Vann Newkirk

The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II on Race and Media in 2017

September 19, 2017— Vann R. Newkirk II, staff writer for The Atlantic, discussed Charlottesville, Jemele Hill’s remarks about President Trump, and the media’s shortcomings in its coverage of racial issues, among other topics, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center.

Below are some highlights from Newkirk’s conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele. He also discussed healthcare policy, Black Lives Matter, reporting on the working class, voter turnout, and more, available in the full audio recording below. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunesGoogle PlayiHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

The media’s failure in covering race

People like to say it’s difficult to talk about race. But actually, race is the American story.

“I do not think we’ve done well at all, in talking about race…People like to say it’s difficult to talk about race. But actually, race is the American story…so why is it so difficult to talk about? It’s because when you really start getting into discussions, like this recent kerfuffle about who gets to be called a white supremacist, you start going into the realm of culpability, of responsibility, and nobody wants to be responsible for black people being pushed out of a town, nobody wants to be responsible for a racial inequality gap where white people make about 28 times the average black family. Nobody wants to be responsible for fixing that. And so we like to play in circles, we like to say stuff like ‘racially charged,’ which means absolutely nothing. We like to say things that make us feel good about calling out the affect of racism without doing anything about the actual muscle of racism.”

Jemele Hill and the media’s reluctance to call out white supremacy

“Jemele Hill’s job is…to provide, based on the facts she has, an informed opinion on those facts. And I think the facts Jemele Hill is dealing with are: A president who has basically trotted out the same kind of stereotyping that white supremacists did for most of Jim Crow. You have a president who white supremacists think is a white supremacist. You have a president who is doing lots of things that white supremacists openly cheer…that’s a lot of evidence for her to make that conclusion on. And also the converse, him calling her out, the office saying she deserves to lose her job…You have these prominent black women who are publicly stating their opinion, and receiving intense blowback for it, from people in power, from officials. That’s not a good sign for a free press, it’s not a good sign for the freedom of speech. We really need to grapple with who gets to speak freely, and about what.”

Media should always be ahead of consensus. It should not bow to consensus…right now, we have a clash between truth and consensus.

“What does white supremacy mean? Today our textbook definition involves people who like to wear hoods, who like to wear swastikas, who like to march around with tattoos and bald heads, people who burn torches around a Robert E. Lee statue. Those are people that today, journalists are pretty comfortable with calling white supremacists…But when we talk about the old definition of white supremacy, what people in the Civil Rights movement were talking about, when they called people white supremacists, they were talking about a state where most, or all black people in some places, couldn’t vote. They were talking about Jim Crow, a white supremacy that that was not maintained by Klansmen—it was maintained by regular people.”

“Over time, as we have developed this narrative…that we overcame our history of white supremacy, the definition has changed along with consensus. The definition has changed to only include the people that normal people in suits, who go to church, would cast out.”

“So now in the modern day, you have a journalist calling the president a white supremacist, based on the old reading—someone who supports and maintains a white supremacist state, or wants to bring one back…and she gets blasted for it…basically the evidence has to be that Trump has to come out and say ‘I’m a white supremacist.’”

“It does mean something for people in media to be challenging that…media should always be ahead of consensus. It should not bow to consensus…right now, we have a clash between truth and consensus. I don’t know how we get past it.”

Removing Confederate statues: What comes next?

“This modern debate we’ve had over the last couple of years over the place of Confederate statues… we’ve been having that, but not at the level where it seems like it can actually encroach on the place of those statues…they are actually central to a way of life in the South. We don’t put up statues of things we don’t want to remember and things that don’t celebrate victories, and so we should actually look at the last couple of weeks, as maybe a watershed moment in challenging Southerners to rethink, to rediscover a new identity…It surprises me, especially after the election of Donald Trump. The idea that that kind of awakening could be happening after what many people believed to be a reaffirmation of the centrality of racism in America—that’s very remarkable.”

“The other side of the coin on this…is the fact they still are symbols. They’re just symbols. There aren’t statues in Chicago of Robert E. Lee, where they firebombed black people moving into neighborhoods, and yet still the founding sin of America is still being perpetuated.”

“As journalists, as consumers, we have to dig deeper. When I was in Charlottesville talking to the black community, they said, ‘look this is great, we don’t like Robert E. Lee, but what comes next?’ And what happens to the people who have been pushed out by the university, who can’t afford to live in town, who used to live in this black neighborhood that has been razed for development purposes? What happens when the perpetrator is an ostensibly liberal institution like a university? We have to really start digging deep into what drives and creates inequality, and sometimes the answers to that aren’t the ones we would like.”

Journalism and hope after Charlottesville

They should give anybody hope that there is a different, new America around the corner.

“[Charlottesville] was a second awakening for lots of people who maybe did ascribe to the idea that some facet of white racial resentment gave us Trump, or gave us the politics of the last couple of years—but it still wasn’t real to them. But Charlottesville made it real…That forced journalists to sit down with the fact that OK, maybe the institutions aren’t gonna get you to where you want to be, maybe they’re designed, in a sense, to make it so Charlottesville happens in perpetuity. I think journalism now is grappling with that, with what we may have lost in ‘68 when King died, when journalism was developing a conscience and ethic about race, about grappling with the nation’s central sin. Post-Charlottesville, I think we’ve really done a bit more soul searching on that, and I hope it continues.”

“I don’t think it’s possible to do actual reporting, to go out to communities, to go out and talk to black folks and white folks, like I did, and like other reporters are doing, and to come away totally pessimistic about this. When I went to Charlottesville, I didn’t just talk to people who were white supremacists, I talked to people who fought white supremacists…people who have banded  together against white supremacy for their entire lives, communities built in that solidarity. I talked to young white college kids who were in church when they heard white supremacists were coming to town, and they said we’re gonna go and do something. And they went out and held hands and sat in the park. And it mattered. Some of those people were also injured in the attack that killed Heather Heyer. They were there because something compelled them to be there. With enough people like that…they should give anybody hope that there is a different, new America around the corner.”

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.