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Inauguration Day at the National Mall. (AP)

Are race relations changing in America? Why not have reporters find out?

COMMENTARY | January 28, 2009

Race has always defined America, writes Sam Fulwood, III. Maybe now that we have a black president our news organizations can also have an honest, open race-reporting beat?

By Sam Fulwood, III

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m obsessed with American race relations and that I became a journalist because of it. But I’m also compelled to acknowledge that my fascination with the issue rarely has been shared by editors, reporters and others in many of the newsrooms where I’ve worked.

To this day it is a professional mystery that I struggle to understand.  Indeed, some of the most outspoken, curious and aggressive journalists I have known have also tended to become silent, ignorant and passive when the subject of race enters the newsroom. Why? It makes absolutely no sense to me.

My interest in race as a beat might be traced, in small part, to my being African-American. But it doesn’t fully explain it. More likely, I’ve wanted to understand the uniquely American fixation with first discriminating against some citizens and later refusing to acknowledge that discrimination either took place or had lasting effects. Journalism has always seemed like the perfect place for smart people to gather and share contemporaneous information on a subject that has vexed this land since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock – and before.

Throughout history, white Americans have fallen upon prejudiced thinking and stereotypes when threatened and challenged by racial issues. Sadly, the media have contributed to this with salacious stories that criminalized or demonized black people as a way of keeping them in their place or to usher a call for restrictions upon them. So much of our national history on race has been negative because the public has been so poorly informed about the truth of black life and aspirations in America. This “shockingly backwards” point was made eloquently in the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (or the Kerner Report).

Years before Woodward and Bernstein sent legions of wannabes into newsrooms across the nation, I read the Kerner Report and decided to become a reporter. I was convinced that if the public knew better it would act better. Believing not so naively that good journalism first informs, I set about as a very young person to learn – and later to share – everything I could about how and why Americans feel as they do about race. I grew up in the segregated South of the ‘60s, attended the first schools that employed buses for “race mixing” and graduated from a state-supported university that once refused to admit black students. By the time I entered a newsroom as a fully credentialed reporter in the late ‘70s, my colleagues were declaring victory over racism in the newsroom. There was glib talk of newsroom diversity, which in those days really meant black people, reflecting the demographics of the community surrounding the newspapers’ downtown headquarters and printing plant.

It wasn’t long, back in those glorious, golden days of journalism, before I first suggested to an editor that I’d like to write about race and it’s impact on our community.

“You don’t want to be pigeon-holed by your race, do you,” the man said, as he proceeded to do just that by denying my choice of reporting material.

That editor wasn’t a racist. Far from it, he was a businessman who understood that his newspaper had to be read by a public that didn’t want to read my stories about black people and their daily comings and goings. That wasn’t in the “rules of journalism.”

Of course, every rule has its exceptions. At some critical points, race is the story. It was during the ‘60s as protesters took the streets. It was following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More recently, it hit fever pitch and excitement during the O.J. Simpson spectacle, when race was on the tips of nearly every American’s tongue and journalists couldn’t get enough of the story.

As that entire O.J. freak show demonstrated, it can take a solitary, galvanizing event to thrust the public into an uncomfortable conversation on race. Then the nation’s journalists rush in with klieg lights blazing and keyboards chattering to weigh in. 

What I came to understand, years later and ironically as I reported on the fall of apartheid in South Africa, was that editors understand something very well: their readers/viewers, their public. What the public wants is the definition of news, which shapes the course of journalism.

So, today, as I write this, the hottest story circling the globe is President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.

Aware of my fixation on all things racial, since last November’s election, I’ve received numerous queries from editors wanting to know if this is a signal moment in American race relations. Some have wanted to know how to approach Obama’s mixed-race heritage. They want to know whether black Americans are going to follow this president. Are whites changing their attitudes because of Obama? The questions are endless – and maddening!

How the hell do I know? Why not put reporters on the streets and find out. I mean, after all, isn’t that what journalism is all about? I’ve been waiting a career lifetime for this moment.

People – black and white Americans, as well as the rainbow of humanity around the globe – are talking about what it means to have a black president. Maybe now, with a black man in the Oval Office, is the time that editors in newsrooms across America stop being so sensitive and begin to unleash reporters to look at the subject as it surrounds them.

A race-reporting beat shouldn’t be special pleading for any group.  Rather, it should be an honest, open and sincere effort to listen to the conversations that are taking place with an ear cocked to find the personalities, trends and issues that motivate human lives.

Race has always defined America. Now more than ever, we journalists should make that clear in the stories we tell.

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