How We Report on Structural Racism Can Hurt Us—or Heal Us
Nearly 50 years ago, an 11-member commission assembled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, issued a report on civil disorders known as the Kerner Report. It included the commission’s findings upon their investigation into the numerous uprisings that occurred in 1967, determined what happened and why, and provided recommendations to prevent them from happening again. A fundamental criticism in the report was that news media had failed to analyze and report adequately on the many incidents of racial injustice in the United States. They noted that the social ills, challenges, and grievances African Americans face were “seldom conveyed.”
In considering the history of racism in this country, they wrote, “By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”
This “white press … reflects the biases, the paternalism, and the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but is not excusable of an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”
The commission found media outlets had distorted information and made protests look more racially divisive and destructive than they actually were.
Today, not a lot has changed.
Following the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of White police officers and the subsequent killings of Dallas police officers, a New York Post headline led the way: “CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest.” This sort of polarizing coverage limits the narrative to only two sides, pitting those who support the Black Lives Matter movement against law enforcement. It has twisted the intention of the movement that “Black lives matter too” into “only Black lives matter.” Mainstream media have villainized many of those killed by police officers and oftentimes excused the actions of those officers.
Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University in Detroit, sees the recent tragedies in a larger context. He recently shared his ideas on how the media might do things differently and even play a role in healing these divides.
This is a condensed and lightly edited version of the interview.
Zenobia Jeffries: What are your immediate thoughts on these incidents, on the coverage?
Peter Hammer: john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California, Berkeley, speaks about the dynamics of “othering” and “belonging” and the importance of “expanding the circle of human concern.” Each of these incidences—the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge—is an example of extreme othering, in which we stop seeing people as individuals and respond only to the color of one’s skin or the color of one’s uniform.
This is not just a failure of media but a failure of culture.
The media coverage has been a mixed bag. Some of the coverage after the killings of Sterling and Castile started opening up more meaningful conversations about racial stereotypes and the pervasive threats African-American men face even with routine interactions with law enforcement. Much of this was shut down with the tragic shootings of police in Dallas. Much of the post-Dallas coverage took on more of an “us vs. them” dynamic. The American mind could not seem to process two distinct but interrelated sets of tragedies. We do not yet have media frames capable of enlightening these issues in a constructive manner. This is not just a failure of media but a failure of culture.
Jeffries: In your research on race and structural racism and its impact on both Black and White communities, what effects has media had on the relationships between those communities?
Hammer: The media plays a critical role in shaping beliefs at a conscious and unconscious level. The media often reinforces dominant frames about who is deserving and who is undeserving in America, and who is innocent and who poses a threat. The evening news, movies, and sitcoms often perpetuate stereotypes about young African-American men, immigrants, or Muslims as the threatening racial other. Much less attention is given in the media to narratives facilitating frames of community or belonging.
Jeffries: How do you think the media outlets have handled their responsibility to give context to these events?
Hammer: Very little sense of history exists in the American mind or media. I often talk about two myths that define American understandings of race and history. We unthinkingly believe that time is linear and that race is marginal. From this perspective, we do not have to worry about the past because that was a long time ago and has no influence on the present. Combined with the myth that race is marginal, this means that we do not have to worry about past racial injustices and can falsely believe that problems of race relations will somehow take care of themselves.
If we invert these frames and start thinking about time as cyclical and race as central, we are in a much better position to imagine how systems of racial oppression can be produced and reproduced over time. In this perspective, the past is still with us. I encourage my students to imagine how the co-evolution of “beliefs” and “institutions” transformed themselves from oppressive regimes of slavery to forms of Jim Crow segregation in the South to forms of spatial racism in the North. Spatial racism is the geographic segregation of race, wealth, and opportunity.
Very little sense of history exists in the American mind or media.
Unfortunately, the media occupies the racially safe space of time being linear and race being forever marginal. It does little to deepen our understandings of race or history and how each are connected to the present.
Jeffries: With the history of structural racism in this country and “race riots” in response to that racism, how important is a balanced perspective on violence perpetrated by police officers, as well as that done to police officers?
Hammer: There is a long history in this country of radicalized violence as a means of social control, including a long history of police brutality. Most of this violence took place in eras when there were no cell phones and social media. We do not know the disturbing details of most of these events.
The 1967 rebellions in Detroit and other urban areas were largely responses to police violence. Police were perceived in these communities as armies of occupation. A better understanding of this history, as well as better historical understanding of Black Power and Black Liberation movements, is clearly relevant to understanding what is happening today.
At the same time, it is important to appreciate ways in which today is also different, as well as what other social forces are in play. Issues of implicit and unconscious bias, at the individual and the collective level, and the ways in which race is cognitively constructed are just as important topics to understand the problem of police shooting. As in most instances, the police are not responding to the people of color as individuals, but rather as the dangerous racial other. This grounds their actions in fear and insecurity and is a formula for the escalating use of force and endless tragedies. This has immediate and important implications on basic issues of how police candidates are selected and trained.
Jeffries: Is it the public discussion of racial issues like in media coverage that perpetuates division between communities?
Hammer: Americans do not like talking about race, and when we do, we do not do it well. Better conversations require better frames, better facilitation, and repeated practice. But we cannot just sit back and blame the media. The media are a product of the same culture, so their weaknesses reflect our own weaknesses. There is work for all of us to do.
Better conversations require better frames, better facilitation and repeated practice.
That said, media coverage must first and foremost strive to be truthful. Whether coverage of race is perceived as “divisive” or not, there is an obligation to fairly examine the social and racial context of the shooting of Black men and the shooting of police officers. powell’s framing of othering, belonging, and the circle of human concern provide some very helpful starting points. How we see and understand each other is at the core of the challenge.
Every American, regardless of background, has substantial work to do when it comes to better addressing issues of race in our lives. We need to understand that these beliefs are deeply embedded in our social institutions—like the police force, the housing market, and systems of public education and transportation. The media can help make these connections more clear, and little of this reporting would be divisive. We need new frames of understanding, focusing on our collective belonging and expanding the circle of human concern.
Jeffries: How can we do it better?
Hammer: It is not enough to just cover the often hidden racial dimensions of their stories. Members of the media need better training on how to do it. Understanding issues of racial equity, structural racism, and how to better talk about race are skills that can be taught and must be learned.
The media can also do more of what it does well: telling stories. More individual, personal stories need to be told about members from all of our diverse communities in a frame that furthers notions of community and belonging. This needs to happen on a routine basis and not just in response to the latest tragedy.
Jeffries: What about response from citizens and law enforcement? What role does that play?
Hammer: We need to practice empathy and deepen our capacities for compassion. Good and bad media coverage creates opportunities for reflection and engagement. Can we more actively see ourselves in the lives of others? Can police officers see themselves in the shoes of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile? Can they seek to understand the trauma experienced by people of color when they see flashing lights in the rearview mirror? Can citizens better understand the challenges of the police, both the ones doing the shooting and the ones being shot? Can we disrupt the historic patterns of othering and institute new processes cultivating greater notions of belonging? One thing unites all of these tragedies, and that is the grief of all the families.
The opposite of racialized systems of oppression is expanding the circle of human concern.
Racialized systems of oppression are necessarily predicated on the use and threat of violence. They are also built on foundations rife with deep senses of fear and insecurity. This is a very volatile formula that works to reinforce itself. Violence breeds violence. Fear breeds more fear. Once constructed, the other must be feared, controlled, and destroyed. There is no effective means to break this cycle from inside of the system and within its own logic.
The opposite of othering is belonging. The opposite of racialized systems of oppression is expanding the circle of human concern. These alternative systems also have positive reinforcing tendencies that can move individuals and whole societies in healthier directions. The media can play an important part in this process. To do this, we need new frames, new stories, and new understandings. In this process, we need a new appreciation for how time can be cyclical, how race in America is always central, and how the past always imposes itself on the present.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.