1. EXPAND OUR DEFINITION OF RACISM BEYOND PERSONAL PREJUDICE AND HATE TO SYSTEMIC RACISM
Racism in the United States has been traditionally understood and portrayed as overt and/or intentional prejudice or hatred of a white person(s) toward black Americans or other racial and ethnic “minorities.” And while the media clearly concentrates its coverage of racism on particularly shocking incidents of alleged racism (see the admitted or exposed use of racial slurs by celebrity chef Paula Deen or the NFL athlete Riley Cooper in 2013), this overrepresentation of such individual-level racism obscures the way that racism has operated and continues to operate far more broadly at the systemic level, to drastically limit access to resources and opportunities for people of color. Systemic-level racism also takes the form of discriminatory policies and practices in the criminal justice and immigration systems. Our national commitment, to justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity cannot be realized without this expansion.
Expanding your definition of racism means engaging in conversations about the potential causes of racial disparities in our nation. That means examining what policies and practices create and re-create these disparities. The media should certainly increase the amount of systemically aware racism content that explores such policies, practices and impacts. Journalists and the general public could also re-examine stories of individual triumph — i.e., someone who overcomes many obstacles and barriers to reach success — with a racial justice lens. For example, why did a particular person and so many other people of color face similar or identical barriers in the first place? If racial justice advocates adopt a routine and robust use of a systems analysis to inform our work — and the way we publicly communicate our issues — we can be a model for other advocates and journalists to do the same.
2. FOCUS ON ACTIONS AND IMPACTS RATHER THAN ATTITUDES AND INTENTIONS
One way to expand our definition of racism to the systemic level is to focus our attention on actions and impacts, rather than the attitudes and intentions of allegedly racist individuals, policies or practices. Intentions matter, but impacts, regardless of intentions, are what matter most. Racial impacts — whether negative or positive— are what have the most weighty consequences on people’s lives, and, thus, are where we can most usefully place our attention. Also, actions and impacts can be documented, whereas attitudes and intentions are debatable. We may not know what is in the hearts and minds of particular people, policymakers, or powerholders — and it’s not worth the energy to make guesses or assumptions. But we can hold them accountable for their actions, commitments, and decisions, since those have bearing on outcomes.
Silencing all talk about race — and prematurely declaring that we live in a “post-racial” society, or that class trumps race — will not eradicate the continued racial disparities in our society.
While the media tends to concentrate attention on whether or not an individual is truly contrite or apologetic about their racist expression or action, members of the public should ask themselves what impact such attitudes and, more importantly, corresponding actions, can and do have when perpetrated by others in positions of power. Instead of
focusing on whether or not an individual or a policy intends to be “colorblind,” we should concentrate on how color-coded the results of that individual’s actions or that policy’s actions are. Silencing all talk about race — and prematurely declaring that we live in a “post-racial” society, or that class trumps race — will not eradicate the continued racial disparities in our society. Practically speaking, our media content analysis demonstrates that the media could do more to make the experiences of people of color more visible, including going beyond black and Latino populations to examine the impact of policies on the experiences of Native Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Rather than use the “intent doctrine” often practiced by our courts, which narrowly and wrongly construes racism as that which involves provable intentionality, we need to use an “impact standard,” where disparate impacts are often the evidence of disparate treatment. We also can use tools such as Racial Equity Impact Assessments to guide decision-making in order to further equitable outcomes and avoid unintended consequences.
3. ADD A RACIAL LENS TO OUR CONVERSATIONS ON CLASS, GENDER, SEXUALITY, ETC.
Political conservatives do not have a monopoly on calls to silence racial justice voices. There’s tremendous pressure from a vocal segment of political liberals to avoid talking about race, in part because the topic is viewed as too “divisive.” But given the overwhelming evidence of racial disparities, it only makes sense that we would want to give race and racism specific, distinct, and sufficient attention. Yet, while we recommend addressing race explicitly, it does not mean we must or should address race exclusively. Other factors (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, immigration status, etc.) may be just as salient or even more so, at times. Often, these other dynamics are compounded by race, so they need to be considered together. When addressing racial equity, we certainly don’t want to undermine gender equity. We want to lift all people. Thus, we need to take the time to thoughtfully view our issues of concern from all angles, with consideration of different lenses and perspectives. This doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. To promote genuine inclusion, we can and must talk about race alongside those other factors if we are to fashion effective solutions to our policy and societal challenges.
How can we lift up the lived experience and expertise of people of color, their resistance and resilience, their intelligence and creativity, their role as change agents and leaders?
We should be explicit about race, and overcome our reluctance to say the word “white,” so that we can reveal, acknowledge, and address the similar and different ways that white people and people of color experience poverty, sex discrimination and LGBTQ oppression. We can all learn from people who clearly see and even embody the connections between race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and other salient dynamics. Racial and social justice advocates need to take the time to thoughtfully view their issues of concern from all angles, with consideration of different
lenses and perspectives. The best way to do that is to include a diverse set of stakeholders in the process of analyzing and framing issues, so that a wide variety of people can see their interests and identities represented in the selected strategies,
solutions and frames. By developing inclusive issue frames, our work becomes complementary, rather than competing, and we can widen the base of investment and engagement in proposed equitable solutions.
4. CULTIVATE DISCOURSE THAT CENTERS THE HUMANITYAND LEADERSHIP OF PEOPLE OF COLOR
Our public discourse and conventional reporting on race-related stories, when it lacks systemic awareness or analysis, often ends up demonizing, pathologizing, or victimizing people of color. The result is a normalization of narratives and language that dehumanize people of color, who are too often viewed by more privileged white people as the perpetrators of their own plight or hapless victims. Even racial justice advocates can contribute to these portrayals when we are not consciously thinking about ways to correct and counteract them. How can we lift up the lived experience and expertise of people of color, their resistance and resilience, their intelligence and creativity, their role as change agents and leaders? If racial and social justice advocates don’t do this frequently and effectively enough in our own communications, how can we expect journalists to do this? While making sure that the full humanity of people of color comes through in our messages, we also need to use every opportunity to make sure more people of color have the opportunity to be the messengers — as spokespersons, experts, leaders, newsmakers. We also need to continue to advocate for more journalists of color and racial diversity, not just in the newsroom, but in media access and ownership, since the messenger has such significant bearing on the message.
We have seen how discourse that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of every person fosters an environment where racially discriminatory policies and practices advance with impunity. Coded language that equates people of color to animals, narratives that stereotype immigrant communities as inherently criminal for crossing constructed borders, or frames that simplify/dismiss the complex and painful history of indigenous peoples for the sake of white individualism as occurred in the Supreme Court ruling over the Indian Child Welfare Act, all exemplify the very real cost to people of color and the nation more broadly. Our dialogues, both public and private, must ensure that we humanize people of color through word choice, representative voices, diversity of perspective (i.e. include non-white perspectives), and recognition of the root causes of racial inequity.
We have described seven harmful racial discourse practices which, taken as a whole, reinforce the common misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated, individual attitudes and actions. We argue that racism is a cumulative and compounding product of an array of societal factors that, on balance, systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color. We have also offered everyday recommendations for how readers can help overcome these harmful racial discourse practices.
Racism is a cumulative and compounding product of an array of societal factors that, on balance, systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.
In a companion report – Moving the Race Conversation Forward – Part Two – we go several steps further from the recommendations we specify here, to provide lessons through profiles from several interventions and initiatives led by racial justice organizations, artists, and others who are moving our nation’s race conversation forward toward racial justice.