By Mike McQueen | April 14th, 2008
Many of you will recognize this headline as the title of Martin Luther’s King’s 1964 book. It was a forcefully written piece, as was all of Dr. King’s writing, but few recall that it proposed a radical idea. Many of us think of Dr. King as a “liberal”; in truth, he was, in my view, as radical if not more so than Malcolm X.
King’s book essentially urged the U.S. to put aside $50 billion over 10 years to compensate disadvantaged groups for the years of free labor gained under slavery. This is what we know as today’s “reparations movement,” one that has been marginalized as being too radical. King’s reasoning, to cite a passage from the book, was that this money would have enormous benefit because there would be “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social ills.”
We are struggling today, 44 years later, with many of these issues.
I thought of Dr. King’s book as I read the latest diversity survey released Sunday by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The percentage of minorities in newsrooms nudged up from 13.42% the previous year to 13.52% last year. The total headcount of minority journalists dropped. The only reason the percentage of minority journalists increased is that everyone, of all ethnicities, is getting bought out, laid-off or fed-up, with the newspaper biz and leaving the newsroom.
Therefore, effectively, nothing has changed. In truth, it has gotten worse.
Now, a host of social ills will not be the result of poor diversity numbers in newsrooms. At least, that will not be a direct result.
Let’s not forget why we even care about diversity in the first place. We care because the Kerner Commission in the 1960s said that one of the contributing factors to urban rioting was that we had created two worlds in this country: One white, one black. The Commission said the news media had been an active agent in the creation of these separate, unequal worlds.
Today, we have more than two worlds, for sure. The Hispanic population is rising and has been a force for some time. Ditto with the Asian American community. And the folks who have suffered most of all in this land of theirs, not ours, is the native American community. They still lack the respect they’re due.
When I visit cities and newsrooms, as a longtime diversity buff, I do several things. I don’t read the newspaper initially, I just drive around the town. I try to hit all areas — black, white, Latino. What I am looking for is what the young folks are doing: How are they dressed? Who do they hang out with?
Then I quietly either follow the paper’s continuing news coverage online or walk into their newsroom. If I see an all-white newsroom, as I have, and a poor black population, I know there is a major disconnect. I know that young minority men are most likely seen and heard only when being arrested. I know that they are horribly misunderstood and under-reported.
Last year, in a Southern newspaper, there was a front-page feature about how people coming to a black college football game came to show off their cars, decorated with commercial messages such as Hershey’s chocolate and the like. Hmm.
Well, I had been seeing young black guys (and girls) in the same cars for two years before that and dropped hints to all who would listen that this looks like an urban cultural story. But the story that came out two years later was not only horribly wrong — I had seen the guy depicted by the paper several times — but it was also insulting. This was a college football game. The man depicted in the coverage was not a student at either college. In short, he was not representative of what was really going on.
Would an urban-educated reporter or editor handled that story differently? I’d hope so. I’d hope they would have written it two years before and certainly I hope they would not link it to a college football game.
Two worlds: One white, one black.
So that article reinforced the fears of white parents. Why don’t more white parents send their children to state-supported black colleges and universities, which have been struggling since desegregation? The tuition is reasonable. The state supports it, so this is taxpaper money.
The answer, of course, is that they are afraid that someone will harm their child. Linking urban tendencies — fancy cars — with black college life reinforces that. In truth, if you haven’t already figured it out, many black colleges are like colleges anywhere else. Yes, it helps to be in the majority so you can feel wanted and identify with a broad group of people. But, no, if you are white, you will not be mugged, raped or shot if you attend a black college. You will, like everyone else, get a good education if you apply yourself.
This is why diversity matters in newsrooms.