The “R” word. RACE.

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by: Josh Burton and Criselda Caringal

Race and America are irrevocably tied together.

The first slaves arrived in the new world in 1619, a decade after the continent’s first English settlers. The next two centuries saw the colonies (and later the U.S.) build their culture and industry on the back of slaves. Even after slaveholding was abolished, its legacy haunts the nation today.

Don’t get me wrong; the people of the United States have come a long way. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s caused the nation to finally admit that black people too were Americans and deserved equal protection and personhood. However, it’s insanity to think that the story ends there.

Racism lives.

It’s the insistence that racism is dead that leads to a more palatable but equally insidious color-blind racism among post-Civil Rights Americans. If you can’t remember the monumental events of the 1960s you’ve learned about them in the classroom or wrote book reports on MLK. Americans are horrified at the systemic injustices their parents and grandparents helped perpetrate and recognize segregated schools and picnic lynchings for the evil they were.

Compared to all that, America is pretty great, right? “We couldn’t have elected a black president if America was racist, could we? I HAVE A BLACK FRIEND!” True, Obama IS progress and it’s great that you hang out with someone who’s black, but these excuses ignores the persisting economic, education and achievement gap between whites and blacks. As a result of “not seeing black or white” we contribute to the problems that weren’t solved in 1964.

Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin are household names BECAUSE America is still flawed. The shootings themselves and particularly the reactions to the deaths of each of these men say clearly that America is still divided. We’re back to our old game.

Into this cultural context falls the discourse on race. It’s an emotional minefield because every single American has different backgrounds, experiences and values that determine how they view “race”. This is a nightmare for most millennials because the last thing we want is to be racist—we’re all about inclusion and tolerance! In the end, it’s easiest to avoid the topic and instead deal with the tension what comes when you’re around people of a different race.

Been there, done that.

I experienced this conflict first-hand when I filmed the interviews recorded above. It was particularly difficult. Not technically, but finding people who were willing to go on camera and talk about what race meant to them was a challenge. I’m overjoyed that so many brave people DID step up to share their feelings about race. Even if you don’t agree 100 percent, the fact that they had the courage to step up, be vulnerable and start a dialogue in itself earns them my respect.

Thankfully, I’m not the first to try and stimulate this kind of conversation. More than 20 years ago, in the backdrop of a disastrous 1991 gubernatorial race between a con artist and KKK Grand Wizard, a landmark project by the Times Picayune dared to delve into the question of race. They began an immense reporting project to demonstrate that race is a totally man-made concept shaped by our biases. Together Apart: The Myth of Race (1993) was recently digitized for a new generation of readers.

Today, one of the reporters on that that team, Kristin Gilger, is now the associate dean in charge of professional programs at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. After 20 years had passed, we asked her if the concept of race has changed and the media’s portrayal of race improved.

The project:

More than 20 years ago, the New Orleans-based Times Picayune embarked on a landmark project called Together Apart: The Myth of Race. It was a series of special reports whose depth and scope reached as far back as discussing the history of slavery to examining how it has shaped today’s reigning perceptions of race in society.

It covered stories on the bias of race even in the study of science, and dove deep into historical accounts of relatives of former slaves and landowners. It even published heart breaking stories of discrimination living within a mixed-race family, and published more and more pages of social commentary all with the aim to provoke the minds of people to finally think about the question of race.

Without any doubt, “The Myth of Race” opened the floodgates to the discussion of racial issues and sparked heated discussions and debates across Louisiana as it made its seven month run… discussion and debates that are relevant to America up to this day. Associate Dean Kristin Gilger shared her insights on the coverage of race in America.

Here are some notable excerpts from the interview:

Dean Gilger on the resolution of their 7-month special report:

We tried to answer that question cause the name of the project was “The Myth of Race” so basically    we said it’s a social construct. It’s not a biological construct, it’s something we made up and made important in a way that biologically, physiologically would not be justified.

Dean Kristin Gilger on what shocked or surprised her most about the project:

I remember being shocked at the level of hatred. This was pre-internet days when we did this. The easiest way to let people talk to us was just to open up our phone lines. So we had hours and hours of recorded messages that people left us. And I remember the library would print those out for me and I would take them home at night and read them. And it finally got to the point where I couldn’t read it anymore.   It was so disturbing. There was a lot of understanding and good things too, but there was a lot of hatred to deal with, and that was hard.

It was mostly white hatred against black people–that was pretty clear. There were some of the other but mostly 99% it was white racism.

Incidentally, white racism is also an issue that The Times Picayune had to grapple with. Within its run on “The Myth of Race”, the paper even published an article that called on itself and pointed out that it was once a paper that was heavily skewed towards the ‘white’ point of view. To quote from the article “New Orleans’ newspapers give white view of the city”: During the late 1800’s, The Daily Picayune habitually demeaned black people, referring to them as “besotted barbarians” full of “natural dullness and cowardice.”

To put this in context, The Picayune is almost a 178-year-old newspaper that was first published in 1837. To quote again from the article: “From its inception, The Picayune was one of the most conservative papers in town, according to white historian Philip Mabe, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the racial ideology of New Orleans newspapers.”

From an outsider’s perspective, this complete turn-around and transformation of the Picayune from a strictly conservative paper to one that publishes a seven-month long special on the “myth of race” is one that clearly shows its evolution within the newspaper industry and also the industry’s reflection to events in history. It is a prime example of a publication who did not take just a few simple steps, but leaps and bounds into further understanding and covering racial issues in America with its ‘myth of race’ series.

Within the context of publishing their piece on “Together Apart: The Myth of Race”, here is Dean Gilger’s take on whether racial coverage in America today has improved or worsened:

I think there’s been some progression. Just the fact that Obama has become president has prompted some examination of how we see race in this country, and to some extent has prompted people to talk about it and to write about it.

And I think we’re more careful with things like racial identification. Most newspapers used to, they would just describe a suspect as a black, mid-20’s black man who’s five-feet-ten, which could describe like thousands and thousands of people so we sort of labeled everybody.

I think newspapers, news organizations now are more careful about using racial identifiers that are so broad as to be meaningless. I think that’s progress that we’ve made.

From an outsider’s perspective who has lived most of her life thousands of miles away from the United States, cable TV news channels that we have access to are bombarded with news about shootings against blacks – whether it be civilian white males shooting down black people, to police officers shooting down unarmed black men. This continuous bombardment of news (to the point of sensationalism) leaves a simple impression to me (a non-white female now living in the US) that armed white men are scary, and that white policemen should be avoided.

So does the media have anything to do with the perception that has formed in my head? Perhaps, yes. Are they to blame for delivering the facts? No. But what does this continuous perpetuation of news depicting whites versus blacks ultimately do to the perception of the public towards America and the way it handles its race issues? Why is it that until today, hundreds of year after black slavery, there is a continuous slew of hatred between whites and blacks and vise versa?

Perhaps, as what was done twenty years ago by a paper in New Orleans, we all have to go back and examine the question of race.

“The ‘R’ Word.  RACE”

Video documentation by:  Josh Burton and Criselda Caringal

Edited by:  Josh Burton

Text Part 1 “What is Race?” by Josh Burton

Text Part 2 “Revisiting the Myth of Race” by Criselda Caringal