How the Black Community Judges Black Journalists

By: S. Renee Mitchell

Editor’s note: This “Shoptalk” column appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of E&P.

“Somebody ought to tell her something,” someone will suggest with hushed tones and raised brows.

“You know,” another will whisper about me, “she’s not really from here.”

And so the club meeting will begin. Instantaneously. On street corners. In church halls. Across dining-room tables.

You’ve probably never heard of this club. It has no dues. Meetings are called only when someone is found in violation of the unwritten rules. And your automatic enrollment is based on your skin color.

It’s called the See Evil, Hear Evil, But Don’t-Say-Anything-Out-Loud-‘Cause-White-Folks-Might-Be-Listening Club.

For years, I was a proud member. When Anita Hill was complaining on prime-time TV about how Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, I wrote a column for the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, where I was working at the time. Here was another black woman publicly dissing a black man, I fumed. Why couldn’t she just keep her mouth shut?

I’m embarrassed to have written those words. Now I feel Anita’s pain. Since I started writing a Portland-issues column last year for The Oregonian, I too have been found guilty of breaking club rules. I too have been marked in some community circles as a Judas, a sellout. Some blacks even refer to me only as a “Negro,” a code word meant to indicate that my status has deteriorated so much that I’m not even worthy to be called “black” anymore.

That attitude saddens me. But it makes me angry, too.

So I called Milton Coleman of The Washington Post. Who better to help me make sense of this conundrum than the poster child for “Negro” journalists? Some black people still consider him a traitor — 17 years later — for first reporting the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s insults toward Jews in 1984.

Although the furor — and the death threat — erupted into one of the lowest points in Coleman’s life, he said he would still make the same decision. It’s a matter of journalistic integrity.

“It’s very unfortunate that we, as black journalists, play an incredibly high tax for the work that we do,” Coleman said in a telephone interview. “Yet you have to stick to your principles and realize that journalism is a lonely field. You’re out there all by yourself, and what gives you strength is the people who are supportive of you.”

And, as I’ve painfully discovered, those supporters rarely are coming from the black community. According to author Pamela Newkirk in her book, “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media,” the black community is constantly judging black journalists through the historical lens of slavery. If the loyalty scale tilts the wrong way, black journalists face public censure, ostracism, and humiliation. It’s a position that few white reporters ever have to consciously consider because they generally aren’t issued a group identity from birth.

“For many blacks,” wrote former journalist Newkirk, who also is black, “the exposure of wrongdoing by a black person is seen as more sinful than the wrongdoing that was exposed.”

Yes, it is true that the mainstream media have a historical reputation for being tools of oppression. And yes, it is also true that newspapers as well as TV and radio stations have been painfully slow in hiring professionals of color. And they don’t always make the right decisions when it comes to covering communities of color.

Despite those drawbacks, we, as black journalists, have to do our jobs, even while we prod our industry to fully step up to the diversity plate with a more sincere effort. In the meantime, we will not just turn our heads and be quiet simply because we share the same skin tone as the person doing wrong. ‘Cause even if an issue is not put on the table and addressed in a public forum, guess what: White folks are going to talk about it anyway. Black folks are not invisible. It’s time we all accepted that — without retaliation.

“You cannot bow to the pressure; then you are not being journalists,” said Tina Brown, a black reporter at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. She said critics of her articles about a Connecticut community that is 75% black or Latino call her Tina “White.”

“I get it from all sides,” Brown said. “It’s unfair for people in any community to put journalists in a position where they have to choose. I think that’s unfair.”

Incredibly unfair. But, rest assured, I am not losing any sleep over it. So if anyone out there still expects that their disparaging remarks will eventually shame me back into the “Hush Now” fold, let me be clear: I fled that plantation years ago, boldly and in plain sight. And if someone has a problem with airing dirty laundry, perhaps they should consider that it ought not be soiled in the first place.

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