Why We’re Talking About Racism More Than We Have in Decades

The good news is that we are talking about racism in the United States more than we have in decades. As an example, the New York Times has published the introductory articles for their “1619 Project.” Here is how it opens.

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

This first series of articles delves into how slavery impacted this country’s founding ideals, our understanding of capitalism, our health care system, our assumptions about power, and our criminal justice system, just to name a few. The New York Times deserves a lot of credit for launching this project and hiring extremely talented African American writers to contribute.

But, of course, there’s also the bad news. The main reason why we are talking more about racism in this country right now is that the current occupant of the Oval Office is perhaps the most racist president in our history. As an example, take a look at how he and his enablers are responding to the 1619 Project.

What really got these people going after the New York Times with a renewed focus was the discussion the executive editor, Dean Baquet, conducted with his staff after having to retract their headline, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” According to a transcript of the session obtained by Slate, here is what Baquet said:

This is a really hard story, newsrooms haven’t confronted one like this since the 1960s. It got trickier after [inaudible] … went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character. We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story. I’d love your help with that. As Audra Burch said when I talked to her this weekend, this one is a story about what it means to be an American in 2019. It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred, but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. We’ll also ask reporters to write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions.

Trump’s enablers in right-wing media assume that what Baquet revealed is that the New York Times hates Donald Trump so much that they tried to take him down with the Russia story. Since that failed, the newspaper is now attempting to paint him as a racist. For example, Byron York claims that, “the paper will spend the next two years, which just happens to be the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, building the Trump-is-a-racist narrative.” Sarah Lee at Red State was even more explicit.

Race is going to be a huge part of the American story because it would appear The New York Times means to sell it by reporting on the race angle in every story they write. There’s a better than decent chance that the people outside The Times’ readership are exhausted by the constant need to point out the things that divide Americans, but The Times doesn’t care.

It’s going to be racism, racism, racism for the foreseeable future.

William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection raises things a notch from there.

This is a smoking gun. It shows the most powerful news organization in the country congratulating itself for setting the anti-Trump narrative on Russia collusion, and seamlessly transitioning to setting a narrative of Trump as racist after collusion flopped.

There is a collusion case to be made, but it’s not about Trump and Russia. It’s about powerful news organizations throwing their weight behind Democrats.

In other words, from the perspective of Trump’s enablers, the president couldn’t possibly be doing and saying racist things. As Heather MacDonald writes in the Wall Street Journal, Trump never mentions race, while liberals (especially in academia) are obsessed about things like white privilege. For her, it is the left that is to blame for the rise in white supremacist violence.

If “whiteness” is a legitimate topic of academic and political discourse, some individuals are going to embrace “white identity” proudly. To note the inevitability of white identity politics in no way condones the grotesque violence of men like the El Paso killer. But the dominant culture is creating a group of social pariahs, a very small percentage of whom—already unmoored from traditional sources of meaning and stability, such as family—are taking their revenge through stomach-churning mayhem. Overcoming racial divisiveness will be difficult. But the primary responsibility rests with its main propagators: the academic left and its imitators in politics and mass media.

That is the kind of backlash the New York Times and other major media outlets can expect when they confront the issue of racism directly. One would hope that they don’t approach this topic with the same kind of “both sides do it” that has dominated their approach in the past. In writing about Daniel Schneidermann’s book,  “Berlin, 1933,” Elisabeth Zarofsky notes how the Times missed the story about Hitler’s rise in Germany.

When it comes to documenting the Nazis’ murder of Jews, Schneidermann describes the Times’ coverage as fragmentary, incremental, and buried in “dry” briefings on interior pages…

“The problem is,” Schneidermann told me, “there weren’t any journalists with enough credibility to tell what was really happening in Germany without being suspected of being biased or taking sides.” It was in part the Times’ quest for credibility with its public—meaning, Schneidermann says, not seeming like “a ‘Jewish newspaper’ or a ‘Communist newspaper’ ”—that prevented it from attaining the decibel level that we would now consider appropriate. “Activist journalism,” Schneidermann writes, “journalism that subordinates the quest for truth to the quest for a truth that is useful to its cause, is the only journalism that, today, doesn’t have to feel ashamed about what it produced. . . . Everything reasonable, scrupulous, balanced, in my opinion, contributed to lulling the crowd to sleep.”

When the truth is not a matter of balance, but comes down to a moral question of right and wrong, honest journalism must adapt.

I suspect that Baquet said something significant when he admitted that “newsrooms haven’t confronted [a story] like this since the 1960s.” For a lot of Americans, not just journalists, the whole question of racism in this country went silent after the passage of the civil rights laws, when Republicans resorted to their Southern Strategy. As Lee Atwater said so graphically, use of the “n” word was no longer acceptable. So racist messages were sent via dog whistles that gave the sender a veneer of deniability. On the surface, it appeared as though the problem of racism had been solved.

But the election of our first African American president combined with rapidly changing demographics sparked a revival of the confederate insurgency. Writers like Doug Muder caught on to what was happening quite a while ago with the rise of the Tea Party. When Donald Trump entered the national political stage by embracing the “birtherism” conspiracy theory, he put his own racism front and center. Over the years, it has simply become more obvious. If recent events finally made that clear to the New York Times, we can welcome them to the party—however late their arrival happens to be.

Baquet got it absolutely right when he said that “this one is a story about what it means to be an American in 2019.” That takes us back to the 1619 Project, where Nikole Hannah-Jones writes about the process of learning why her father so proudly displayed the American flag at their home.

So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.

I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.

Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us…

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

Will a statement like that ignite backlash from those who insist on putting white people at the center of our history? Absolutely! It is precisely why, in the tweet above, Erickson referred to something he calls a “racial lens.” To see our history through the eyes of someone who didn’t share his perspective is viewed as inflammatory. Spencer Ackerman points out how that lens has always been inflammatory.

But that doesn’t make it any less true. Getting to the truth about what it means to be an American is the question that is on the table right now. The answer isn’t a matter of left vs. right, but of right vs. wrong.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.