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Getting Race Right

Desiree Cooper

Angela Kim

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Past Images, Present View.
(Jim Watson/Getty Images)
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Desiree Cooper: Alex, I want to ask you, what would you say is a first step toward getting race right as a journalist?

Alex Cruden: Admitting that you can get it wrong. I can illustrate, perhaps, with a story: I'm a white male, Boomer, a good college record and I'm a sensitive guy too, so I was right all the time, well, one would think. And one day early on at the Detroit Free Press, early on in my time there as nation and world editor, I got a phone call from someone I didn't know and she accused me of being a racist--and I was immediately angry.

Cooper: Let me stop you there. How did you happen to be in the line of fire? What happened?

Cruden: Well, actually it was something that wasn't in the story. It was how the story was done. It was a national story and it had a racial aspect to it. And I think it was one of those where some people would say, "Race was not relevant to it"--but in fact race was.

I remember once, when I was the editor of an alternative news weekly in Detroit, we did a story about people who were collecting Jim Crow memorabilia. I ran the story [with] racist Jim Crow art that was in my own collection. So I'm a black women, running a paper, the art is from my own house that we actually ran on the cover; I cannot tell you how many times I was called racist that day. And it just blew me away because I was like, "But I'm black, like this is my stuff, you know, why can't I talk about my stuff in this paper?" What I didn't realize is that for the community, institutions often are colorless, which means that they are white.

Mary Sanchez: Oh, absolutely, it's like a fall back.

Cruden: And it's statistically true.

Sanchez: That's also the problem that minority journalists have in terms of, "You're the exception--I'm still going to hold on to, I want to believe 'mainstream media'-- or mainstream whatever--is racist and inherently bad and against me, my ethnic or racial group." So when I find a reporter that doesn't fit that, that gets the story right, you're going to be the exception.

Alex, I want to ask you, being a copy chief you're the last line of defense before that headline goes out, or that photo, that cutline, the story itself. How does race play in what you do, what is the calculus that you use?

Cruden: Just the act of working together with a staff that's diverse in age, and in gender, in background can help a lot. The other thing--and this is what I think is the most important for journalists--is to work in a context where you can always ask a question, a real question and get a real answer. And that can be as simple as, if you're a white assigning editor working with a minority reporter, before you send the story over, just say very sincerely--and you have to mean it--"Now is there anything that bothers you with what we just did?" And to be able to have a relationship that you get an honest answer in that.

Sanchez: You know, that is a great rule. Coming from my own background, I know there were several times when I was a younger reporter trying to write on sensitive racial issues, that I don't think I had the finesse to work with editors to really get the whole story into the paper the way I intended it. Or I couldn't tell an editor as they were splicing a certain word and putting in another, exactly why the word I had chosen had been chosen, and why the one that they had chosen might come across as demeaning or not completely the full truth. But that was on me.

I saw a headline once at the Detroit Free Press, where I'm still a columnist. And this was when there was something going on with football at the University of Florida, which I wasn't even following; I pick up the paper, I see this sports page and there is this huge headline that says "Alligator Bait." Now, I'm sure that's gone on with the Gators forever; "alligator bait" is always in a story when it comes to the Gators. But seeing this huge headline, just out of nowhere that said "alligator bait," it just sent shudders down my spine because that is what, in the Jim Crow South, they would refer to black children as: "alligator bait." There were like little postcards and it was just kind of a common, funny thing that black children were alligator bait. I don't know if anyone saw that. Alex, do you remember that headline?

Cruden: Yes, I do. I have spent extensive time in the South, I knew and I was shocked. It was not a headline I saw before publication but it just...popping out so large, and we have a lot of southern readers, but nobody on the desk, that desk that night, seemed to get it. And...just because you have diversity and great intentions and all that, that's not a guarantee.

Sanchez: Actually, that reminds me of something, a subtlety that goes with writing about race, is how often do you have to keep bringing up the past and where things were? When I used to write about race relations for the Kansas City Star, I would [ask myself]: what is a story going to do? Is it going to showcase a racial or ethnic group, a "minority community" to the majority audience? Am I explaining something that they may not have completely understood because it's not their experience, or am I trying to showcase a racial or ethnic group so that they can see themselves reflected accurately in the paper? Some stories [would do] both.

Alex, Mary, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

Sanchez: Thank you.

Curden: Thank you, Des.

Comments

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  • By kim jones

    From wake forest, NC, 10/31/2008

    I have a framed photograph of black toddler boys dated 1847 with a caption "alligator"...saw a blog that republican delegates wore hats depicting an alligator with a picture of obama in its mouth...i am shocked but not surprised at the hysterical hatred displayed by many middle-american whites...it took the very thought of even a mulatto in the person of obama to show the real face of white america

    By Meghan M.

    From Boston, MA, 07/26/2008

    While this is a perilous topic, as evidenced by this interview, I found two issues with this presentation. First, as a rule one should say "Ms. Sanchez identifies as Latina" not "Ms. Sanchez is Latina" (mentioned in the radio introduction). This is the common practise for mental health workers who traverse the difficult narrows of identity.

    Secondly, I found it notable that the people having a conversation about race were identified as White, Black and Latina. I feel these three groups are the most represented when we address issues of race. In reality, people who identify as Asian/Pacific Islander/South East Asian, or as a person of Middle Eastern descent would have allowed for more balance in the piece.

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