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Moving the race dialogue forward

JAZELLE HUNT | 2/3/2014, 7:05 a.m.
From left: Seattle Seahawks defensive cornerback Richard Sherman, Paula Deen and George Zimmerman Photo 1 by Damian Strohmeyer/AP; Photo 2 courtesy of her social media page; Photo 3 AP Files

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – George Zimmerman. Paula Deen. And, more recently, Seattle Seahawks star defensive cornerback Richard Sherman. Just the mention of their name ignites a passionate discussion on race.

The good news is that we’re talking about race. The bad news is that the discussions too often fall short of the mark, focusing on the latest incident, but not the underlying causes of racism. At least, that’s the conclusion of a new report by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice and Innovation (formerly Applied Research Center). Race Forward seeks to build awareness, solutions and leadership for racial justice by generating transformative ideas, information and experiences.

As the introduction of the report explains, “’Moving the Race Conversation Forward’ is a two-part report that first, describes some of the major impediments to productive racial discourse in the United States, and second, profiles and provides lessons from several recent interventions and initiatives that are breaking down significant barriers toward racial justice.”

In its analysis of nearly 1,200 race-related content from 14 print and television media outlets across the country, the report finds that just 32.7 percent were “systematically aware.” The report considers an article or television segment systematically aware if it mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; if it describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned.

According to their findings, only one-third of the sampled media mentioned the root causes of racial discrimination in their coverage of race-related news.

The least likely to do so were Fox News, The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer and USA Today. The most systematically aware were MSNBC, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. Media coverage on the economy and criminal justice topics had the highest proportion of systematically aware content.

At the same time, the report finds that coverage of policies, reforms and racial organizing efforts that actually challenged systemic-level racism was less than 4 percent of all race and racism coverage at each of the outlets.

“There’s a disproportionate level of attention given to incidents like Paula Deen last year,” says Dominique Apollon, research director at Race Forward, and one of the report’s authors. “We get stuck on questions like ‘Who’s racist?’ ‘Did Paula Deen mean to be racist?’ ‘Does she have Black friends, what do her Black customers think?’ We get stuck talking about [that] rather than focusing on the policies and practices that cause racism and disparities in this country.”

Part one of the report also highlighted seven pervasive, harmful pitfalls in the general discourse on racism (in media and otherwise): Individualizing racism; falsely equating incomparable acts; diverting from race, disregarding it in favor of another social construct such as class or gender; portraying government as overreaching; prioritizing intent over impact; condemning through coded language; and silencing history.

These pitfalls and the hollow analysis of racism creates the phenomenon in which the conversation centers on individual overt racist acts, yet neglects to acknowledge or fully examine the impact of institutional racism (which exists within a system, such as the criminal justice system), and structural racism (which exists across institutions and permeates all of society).