Black Journalists Told Y’all Years Ago That White Supremacy Was a Problem
Reporters and editors of color sounded the alarm for years, but White media owners and editors largely ignored us
Thanks to the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, and the riot that inspired it, Americans are being forced once again to try and make sense of America’s unresolved — and mostly unacknowledged — relationship with White supremacy and White nationalism.
From the purpose of Trump and his allies in Congress — disenfranchising the communities of color that voted him out of office — to Kevin Seefried, who was proudly standing on the floor of the House of Representatives holding a Confederate battle flag, the symbols of that relationship were on full display during the riot.
Since that time, I’ve heard newspeople say and write the words “White supremacy” and “White nationalism” more than I have since the late ’90s when I was covering those groups. However, you’ll have to forgive me for not wanting to give “the media” a cookie just yet. For years mainstream media has ignored the carnival barker aspects of the Trump administration and is only just now finally seeing why folks like the Proud Boys saw him as a fellow traveler.
From the moment that Trump descended from his gold-plated escalator at Trump Tower, journalists of color in general, and Black journalists in particular had been sounding the alarm about the sentiment of White grievance that Trump tapped into at his rallies. This energy made the Capital riot inevitable. What also made it possible were the C-suite leaders and editors at news organizations that combined a love of money with a lack of diversity, and a willingness to either ignore or dismiss things to which they can’t personally relate.
First, let’s address the love of money. Back in 2016, former CBS head man Les Moonves told the Morgan Stanley Technology Media and Technology Conference that while Trump wasn’t good for America, he was good for CBS’ bottom line. Other networks weren’t as direct, but they could have made the same statement as they broadcast every rally, every news conference, and every insult, threat, and snide remark Trump made toward journalists like White House reporter April Ryan — who is Black — on a daily basis.
Money talks. And some editors ignored the call that Black journalists clearly made. In her column in the Washington Post, media writer Margaret Sullivan talked about election night in the Post’s newsroom and how the reaction of a young Black editor to the advent of the Trump regime stood out to her.
“One young Black editor had tears in her eyes, not saying much but clearly aware — rightly so — that Trump’s ascendancy was an existential threat, not just to her but to something much larger,” Sullivan said. “She understood, at a visceral and an intellectual level, that a misogynist con artist who sympathized with white supremacists was about to do a whole lot of damage.”
That understanding led a lot of Black journalists, including award-winning journalist Farai Chideya to pitch stories to their editors to try and help Americans understand White nationalist movements and how they impact communities of color. They didn’t always get the best reception, Chideya said in a Twitter feed on the topic. She mentioned her experience with Nate Silver and the website FiveThirtyEight.
“So many times when I tried to cover racial resentment or white nationalism my editors — and yes, I’ll name @NateSilver538 here —acted like they were protecting the truth from me. Instead, they prevented Americans from learning the truth. This has had costs To all of us.”
She also wrote about the situation in a Medium post.
The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response
She’s right of course. Although the Census Bureau reports that 40% of the population of the United States is comprised of people of color, they only make up 17% of the journalists currently working in newsrooms. Because of this — and I speak from experience — the people of color who are in the newsroom find themselves having to play the role of educator as well as reporter.
I’ve seen the costs of this lack of education up close.
Part of the reason why I recognized what Donald Trump represented to the White nationalist community is that I was a reporter in Reading, Pennsylvania, for almost three years. While I had heard that this town two hours north of Philadelphia was a great place for outlet shopping, it wasn’t until I started writing about the county’s Human Relations Commission that I discovered it was also a hotbed of White supremacist activity.
I was eventually able to write a story on the groups, but as I had to literally sit down with local Klan leader Roy Frankhouser for an interview that proved to me that maybe I can play poker. Spending time talking to someone who makes no secret of their contempt for you without having it show on your face takes a lot of work.
But the thing I remember most about this was the news meeting with my editors and staff. I was the only person of color in the room and I had to explain why the story was important but also explain why I didn’t want to be alone with a Klan leader during an interview.
The response I got was “I don’t see why you’re so afraid. It’s just Roy!”
Thing is, I had done my research. “Just Roy” had bombed a Jewish community center. “Just Roy” had hurt people. “Just Roy” went to federal prison for hiding a group of bank robbers from the Midwest trying to get the money together for the movement’s big event, the Racial Holy War.
While he was “Just Roy” to them, to me, and to the roughly 80% Latino population of Reading, he was something more sinister. And that’s why I wanted to write the story in the first place.
If nothing else, the riot on January 6 should show the mostly White leadership of news organizations that it might be time to stop looking at the issue of White nationalism from just one perspective.
After all, the rioters weren’t just coming for the people of color in Congress. They were coming for everyone.