When Kamala Harris was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney in December, local press accounts made special mention that she was the “first black woman” to win that high office.
It is common journalistic practice to note pioneering facts about prominent public figures — the first woman this, the first black that, the first Latino whatever, the first openly gay something or other. It’s either a sign of social progress or “political correctness.”
But how accurate and how relevant are such ethnic and gender labels? In Harris’ case, not totally accurate and somewhat relevant.
A minority of the stories I read about Harris leading up to her election provided information about her mixed ethnic background. Her father is black; her mother is of South Asian descent. I even recall reading that Harris is proud of her partial Asian heritage.
But most stories, when they used an ethnic label, limited her to being a “black woman.” Why was that? Doesn’t that simplistic — and misleading — label deny part of who she is? And why is any kind of ethnic labeling needed, in the first place?
Racial labeling is controversial
It is worth noting that racial and ethnic labeling is a journalistic tradition, usually loaded with controversy. That is certainly the case with slapping a racial or ethnic label on crime suspects. The press has been somewhat schizophrenic on this particular practice. Once it was common to put a racial or ethnic label on criminal suspects. Then it was verboten. Now one sees such labels creeping back into stories.
Why may ethnic labeling be needed? Well, it’s California in the early 21st century.
Diversity is part of our history
The Golden State has a rich, and racially and ethnically contentious history, ever since James Marshall discovered gold near Sutter’s Mill in the California foothills in 1848. That monumental event attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) ballooned from a sleepy little village to a rousing, wild frontier city almost overnight. Its population — and that of the region surrounding it — became more “multicultural” in a matter of months, but power resided with white men who took charge of the major public and private institutions. (Native Americans and Spaniards were numerous before the Gold Rush.)
That’s ancient history. What about now? Even more so, California and San Francisco are “multicultural” to a fare-thee-well. Latinos, or Hispanics, are a major presence in California. So, of course, are people who trace their ancestral roots to Europe. Asians and African Americans are also a significant, but less numerous, presence. People with West Asian roots (Persians or Iranians, Afghanis, and so-called Middle Easterners) are in California in growing numbers too.
Does blackness trump other identities?
With that kind of racial and ethnic diversity and with many political, social, and cultural issues related to race and ethnicity still largely unresolved, it is no surprise that the local press makes it a habit of identifying a newly elected public official like Kamala Harris by ethnicity. But why is she mostly “a black woman” to some Bay Area reporters and editors? Why don’t most press stories, when they choose to label her ethnically, tell the whole truth?
The same thing happens to Tiger Woods, the golf superstar. In most early stories about him after his meteoric rise as a professional golfer, he was called an African American. That is only partially true. His mother is Thai. His father is only partially African-American. Some stories about Woods’ ethnic background say his father has a mixture of races and ethnicities, including Chinese. That makes Tiger Woods more Asian than black, yet, according to most news-media labeling, he is black.
Not only blacks and whites
I suppose Harris is called a “black woman” because it reflects an old black-white paradigm of U.S. race relations. For the eastern half of the United States, especially the Deep South, that model has been dominant throughout most of the country’s history. In California and other western states (including Hawaii), the black-white scenario has never been the governing model.
I am not here to deny the profound significance of black-white racial relations to the nation’s history. I realize that labeling people who descended from African slaves has a complex history. I also realize that many, perhaps most, African Americans aren’t “pure” black African but are of mixed racial and ethnic heritage too. One aspect of that complexity has to do with the so-called “one-drop” rule that deemed that a person in the United States who had “one drop” of “African blood” was considered “black,” even if he or she also had “white” or “Native American” blood. The one-drop rule and other aspects of how white society regarded “black people” reflected institutional racism that stubbornly hangs on today, in perhaps less overt ways than the old Jim Crow era.
I am here to try to help set the record straight as it relates to California and western U.S. history. People of Asian descent — Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos mostly in the last half of the 19th century — and people of Mexican background are integral to California and the West’s history. So, of course, are Native Americans of various tribal nations. And black people too, but not to the degree African Americans have been in the southern and eastern U.S.
How should the press treat ethnic/racial labels?
As much as I wish we lived in a “colorblind” society, we don’t, so some form of race and ethnic labeling is inevitable. This is so even though some political thinkers argue that race isn’t a scientific, but a social, concept. Whatever it is, “race” and ethnicity continue to be profound forces in our political, economic, social and cultural lives.
The United States has made impressive progress in racial, ethnic, and gender relations over the past 40 or so years. But we have not reached the social “promised land” yet. That means there are and will continue to be public issues with racial, ethnic, religious, and gender implications. And these are issues that the news media need to write and comment about.
I am reluctant to offer a journalistic Top Ten list on How to Label Someone by Race, Ethnicity, Religion, or Gender With Sensitivity, Compassion, and Historical Accuracy. There are style guides around, offered by various “minority” journalism associations, but some of those suggestions are too prescriptive and pedantic for my tastes.
The relevancy test
There is a relevancy test, however, that I believe should govern a journalistic ethnic or racial label. Journalists ought to engage in active discussions about the use of a label like “the first black woman” when they report about Kamala Harris or whether it is relevant to put a racial or ethnic label on a criminal suspect. Answer the question, “Is it relevant to this story that we label someone by race, ethnicity, gender, religion?” If it is, then get it right. Don’t leave off some of a person’s heritage.
On the matter of labeling a criminal suspect by race or ethnicity, the test should be more precise and bear high standards. Generalizations about racial or ethnic characteristics, as well as vague height and weight features, are virtually useless and can feed negative stereotypes of certain people. Moreover, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. If, however, law-enforcement officials have precise and detailed descriptions and if a suspect is considered a threat to public safety, then I would say an ethnic or racial label is warranted as part of a physical description.
Mixed-race identifications can be wordy or awfully cumbersome. Maybe reporters should avoid shorthand descriptions and instead construct a sentence or two to describe someone’s racial or ethnic background, if it is deemed necessary to do so. In an increasingly nuanced and complex world, brevity may not be a virtue.
William Wong is author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America (Temple University Press), http://www.yellowjournalist.com. For more than 30 years, he was a reporter, columnist, and editor for, among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, and Asian Week. In the mid-1980s, he served as the ombudsman for The Oakland Tribune.
This article appears courtesy of Stanford’s “Grade the News” Project. An earlier version appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.