Forty Years Later: Is Race Still in Vogue?

By Keith Woods

It's hard not to see the symbolism and irony of the moment. An explosion of stories about racism and race relations, then this anniversary. It's been 40 years since Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to help black garbage men fight for human dignity. Forty years since he was assassinated. Four decades for journalists to cover, even lead a nation that still hasn't overcome.

And here, 40 years later, columnists are duking it out over whether Vogue magazine meant anything racist by putting a snarling black basketball star, LeBron James, and smiling white supermodel Gisele Bündchen on its cover. Cable television is still showing incendiary snippets from the dated rant of a politically connected preacher. And in the wake of Sen. Barack Obama's King-esque speech on the topic, journalists around the country are asking if we're ready to talk -- really talk -- about race.

The real question is whether journalists are ready. I'm not sure they are.

It's not easy to get to the meaningful stuff and stay there. Jemele Hill at ESPN's Page 2 has written a column about the Vogue cover, saying how important it is to know the history of how black men like Cleveland's "King" James have been portrayed as savages, as apes, as secretly coveting white women. 

"We know so little about one another," she wrote, channeling Obama. "Even scarier, we know even less about the fallout of racist history."

Later, Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock fired away dismissively that he now needs a handbook to "keep up with when I'm supposed to be disappointed as opposed to offended as opposed to being pissed smooth the **** off."

Too much of our reporting on race relations during what Whitlock sarcastically calls these "racist-ly confusing times" is left to the columnists and opinion pages and talk TV -- or to the stories about the fallout from what some of those pundits say. Too much is held for once-in-a-decade anniversaries. Too much is stories about people talking about the problem; not nearly enough where reporters dig down to find the roots of our troubles -- the sources of the bias; the truth of discrimination; the messiness of our shared racial duplicity.

Like the country and its racial history, it must be said that journalism has gotten much better about these things. And like the nation and its people, journalists must understand that vanquishing blatant bigotry, neglect and official discrimination, which cost lives, careers, freedom, only raised us closer to equal.

If journalism is to play a role in moving us past the pernicious dysfunction of today, we'll have to get past the false balance of he-said/she-said reporting that portrays today's racial conflicts as relative; where you base your conclusions not on the powerful truth-seeking of journalists, but on which side of the chasm, carefully balanced by the media, you wish to believe.

Critic Wesley Morris writes in Slate that the mere act of constructing a sentence in his essay about the Vogue cover "just gave me a headache." He complains: "I, for one, have racism fatigue. I'm wiped out."

I know the feeling. But today is a good day for perspective. For more than 10 years King lived with the promise that he would be murdered. Still, he fought for life and liberty. He died when I was 9, defending the dignity of garbage men. All I risk, 40 years later, is a headache. Who am I to grow tired?

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.

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