race reporting"


Herman Cain in 2011 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In conversations about race and media, Twitter’s limitations show

It may have been the the oddest 90 minutes of my media-watching life courtesy of Twitter, where hot-button issues such as race, prejudice and media can quickly turn toxic in 140-character bursts.

The first real sign of trouble came on Tuesday evening from Tim Graham, an official at the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center and Newsbusters.org. Though we don’t agree on much politically, he is one of the few conservatives willing to have regular conversations with me about media, so I was a little surprised to see this note from him on news that former Democratic political operative Karen Finney would host a weekend show for MSNBC.:

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Photographer, trooper from Klan rally image meet

Athens Banner-Herald | Gainesville Times
Former Georgia state trooper Allen Campbell met Tuesday with Todd Robertson, who photographed a child in a Ku Klux Klan robe looking at Campbell two decades ago.

Photo courtesy Lee Shearer/Athens Banner-Herald

“The State Patrol made me be there. His momma and daddy made him be there,” Campbell tells the Athens Banner-Herald’s Lee Shearer. Campbell remembered being “ticked off” about being at the rally, but less because of its racial implications than when it occurred. Read more

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How KKK rally image found new life 20 years after it was published

Buried on Page B1, alongside the hum-drum headline “KKK march calm,” a powerful image of race relations in the southern United States was nearly lost. In fact, it almost wasn’t published at all.

And in the 20 years since, this emotionally complex photograph of a Klan-robed toddler playfully touching the riot shield of a bemused African-American state trooper has gone uncelebrated and largely unknown.

Photo by Todd Robertson, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Now, thanks to a few twists of fate, the photo has been granted a second life through social media, where each viewer seems to read something different into the image. Is it disturbing? Hopeful? Humorous? Touching? Heartbreaking?

Many who have shared the photo online admit they know little about its origins, which is understandable. Aside from a few basic details, such as the photographer’s name and a rough guess on the year, the full story behind this photo has never appeared online until today.

After first seeing the photo shared on Facebook a month ago, I decided to track down the photographer, who now describes himself as “a 45-year-old cabinet designer who has nothing to do with pictures.” In a recent phone interview, Todd Robertson shared the full story, which proved even more interesting than I’d imagined.

Of course, it all begins on the day the image was captured: Sept. 5, 1992.

The Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally in the northeast Georgia community of Gainesville, where the white supremacist group hoped to breathe some life into its flagging revival campaign of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Assigned as a backup photographer for the local daily, The Gainesville Times, was Robertson, a 1991 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism. He had a few recurring gigs, including shooting high school football for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but a full-time photojournalism job had proved elusive.

At the Klan rally, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of action for Robertson to record. According to news reports from the day, there were 66 KKK representatives, encircled by three times as many law enforcement personnel. The downtown square was otherwise empty, with about 100 observers at the fringe, mostly there to demonstrate against the Klan.

The white supremacists were out-of-towners with no real local support in Gainesville. “Many people who came to these Klan events were not from here,” recalls Gainesville Times new media editor Michael Beard in an email to me about the photo’s history. “I’ve lived here all my life and can only recall seeing someone in a Klan outfit one single time, standing alone at an intersection trying to hand out papers.”

While reporters and the staff photographer focused on the speakers at the rally and watched for potential signs of conflict, Robertson chose to follow a mother and her two young boys, dressed in white robes and the KKK’s iconic pointy hats.

One of the boys approached a black state trooper, who was holding his riot shield on the ground. Seeing his reflection, the boy reached for the shield, and Robertson snapped the photo. Almost immediately, the mother swooped in and took away the toddler, whom she identified to Robertson as “Josh.” The moment was fleeting, and almost no one noticed it, but Robertson had captured it on film.

And a roll of film seemed to be where it was destined to stay. Back at the newspaper office, Robertson was told his photos weren’t worth developing because the staff photographer had come back with plenty of good images from the rally. A photograph of a Klan leader was selected to be the primary shot for the Local section cover.

On his own initiative, Robertson took his film to a local one-hour photo developer and brought a stack of 4×6 prints back to the newspaper office. He was showing the photo of the young boy and the trooper to a few reporters when the managing editor walked by.

“He grabbed it up, walked directly to the photo guy and said, ‘This picture’s running in the paper,’” Robertson says. “That staff photographer and I are still friends, but we weren’t that day.”

While it only appeared in black-and-white on Page B1 of a small community newspaper, the photo also hit the Associated Press wire, where it sparked some unexpected attention.

Robertson was soon contacted by producers for “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” which wanted to feature the young boy and his mother. As with many such requests since then, Robertson wasn’t able to provide any contact information for the family, which he guessed lived in or around Winder, Ga., because of their affiliation with the Klan’s Winder Knights sect.

It’s hard to know where else the photograph ran in those initial days, though Robertson heard of it appearing in several European tabloids.

Gainesville Times editors submitted the shot for a state Associated Press award, which it won in the Feature Photo category. But that, Robertson says, was the photo’s only official recognition.

By all logic, the photo’s legacy should have ended there. The newspaper wasn’t yet posting content to the Internet, so the photo would only live on microfilm. (As recently as December 2012, the newspaper’s editors said they were unsure where to find the original article because the exact date of the rally had been forgotten. Luckily, the Hall County Library was able to help me dig up the scan of the photo’s original appearance in print.)

As for Robertson, he soon decided to give up his dream of being a professional photographer and join his father’s local cabinetry business, Area Decor, where he is now a project manager. He got married, had twins, kept himself plenty busy. When the family travels, he refuses to take along any camera larger than a point-and-shoot, to keep himself from “going overboard and crawling around on the ground trying to get a shot.”

But fate still had plans for Robertson’s photography. In 1999, seven years after the Klan rally photograph was captured, the Southern Poverty Law Center decided to feature it prominently in a new pamphlet called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

Even those involved with the original publication don’t remember why or how they dug up Robertson’s photo, but once it was unearthed from the anti-hate organization’s extensive archive of news clippings, everyone knew it was a perfect fit for the publication, where it appears in full color across the booklet’s second page.

“I don’t know who found it or where it came up,” says Penny Weaver, longtime public affairs coordinator for the Alabama-based SPLC, in a phone interview for this story. “But that’s how it’s gotten wide distribution, because we have given away lots and lots of that handbook over the years.”

The nonprofit licensed the photo with Robertson for publication, and he provided them an uncropped color version, which is now prominently displayed in the group’s office. As the pamphlet circulated through multiple printings over the years, Weaver says her group was often contacted by admirers of the photo who wanted to order a poster version or learn more about it. She would refer all inquiries to Robertson, who says he responded to some but not all of the requests.

As online photo sharing exploded in 2011, the photograph appeared (with no caption other than “Awwwww”) on a popular photo blog called The Meta Picture. Right away, commenters began to have a debate that’s now a standard byproduct of the image: Is it cute, sad or disturbing?

“Not *awww*, this kid is the next white supremacist generation,” notes the first commenter.

“You’re completely missing the point,” responds another. “This kid has no idea how to hate yet. It’s cute. If he becomes ‘the next white supremacist generation’ it won’t be his fault.”

Other bloggers shared the photo and added what little context they could find. Robertson noticed the spike in activity and, in July 2012, even posted his first-ever statement about the photograph as a comment on the blog 22 Words. “I will never be able to live without someone finding this picture,” Robertson wrote, then gave a few reflections on the events of that day.

The slow burn of the photo’s digital rebirth continues to flare up in seemingly random places. On Dec. 10, 2012, the image was shared on Facebook by a gay-rights page called “Have a Gay Day.” The image sparked 1,700 likes and 850 shares in one day.

“I have stared at this picture and wondered what must have been going through that Trooper’s mind,” wrote the gay-rights advocate who posted it to Facebook. “Before the Trooper is an innocent child who is being taught to hate him because of the color of his skin. The child doesn’t understand what he is being taught, and at this point he doesn’t seem to care.”

This comment captures what makes Robertson’s photo so compelling. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that you could spend hours reflecting on, finding different nuances and interpretations. It becomes a sort of Rorschach test for each commenter’s worldview. It might leave you hopeful that hate isn’t a trait we’re born with. Or it might make you depressed about the fact that many children are destined to be corrupted and psychologically misshapen.

Ball State University even built a one-hour lesson plan around the photograph for high school educators as part of the college’s “Learning from a Legacy of Hate” teacher toolkit. Called the “Kiddie Klan Exercise,” it includes questions such as “What do you think is going on in the officer’s head at this moment? What are his facial expressions saying?” and “Would you feel differently about this picture if the officer that ‘Josh’ is interacting with was not African-American?”

“The whole key to that picture is the expression on that trooper’s face,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Penny Weaver. “I think that expression is … what’s the word to describe it? It’s like a sort of sadness.”

Robertson himself interprets the trooper’s reaction as a mix of “disgust and sorrow.”

“They felt sorry for the kid,” he says. “You could tell that kid did not know the difference between that day and Halloween.”

The photo’s online revival has had a complicated effect on Robertson, who thought he had moved past his photojournalism life many years ago. He enjoys seeing the comments and wishes he could help the many viewers who want to know what ever happened to “Josh.” But at the same time, it can feel strange reflecting back on one moment two decades ago.

“I just really don’t even know what to say about it. It seems like it was a whole world ago. It’s almost like another life that I lived 20 years ago.

“I was looking in the right direction, I guess.”

Update: Photographer, trooper from Klan rally image meet

David Griner is a contributing editor for Adweek.com and VP/Director of Digital Content for Alabama-based marketing agency Luckie & Company. He previously served as city editor for a community newspaper in Northern California and as a reporter and political columnist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @Griner. Read more

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ‘Police Beat’ column identifies suspects by race

Arkansas Times
Managing editor Frank Fellone says the paper has used race in the column “for years and years,” and that the newsroom standard is “to use all available information provided by the police.” The Democrat-Gazette’s policy is “at odds with the conventions of many other news outlets, which avoid racial or ethnic identifiers unless they’re important or, in some cases, if victims provide detailed descriptions,” writes Lindsey Millar of the Arkansas Times. When asked if he had a sense that his paper’s standard for using racial information in crime reports was unconventional compared to other newsrooms, Fellone told Millar: “I don’t know.” Read more

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Chicago Tribune readers question failure to mention race in attacks

Chicago Tribune | Chicago Now
Chicago’s recent downtown “flash mob” attacks have made the front-pages and led local TV newscasts, but Mary Schmich points out that what “you haven’t read in the Tribune or seen explicitly stated by most of the official media [is that] the young men were black.” She quotes a reader:

I can’t imagine that if a gang of white teenagers went to the South Side of Chicago and began attacking African-Americans including a 68-year-old that the race card would be left out of your coverage. … I see a media double standard here.

Schmich’s view:

I’m ambivalent about the omission of the attackers’ race in the news accounts, but I think I would have decided to leave it out too.

As an editor pointed out when I asked about it, the crimes don’t appear to be racially motivated. There’s no sign the criminals picked victims because they were of a certain race. They picked them because they had certain stuff.

Former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dennis Byrne wants the media to identify the race of the aggressors and victims. “It is information that we all need to help understand and solve the problem. It’s a symptom of a hurt crying for a cure,” he writes. Read more

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Chat Replay: How Can Journalists Draw Line Between Political Incorrectness & Bigotry?

Juan Williams’ departure from NPR raises an important question about where, and how, to draw the line between political incorrectness and bigotry.

Williams, a longtime news analyst for NPR, was released from his contract for comments he made on “The O’Reilly Factor” Monday night. When asked to comment on the notion that America is facing a dilemma with Muslims, Williams said: “When I get on the plane … if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

His departure comes on the heels of CNN’s decision to let go of Rick Sanchez after he called “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart a bigot and implied CNN and other networks are all run by Jewish people. And several months ago, Helen Thomas resigned after making remarks about Jews and Israel that some found offensive.

Some have said Williams’ removal seems unjustified. At what point are journalists’ remarks about people of another race, ethnicity or religion politically incorrect or grounds for firing? And how can these comments affect the way their colleagues and news consumers view them and their organizations? How much opinion can journalists in certain roles express, and how much is too much?

We talked about these questions and more in a live chat today. You can revisit this link at any time to watch a replay of the chat.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=d0400a5e69″ >When do opinions cross from politically incorrect to bigoted?</a> Read more

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Study Finds 20 Percent of Sexually Active Gay, Bisexual Men Have AIDS

A new Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 20 percent, or one in five, gay men who are sexually active have HIV. Forty four percent of those who tested positive said they did not know they had the virus. The study is based on tests and interviews with 8,000 men from 21 different U.S. cities.

The study says that overall, less than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population is infected with AIDS, but sexually active gay and bisexual men are affected at much higher rates. An Associated Press story (linked to above) talked about how race plays into the findings:

“Black men were more likely to have HIV, with 28 percent reportedly infected, compared to 18 percent of Hispanic men and 16 percent of white men.

“Black men were also least likely to know they were infected — about 60 percent didn’t know they had HIV — compared 46 percent of Hispanic men and 26 percent of whites.” Read more

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Black Farmers Have Yet to See Money from $1.25 Billion Settlement

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled a federal discrimination case filed by black farmers. The government had promised $1.25 billion to be paid out in sums of up to $50,000 for qualified farmers, but the Senate has since refused to fund the settlement. So farmers who thought they had settled their case have not. This week, they protested in front of the Department of Agriculture.

The original lawsuit, called Pigford I, claimed that farmers were being denied farm loans and crop supports because they were black. The suit represented 15,000 to 20,000 black farmers. The applications were evaluated by county committees.

The lawsuit pointed out that, “Nationwide, only 37 county commissioners were African American out of a total of 8147 commissioners.” It went on to say that, sometimes, it was not just an outright denial of an application: “In several southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer.”

NPR provided additional background:

“In 1997 Pigford I, the first USDA settlement, provided 13,000 farmers with $50,000 each and debt relief. Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer, and 400 other African Americans had filed a class-action suit against the USDA, alleging bias in allocation of farm loans and assistance. For decades their complaints were ignored or got a slow response. Pigford II occurred after the USDA admitted that thousands of other black farmers’ claims from the 1990s went uninvestigated.

“John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, says that bills to fund the settlement have failed seven times in the Senate, and a black-farmer attachment was taken out of the recent farm-aid disaster bill. ‘We have been working on our restitution for 26 years,’ Boyd says.”

The lawsuit tells a few stories to illustrates how black farmers were treated:

“Mr. Calvin Brown from Brunswick County, Virginia applied in January 1984 for an operating loan for that planting season. When he inquired later that month about the status of his loan application, a FmHA county supervisor told him that the application was being processed. The next month, the same FmHA county supervisor told him that there was no record of his application ever having been filed and that Mr. Brown had to reapply. By the time Mr. Brown finally received his loan in May or June 1984, the planting season was over, and the loan was virtually useless to him. In addition, the funds were placed in a ‘supervised’ bank account, which required him to obtain the signature of a county supervisor before withdrawing any funds, a requirement frequently required of African American farmers but not routinely imposed on white farmers.

“In 1994, the entire county of Greene County, Alabama where Mr. George Hall farmed was declared eligible for disaster payments on 1994 crop losses. Every single application for disaster payments was approved by the Greene County Committee except Mr. Hall’s application for four of his crops.”

NPR says that despite this week’s protests and the fact that the government agreed to pay the settlement, it is difficult for senators to vote for anything that costs $1 billion these days:

“In August alone, Senate Republicans blocked the settlement twice. Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, asks, ‘Don’t these legislators in states suffering economically know the money will boost the income in their state?’

“Money is the fuel of politics. But with the November polls looming, senators who vote to give anyone more than $1 billion, even if it was agreed on long ago, worry that voting to pay the black farmers could cost them re-election.’ “ Read more

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Bloggers Just As Squeamish Covering Race as Traditional Media

Well before the NAACP publicly called out the tea party last week for having racist elements in its ranks, questions about the racial attitudes of tea party supporters had been popping up in news stories, broadcasts and online forums. But they were just that — questions.

A sampling of recent headlines: “Are Tea Parties Racist?” and “Is the Tea Party Movement Racist?” and“But Isn’t the Tea Party Movement Racist?

The question marks in those headlines reflect a longstanding squeamishness by mainstream journalists in wrestling with race and racism. Racism has been a difficult subject for traditional journalism, with its insistence on letting all sides have an equal say. If someone alleges racism, find someone who will argue that it’s not racism and put him or her in the story too. Leave it to the readers to sort out. 

Racism is a judgment call, one that’s often not easy to make. It’s far easier to dig through a pile of public records to uncover a government scandal than it is to figure out whether the darkness of racism can be found inside someone’s heart.

The headlines cited above, though, were not from daily newspapers. They were from the blogosphere, where the standards of journalism are changing, where writers often seem more vested in arriving at a conclusion. The blogosphere is not burdened with the institutional voice of mainstream journalism. It is a place where everyone can have a voice and a valid opinion.

And yet that same squeamishness about race is evident in the Fifth Estate’s coverage of the tea party.

Yes, there were predictable claims by overtly partisan blogs and websites that the tea party was chock full of racists or, depending on the ideology of the person making the argument, that it was all a liberal smear job. 

And there were a handful of serious attempts to dig deeper into the question; John B. Judis of The New Republic stirred plenty of online debate with an article published in early June arguing that the tea party movement is not racist. But, on the whole, coverage of the question of racism in the tea party has not been noticeably different in the Fifth Estate than it was in the Fourth Estate.

Coverage of the issue picked up after the NAACP approved a resolution last week condemning what it called the “bigoted elements” within the tea party. It called on the movement’s leaders to repudiate the racist elements within their ranks.

E.J. Dionne Jr., a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, applauded the NAACP’s move in a columna couple of days later. He said the NAACP ensured that we will have an “honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the tea party.”

Dionne, who has written extensively about the tea party during the past year, said in an interview that the NAACP forced journalists to finally confront the question. “What the NAACP did was prod a conversation and coverage that I think should have happened earlier,” Dionne said.

While the volume of coverage has increased since the NAACP resolution, the coverage has largely been traditional and safe. That has been true in both the Fourth and Fifth Estates. 

There have been reports on the news of the day, the search for reaction from various political figures and the inevitable back-and-forth dogfight between the left and the right. There has been precious little coverage that digs deeper into the question and looks at the potential ramifications if, indeed, a significant right-wing political movement has racist tendencies.

Kai Wright, editorial director of ColorLines, an online magazine that deals with race and culture, says the Fifth Estate has some advantages in covering an issue like race. There is little impulse among bloggers not affiliated with legacy newsrooms, he said, to fall into the he said/she said format often found in traditional journalism. And he said there are plenty of voices on the Web who are not afraid to tackle identity politics.

“But even in the blogosphere,” he said, “there is still the underlying problem of not talking about race enough.” He said that trying to prove whether the tea party is racist is time not spent trying to look at how issues of race impact government policies on everything from health care to joblessness.

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“The conversation we’re having now is not that different from what we had three months ago, or will have three months from now,” he said. “It won’t change the way race shapes people’s lives.”

Arlene Notoro Morgan, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says journalists can and should play a role in helping people understand issues of race. But Morgan, who co-wrote a textbook on covering race and ethnicity, says it requires reporters to do more than get quotes from both sides of the debate.

“It’s just been knee-jerk,” she says of most of the recent coverage. “I don’t think we’re really doing good, authoritative, in-depth reporting about what’s going on. Journalists have to really dig deeper.” Read more

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Use Authentic Experiences, not Formulas, to Talk about Race

Watching and reading news reports about race in America is a depressing endeavor. Just this week, race has dominated the headlines, from racism in the ranks of the tea party to USDA’s Shirley Sherrod being dragged through the mud based on an edited video being posted on a prominent conservative blog.

Why is the press corps so bad at covering racial issues? Regardless of the circumstance, the players, and the nature of the problem, most stories about race follow the same format, almost to the letter. A journalist describes the issue at hand and poses the question, “Is this racist?” The reporter then interviews the principals or talks to a pundit (rarely is an expert tapped), presents both arguments, and ends the piece.

This is indicative of a much larger problem. Since race is such a polarized issue in the United States, reporters and pundits often avoid the messier threads, preferring a tighter, “neutral” story flow over our messy reality.

And even if an outlet chooses to tackle race without hiding behind the he-said-she-said formula, the subject is often treated in the most sensationalist way possible.

For example, take a recent Time magazine piece by Joel Stein called “My Own Private India.” This story was positioned as satire, but it relied heavily on racial stereotypes to explore an awkward and explosive topic: how immigration impacts small, traditionally white towns. While Stein attempts to get in a few jabs at white Americans, the effort fails as it still upholds racist language and ideas toward South Asians. One unfortunate section reads:

“Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians ‘dot heads.’ One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to ‘go home to India.’ In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

The blogosphere quickly mobilized and responded. Sepia Mutiny, a blog reflecting the lives and experiences of South Asian-Americans, quickly took Stein to the woodshed, with Anna John (a friend and fellow Poynter Sense-maker) breaking down why Steins’ words were so problematic:

“You ‘question’ the quality of Edison’s schools because you think ‘Dot Head’ was a mediocre epithet? Would dotbusters‘ have been more suitable? Yeah, I know, wrong place. They slaughtered a ‘Dot Head’ for the crime of being Indian over in Jersey City, not your precious, quondam white Edison.”

While the Mutineers found themselves in a conversation about whether Stein’s article fit the definition of racism, actor and former political appointee Kal Penn took to the pages of The Huffington Post to show how Stein’s “jokes” were not new or novel:

“Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I’d get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell ‘go back to India, dothead!’ I was always ROTFLMAO when people would assume that I wasn’t American. He really captured the brilliant humor in that one too!”

Time magazine quickly issued a statement saying the piece “was in no way intended to cause offense,” despite its use of racial slurs and an “us versus them” tone that is more often seen in antagonistic roundtables on CNN than in humorous columns.

Stein’s response to the controversy was similarly aggravating:

“I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.”

If Stein wanted to explore his discomfort with the changing dynamics of his hometown, why make the new residents of Edison, N.J., the butt of his jokes?

Kate Rigg, an Asian-American comedian who often tackles race and racism in her routines, notes that there is a difference between making a joke about race and making a racist joke. However, far too many people don’t understand the boundaries.

While Stein didn’t fall back on cheap language gags, he did rely on a lot of pernicious stereotypes for his humor — stereotypes that are unfortunately still in effect and change the dynamic of a “joke.” Considering our tense conversations on race and immigration (not to mention who qualifies as a “real” American), Stein could have erred on the side of caution.

However, the Fifth Estate is not immune from clumsiness in dealing with racial complexity. Tech blog Gizmodo was reamed recently for an article called “Why I Stalk a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (And Why You Should, Too),” in which Joel Johnson, after learning that African-Americans have a disproportionately high presence on Twitter, sought to broaden his mostly white Twitter life by following a random person.

While he intended to extol the virtues of diversifying one’s Twitter feed, his remarks about her “faux modeling shots,” “mall fashion” and “frustratingly childish” expressions of faith, combined with the stated goals of the piece, created a strange space where people could read racism, sexism, and other things in his account.

Johnson seemed surprised at the backlash and responded in the comments to his original post, but he appeared fairly unwilling to understand exactly why his piece prompted such a harsh reaction. However, as Shani_O explains on the Postbourgie blog:

“Calling her tweets about God ‘charming’ and ‘childish’ is creepy. Talking about how he enjoys looking at the pictures she sends to other guys is creepy. Focusing in on how sexy she is, when we have a history in Western culture of black women being treated as hypersexual creatures, is creepy and sexist. And the exotification of this woman is creepy and racist. It’s not lynchmob racist, or job-discrimination racist, or even ‘black people suck’ racist. It’s the kind of racism that’s casual and common and doesn’t technically ‘hurt’ anyone, so its defenders would have us believe it isn’t racism. But it is. And it matters.”

Johnson stuck to his guns, writing in a follow-up post:

“While quite a few people seemed to grasp the thrust of the piece — ‘You should follow a few people on Twitter who aren’t like you’ — several others got caught up on issues of race, sex, voyeurism, and the ‘proper’ use of Twitter itself.”

But here’s the thing: Both the Time and the Gizmodo stories were racially tone deaf. The authors (both white and male) had the impression that it was permissible to make jokes in service of a larger position about race (and other data markers, in Johnson’s case) or racism (and immigration, in Stein’s case.) However, what they chose to present were rehashed stereotypes.

Instead of authentically approaching conversations about race and racism by acknowledging their experience and how it forms their opinions, they just assumed that their worldview was the default and did not consider any other perspectives.

Discussions of race and society do not have to end badly or strip themselves of humor to be taken seriously. In a speech for South by Southwest, Baratunde Thurston (comedian, Web editor for The Onion and political pundit) managed to explain “How to Be Black” online — without stereotypes and with illuminating data and information.

His speech revolves around how African-Americans use the Internet. Around 4:30, Baratunde explains how a joke quickly goes sour when put into the existing context of race and racism:

The clip ends almost 7 minutes into Thurston’s speech. However, it’s the next segment that is crucial. He reveals that while Twitter can be an amazing space to hang out and connect, it is not immune from the same racism that occurs in offline spaces:

So what makes Thurston’s speech different from Stein and Johnson’s efforts? In essence, he relies on knowledge that comes from a base of knowledge, his own observation, and life experience. Thurston also presents stereotypes, but he challenges the perceptions that inform racial stereotyping rather than just letting the stereotypes stand. Thurston was always a comedian, but he also knows enough about race and racism to ensure he isn’t perpetuating the same inequalities in his work.

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And here, it is the knowledge gap that figures prominently. Media outlets in both the Fourth and Fifth Estate often stumble over the best way to handle this tense situation.

In order for the media to live up to its goals of informing the populace, those who create stories and articles will need to do some deep reflection on their personal biases, the role that race plays in society, the role that race plays in newsrooms, and how all of these factors together influence the national dialogue on race, racism, and race relations.

Anything else is journalistic malpractice. Read more

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