Over the past 25 years, I’ve made many forays into what I call the Heart of Whiteness – meeting Klanspeople in a blizzard; interviewing Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio about his desire to start a border war with Mexico; and to a white church that threatened to disinter the body of a dead mixed-race infant.
It was a double-dare I set myself: first, could I actually get the story; and second, could I do so with compassion?
I will say that I never met anyone with whom I couldn’t identify in one way or another – often around ideas of loyalty to our family or group of choice; sometimes around a shared sense of fear, though fear emerging from different sources.
They were outliers, of course, but listening to them made me better attuned to hearing the dog-whistle of racial code in less charged environments. For those who paid attention, today’s racial and political tensions are just a pot boiling over, one that has been simmering on the back burner for years.
Listening to extremists and people with casual resentments and prejudices was the easy part, though. Because the Heart of Whiteness that has disturbed me most over time is that within the American media, which have stubbornly refused to integrate even as America has become more diverse. While more than a third of Americans are Latino or non-white, they only make up 13% of radio and print journalists. (That figure is better – 22% – among television journalists.)
This has affected how we see the battles over policing in America. When news organisations did not provide adequate coverage that included perspectives of black communities (they’ve also not been great at covering poor white communities), organisers such as the three female founders of Black Lives Matter created their own channels, leveraging the power of social media and mobile technology.
Some people have been baffled that BLM takes on qualities of both media and organising; others, such as students at an unnamed law school who chided a professor for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, were incensed at a perceived hierarchy of concern. As a riposte by the professor puts it, however: “There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If I say, ‘Law Students Matter’, it does not imply that my colleagues, friends and family don’t.”
Today, the Black Lives Matter website, taking account of the killing of police officers in Dallas, reads: “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it. Yesterday’s attack was the result of the actions of a lone gunman. To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible. We continue our efforts to bring about a better world for all of us.”
Black Lives Matter has made its commitment to ending violence clear. I would only worry over the general idea of lone gunmen. These may act alone, but feel they are, if in spirit only, part of a group – whether we’re talking about the Dallas killer Micah Johnson or Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year ago.
In America, “lone gunmen” such as Johnson and Roof have access to weapons and to a dangerous ideological echo chamber, no matter how small or fringe, which reinforces their world view.
Noting these similarities should not be taken as a leap of false equivalency in numbers or frequency of racialised murders by blacks on whites versus whites on blacks. The majority of domestic extremist killings are committed by white supremacists.
And that returns us to the media. For even at our best these days, we sing the tune of truth but seem to have lost the audience. People are deeply entrenched in belief systems that seem stronger than facts and certainly don’t allow for a sense of compassionate, deep listening. Those who choose to believe that black people who are shot or beaten by police deserve it – or, at the very least, believe that Black Lives Matter tactics are divisive – may double down after this horrific murder of the Dallas officers.
In a nuanced Guardian essay, Howard French pointed to the potential for toxic political discourse: “With Trump all but certain to be the Republican nominee, all signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign – and one that will pose a severe test for American journalism, which has been as beset by the crisis of race as the society it claims to rigorously examine.”
I would pivot from French’s words about the election to the general state of racial discourse in our body politic. We in the media are looking to reclaim a seat of authority in this conversation, but we have not paid our dues in years.
We withdrew from reporting deeply on America and the world and now citizens have done an end run around us and are communicating through their own networks – sometimes for better, other times, for worse.
Farai Chideya hosts the podcast One With Farai and is a journalism professor at New York University