Why Some Journalists Have A Hard Time Saying The Word 'Racist'

Jan 16, 2019
Originally published on January 18, 2019 2:35 pm

In 1964, the New Yorker dispatched the writer Richard Rovere to follow Barry Goldwater, the senator from Arizona, as he crisscrossed the country in his ultimately doomed bid for the presidency. A central plank of Goldwater's campaign was that federal involvement in state and local affairs had gone dangerously too far. But his supporters often gave away what the senator himself preferred to leave heavily implied: whites who were opposed to Washington's stepped-up enforcement of civil rights rallied to Goldwater, who helped them couch their desire for the white supremacist status quo in the more polite rhetoric of "states' rights."

Reading Rovere's report today, it's striking how unfussy he is about what was clearly under-girding Goldwater's appeal, particularly among the white Southerners. Rovere directly called the Goldwater campaign "a racist movement" and said that Goldwater was playing footsie with "the most brazen of racists." He wrote that the famously impolitic Goldwater — a curmudgeon who enjoyed trolling and antagonizing even his sympathetic audiences — evinced a "reluctance to say anything that would upset the racists" he was relying on to win the White House. If Goldwater was trafficking in winks and nods and innuendo, then it behooved Rovere to make the thing plain.

It's hard to imagine seeing these dynamics — and more specifically, seeing that word racism — stated so clearly in our contemporary news landscape. With the notable and important exception of news organizations run by and aimed at people of color, mainstream news outlets now deploy an impressive and expanding quiver of euphemisms for racist. Racially charged. Racially motivated. Racially insensitive.

Earlier this week, the standards editor at NBC News sent an email advising the network's staff not to refer to statements made by Rep. Steve King of Iowa — statements in which he wondered just what was so wrong with being labeled a white supremacist or a white nationalist — as racist. (King has since denied that he's an advocate for white nationalism and white supremacy. His comments in the New York Times also rest against his long history, which includes retweeting a Nazi sympathizer and endorsing an avowed white nationalist for office in Canada.) "Be careful to avoid characterizing [King's] remarks as racist," the editor wrote. "It is ok to attribute to others as in 'what many are calling racist' or something like that."

There was an outcry on social media after that email became public — what's with the abundance of caution extended to a literal defense of white supremacy? — and NBC News quickly changed tack. It was hardly the first time a newsroom got tripped up trying to characterize King's behavior: just last fall, the New York Times had to course-correct after being dragged on social media for referring to King's history of "racially tinged remarks."

The Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman observed in the Boston Review last fall, that this reluctance seems to pertain only to coverage of controversies about race. "We never hear anti-Semitic rhetoric described as 'religiously tinged,' and although the Boston Globe once referred to Trump's 'gender-tinged attack on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton' during the spring of 2016, it was nearly alone in doing so," he wrote. Glickman said that where once it was not uncommon to see racist as a straightforward descriptor in headlines, there was a sea change during the 1950s and 1960s.

Politicians like the ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond — a Goldwater surrogate, it's worth noting— began to forego explicitly racist appeals. That's due to the successes of the civil rights movement, which changed the arithmetic for public displays of bigotry by imbuing racism with a moral charge. To be deemed a racist (or "prejudiced" in the parlance of the day) slowly came to be seen as a kind of evil that carried the possibility of rebuke. And while these powerful post-civil rights norms obviously didn't end racism, they made the label politically and socially risky. This taboo was so potent that even card-carrying white supremacists bristled at being called racist. As a result, many Americans came to primarily understand racism as a personal failing, a kind of illness of the soul. Journalists were no exception, and began treating the word racist as if it was the same as calling a subject or their behavior distasteful. Racism, if it was ever mentioned, came to be attributed to sources in stories or relegated to the editorial page, a particularly serious charge to be leveled at someone.

"The nadir of euphemism," Glickman remembered in his Boston Review piece, "is surely a dead tie between the Associated Press's 1964 description of 'racially tinged explosions' which were set off near the recently desegregated campus of the University of Alabama" and "'across town near a Negro cafe;' and a 1953 Associated Press story that described the trial of two white men who kidnapped a black motorist and set him on fire as a 'racially charged case.'"

These impulses are rooted in cherished journalistic notions like objectivity and verifiability. If the inner workings of people's souls are necessarily unknowable — and given what we now know about implicit bias, often unknowable even to the very people who are actively doing the discriminating — how could a reporter ever muster enough evidence to characterize a person's behavior? (The same reasoning is why so many newsrooms refrain from characterizing President Trump's many documented falsehoods as lies.)

If Steve King's history of arguing that white people are superior is racially tinged, then what might ever meet the threshold for racist? It's no surprise that racism in the news has been defined into abstraction, as these are conventions that center the feelings of white people — as story subjects, as readers and viewers, as editors and reporters — for whom the lived experience of racism is necessarily the most abstract. But if you're a person who understands racism primarily as unjust arrangements of power and their consequences, then never reading racism when reporting on a country that's built and defined by white supremacy can feel like an abdication of journalistic responsibility, even a kind of gaslighting.

The very different ways people understand racism can change the entire premise of a story: if a subject says "policing is racist," does an editor or reader take that to mean that individual officers are bigots or do they take that to mean that police are deployed in ways that have specific consequences for black and Latinx people? A producer or reader who has been stopped repeatedly by the police is going to read everything that flows from that statement differently. For mainstream newsrooms, the friction between these two notions of racism — as primarily about the physics of people's souls or primarily about the mechanics of our society — is going to present a larger crisis of credibility as the country gets browner. But it's a crisis that's been a long time coming.

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Should Congressman Steve King's comments to The New York Times be called racist? As a reminder, last week, King, who is a Republican from Iowa, was quoted by a Times reporter as asking rhetorically "white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization, how did that language become offensive" - end quote. Well, as NPR and other newsrooms have tried to characterize his comments - and I should note on air this week I called them racist - NBC did not. NBC got some blowback this week when it advised its reporters not to use the word racist. They have since reversed course, but we still have some questions, so we have brought in NPR's Gene Demby, who has got some strong views on this, to talk it through. Hi, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise, good to see you.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. OK. What exactly did NBC's guidance to its journalists say?

DEMBY: So NBC's standards editor sent out an email. We know this because the Huffington Post got their hands on it. The email said to, quote, "be careful to avoid characterizing King's remarks as racist. It is OK to attribute to others as in what many are calling racist or something like that." So after this big public outcry on social media over that email, NBC changed tack and said, quote, "it is fair to characterize King's comments as racist and point out that he has a history of racist comments." And, of course, this type of attribution, so-and-so says something that's racist, that's, you know, a pretty common news convention. It's meant to suggest a level of neutrality or distance from the reporter, especially when covering something controversial.

KELLY: Yeah. I think part of this is a desire not to label something. We report what somebody said, and everybody can make up their minds what they think of it...

DEMBY: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Which is why you find a lot of journalists using terms like racially inflammatory or some other euphemism.

DEMBY: Yes. And that's not a new phenomenon. And so the Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman recently outlined this long history of euphemisms like this, like racially charged and racially inflammatory and racial undercurrents...

KELLY: Racially insensitive.

DEMBY: ...Racially insensitive, right - that are used by news organizations reporting on some sort of racial controversy. Glickman wrote that this really started to pick up steam in the 1950s. He noted one particularly tortured example from the Associated Press that called bombings on the then recently desegregated campus of the University of Alabama as, quote, "racially tinged explosions."

KELLY: And to situate this, you said the 1950s this started to change. Of course, that's when the civil rights movement was gaining steam.

DEMBY: Exactly, exactly. Phillip Atiba Goff, who is a psychologist we have on Code Switch a lot who studies racism, he said that one of the most important consequences of the civil rights movement was to create these new taboos around racial animus. So being a racist or at the time being prejudiced became a bad thing. And so reporters who were trying to stay, quote, "objective" were playing it safe by not characterizing the people that they were talking about as racist or prejudiced. And so to get deeper into this idea, if you primarily understand racism as a kind of, like, illness of the soul - right? - a moral failing, you can't use that term unless you can sort of characterize what's happening in people's hearts. We as journalists can't really do that. But that's not the only way to understand something as racist, right?

KELLY: Sure. Well, I mean, what would be another?

DEMBY: Well, a lot of people understand racism as just a structural reality, particularly people of color. If the United States was built on this history of ethnic cleansing of Native American people and the enslavement of black people and then all these subsequent arrangements flow out of those things, then racism and white supremacy is just, like, part of the source code of American life. It doesn't need to be sort of discerned from people's souls. And these two understandings of racism, those things are butting up against each other when we're using this language in our news coverage.

KELLY: So circle back to where we started and the controversy this week over Steve King and whether to call his comments racist. What do you think?

DEMBY: Well, one thing we should say here is that it matters a lot that mainstream newsrooms are still predominately white, right? And so that understanding shapes a lot of the guidance that newsrooms get, you know. And I think newsrooms should be much more comfortable just saying racist, and I would argue that Steve King's quote in The Times, which is a very literal defense of white supremacy, does not warrant this level of controversy. It's very straightforwardly racist.

KELLY: We've been talking with NPR's Gene Demby from our Code Switch podcast. Thanks so much.

DEMBY: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.