Message From NABJ: A Dialogue About Race
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Posted by: Aprill Turner
By Bob Butler, NABJ President
Last week’s massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., has ignited a firestorm about race in this country and sparking a long-needed national dialogue.
The shootings also have led to a debate about racist symbols and white attitudes/behavior. Pundits, activists, scholars and Americans of all stripes have weighed in on subjects that run the gamut of race – race and religion, white supremacy, white privilege and language.
Calling attention to unfair and stereotypical coverage of the African-American community is a primary mission of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). It is also important for our organization to weigh in on this discussion. Already, we have seen media outlets focused on finding people who deny the attacks in Charleston were racially motivated. Others have used stereotypes and theatrics in an attempt to highlight the racial divide in this country.
On Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press aired a segment on gun violence in America by hearing from those who have used guns to commit murder, intended to bring a “different approach” to the topic, according to host Chuck Todd. However, all of the interview subjects were African-American men in Sing Sing prison. We know that white Americans are also the perpetrators of gun violence, yet there was no racial balance in the clip.
The shootings in Charleston also have led to a debate on the Confederate flag, which flies on the statehouse grounds in Columbia.
On CNN Monday night, anchor Don Lemon jumped into the national fray when he held up the flag and asked if it offended people. It clearly does -- especially African Americans, whom it reminds of the notion of white supremacy and a time when it was OK to enslave, lynch and discriminate against African Americans. It is so offensive that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley says it’s time for it to be removed from the state capitol.
But during the same segment, Lemon held up a sign with “the N-word” on it and asked viewers if they were offended. This comes in wake of the news that President Obama, often criticized for soft-pedaling on racial matters, had used the word on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast to make a point about how far we still have to go in this country as it pertains to race.
The difference in Obama and Lemon’s use of the word is stark: The president was trying to make a valid point about the volatile nature of the country’s race relations; Lemon could have asked the question without showing the word on television.
To use the N-word, perhaps the most vile word in the American vocabulary, to take an impromptu and unscientific survey about its maliciousness was an inappropriate stunt that distracts from what the country ought to be talking about – how we relate to one another. Instead, we are focusing on one word that only begins to peel away hundreds of years of racial hate and inequality in this country.
As members of the news media we all have an obligation to do better.