How to erase Black journalists

It’s not that hard to say Black with a capital B.

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The Los Angeles Times can do it.

The Seattle Times can do it.

And yet, for some reason, amid the media backlash against racism in newsrooms across the country, some journalists can’t bring themselves to do it. In fact, they can’t even bring themselves to say Black at all.

When Sen. Tom Cotton called for “an overwhelming show of force” against protestors in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Black employees (and allies) responded publicly on Twitter: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”

Times columnist Bari Weiss criticized her colleagues for the push-back, calling her coworkers “(mostly young) wokes.” At once, Weiss erased not just her younger Black colleagues, but older Black colleagues as well.

Similarly, in his column on the topicTimes columnist Bret Stephens does not truly reckon with the idea that the Times’ platform might help legitimize an armed response against protestors and result in the death of one of his Black coworkers. Instead, he briefly notes that “Black Americans” are important, argues that the risk to us might exist even if the op-ed wasn’t published, and concludes that it’s not the paper’s responsibility to make “people feel safe.”

The actual critique of the op-ed was not about how Black staffers “feel,” but their understanding that opinion sections choose what is published all the time and that uplifting Cotton’s words could literally make them physically unsafe.

And to be clear: the “people” Stephens is talking about, are of course, Black people.

All of the imprecise language and hedging masks the reality of their arguments: prominent white writers constantly obscure the racially coded nature of their criticisms. Writers like Weiss and Stephens don’t want to directly admit that they disagree with a large number of their Black colleaguesnor do they want to deal with the idea that their colleagues always exist in Black skin; it’s easier to relegate these opinions to some faceless overzealous writers, rather than admit that they’ve chosen to ignore Black writers in their own office. And it’s not a new fad for white writers to obfuscate their point or create mental obstacles in order to avoid directly criticizing their Black contemporaries. In the last few weeks, it’s been taken up by everyone from Matt Taibbi at New York Magazine to Matt Yglesias at Vox.

In 2016, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones argued that we shouldn’t say “white supremacy,” because “there isn’t anyone in America who’s trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior.” It’s difficult to ignore the irony of Drum saying that in 2016, the year we elected a president who called Mexicans criminals and rapists, that there’s no white supremacy. But Drum’s point is that we shouldn’t listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Black journalist, when he uses the phrase to detail systemic racism in the United States.

Drum goes on to argue that “liberals” are too loose with charges of racism. Here, he dilutes who exactly is mad about racism; instead of saying, for example, Coates or Black writers are upset about white supremacy and detailing why that might be, Drum makes a blanket statement about “liberals.”

When writers obfuscate race–and the realities of what’s at stake–from their analysis, it becomes obvious that they don’t know how to write about race and that they don’t care to learn. We see this same frame of ignoring who exactly is upset played out again and again like a game of racism hot potato.

When certain white writers decry a resurgence of “campus culture” (what they believe is the end of liberal society), they conveniently leave out a big part of the discussion: race. While it’s not evocative of all college campuses, much of the criticism levied on campus culture has to do with a surge of Black and brown students demanding changes to their campus. When most pundits writing about “campus culture” write around race, they’re also implicitly calling for these Black and brown students to be quiet.

In the context of the news media, pundits like Andrew Sullivan believe that what happened at the Times is an example of “campus culture.” The nicest reading of his premise is that Sullivan dislikes a society in which Black and brown people, who voice their discontent through protests or on Twitter, can be upset and do something about that.

It’s ironic considering Sullivan’s recent column, “Is There Still Room for Debate?,” is critical of the debate we’ve been having for hundreds of years. Each one of his columns about this topic screams irrelevance in the face of a world that, year after year, might actually stop using the front pages of its magazines and newspapers to debate whether or not systemic racism exists (it does). Pundits like Sullivan would rather Black voices say things, but not actually be listened to on college campuses or in the workplace; write and report, but do it for fun; and certainly, he seems to be saying, don’t advocate against publishing a piece that might prompt the military to shoot you dead on the street.

In writing about the situation at the TimesNew York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait called the group of mostly Black staff “outraged Times staffers,” again omitting a critical piece of information. But Chait also touches on something else in his piece: What’s unfurling at The Intercept, which employs exactly one Black staff writer.

Chait argues that The Intercept’s Lee Fang–who has said in the past that Black reparations would be hard to distribute because there are too many mixed race people–is being unfairly attacked for his views.

For reference, in the last few weeks, Fang has:

  • Suggested on Twitter that his Black colleague enjoys watching buildings burn during the Minneapolis protests and then deleted his tweet. (He has since apologized).

  • Liked a tweet disputing the idea that white privilege is inherent to all white people.

  • Tweeted a video of a Black protestor in the Bay Area saying Black Lives Matter’s should be focusing on Black on Black crime.

In his piece, Chait argues that it’s reasonable to assume that the person in Fang’s video “probably lacks familiarity with the history of this issue being used as an excuse for racism.” But Chait never reckons with whether or not Fang is aware of that history.

A journalist’s job is to bring context to information. If Fang tweeted the video and understood the history of how “Black on Black crime” is a racist canard, it would mean that Fang uplifted the language that Chait himself is saying is racist.

Several other journalists also took on the mantle of defending Fang. In his newsletter edition titled “The American Press Is Destroying Itself,” National Magazine Award winner Matt Taibbi says Fang couldn’t have been racist because, in his words, Fang is “kind, gracious, and easygoing.” Taibbi, who omits addressing the people he’s critiquing (Black journalists at the Times and The Intercept), believes that because Fang is nice, which I’m sure is certainly true, he can’t be racist. This frame is both familiar and irrelevant: Taibbi might as well have said Fang doesn’t have a “racist bone” in his body or that he has Black friends.

In other words, it’s not that Fang is maliciously seeking to be racist. It’s that his words, and his Twitter presence, has been evocative of racist ideas. The Time’s Jamelle Bouie described this perfectly to a panel of journalists at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics last year:

“I can’t read anyone’s heart, but I can put their words in a larger cultural context, in a larger political context, and say: This kind of language is evoking ideas that are themselves racist.”

Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, in talking about incidents of racism at The Interceptsaid on Twitter that Fang was being attacked by a group of “young journalists” who act in bad faith. Of course, Yglesias omitted any discussion about the race of those “young journalists.”

Yglesias, who joked about the Black on Black crime tweet on Thursday, spent some of the day talking about the situation on Twitter to Wesley Lowery, a Black reporter whose career has, in part, focused on changing racist dynamics in newsrooms.

“There are plenty of young journalists who want to empower a different segment of bad faith actors on the attack,” Yglesias wrote.

Lowery responded: “I genuinely don’t know who you are referring to.”

It’s likely that Yglesias was referring to Akela Lacy, the only Black staff writer at The Intercept, and implying that her writing and tweets empower bad faith actors. But Yglesias explained himself: He was talking about certain people calling Fang racist.

“I missed that,” Lowery said. “Was it cause he tweeted something racist again or…?”

The conversation ended there.

“Well there we go,” Yglesias said, again dismissing the possibility that a Black journalist might know what anti-Black racism looks like. “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. But I really appreciate the work you’ve done as a pathbreaking for a more outspoken form of journalism.”

Yglesias essentially said to another Black journalist: I hear you, I see you, and I don’t care to be more introspective.

When I asked Yglesias via email who the bad faith empowering journalists he’s talking about are and what they look like, he didn’t answer. He also didn’t explain why he made a joke about the video, during a week when Black journalists have explicitly talked about racist experiences in newsrooms.

Instead, in an email response, Yglesias implied that criticism of Fang’s tweet is “heretic hunting,” which he says is “a bad idea.”

While Yglesias called the notion of “Black on Black crime” an “absurd trope,” he went on to tell me that violent crime in Black neighborhoods is an adjacent problem to police misconduct.

“Fundamentally the point Lee [Fang] was trying to inject into the conversation — violent crime is a serious problem in America that disproportionately impacts Black people — was a valuable one even if the mode of expression wasn’t ideal,” Yglesias said. There’s a lot that could be pointed out in response to this generous reading: That centering violent crime in Black neighborhoods, when the protests in the streets are related to the system of policing that killed George Floyd, is not the point; that cherry-picking one voice, during a massive international protest about police violence, is a bad use of Fang’s large platform; and that Fang’s tweet is not his first bad judgment call when it comes to discussing race.

Yglesias did concede that Fang’s video should have included more nuance. “I wish the guy in Lee’s video had expressed himself in a more cogent way, and I wish that if Lee wanted to make that point via a man-on-the-street interview, he would’ve found someone who is a bit more conscious of how he chooses his words.”

But in saying that, Yglesias didn’t directly answer two of my other questions: Should Fang have attempted to explain or contextualize the “Black on Black crime” trope to his large following? And should he have taken that context into account before posting the video?

The answer to both is yes. And in sharing it, with no context, Fang was unfortunately perpetuating those stereotypes.

Overall, this discussion isn’t about Fang. It’s more about how influential white pundits and reporters with large followings don’t care to listen to their Black colleagues and (somehow still) don’t understand how racism is perpetuated.

In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell said that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” That’s especially true when it comes to writing about race.

If anything, I’d rather journalists be more upfront about their refusal to interrogate their own biases. If you want to offer a critique of young Black reporters at the Times or elsewhere without considering that you might be contributing to the problem, own up to it.

Just be upfront: Say you don’t value what your Black colleagues think.

This article was edited by Hanaa’ Tameez.

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