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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Striking Duality in America’s Democracy Gap and Journalism’s Challenges with Race 

Protester holding sign that reads,

Protester holding sign that reads, "I am not a virus!"

Subbu Vincent

Jason Leung/Unsplash

Subbu Vincent (@subbuvincent) is the director of journalism & media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

 

The recent shootings in Atlanta resulted in a wave of discussions and media coverage about Anti-Asian racism in America. There were the typical, ambulance-chasing, police-framed narratives from the media that minimized Asians and Asian Americans. But the more ethically constructed, longer stories, interviews, and podcasts, also appeared. In these better ones, (links below), two strikingly distinctive and interwoven aspects about the Asian-American experience around race in America and the media show up.

One is just complexity. Compared to the 400+ year-long saga of white racism or casteism (as Isabel Wilkerson frames it) against Black Americans, the Asian American experience and power around race is more complicated. First, there is a long history of anti-Asian racism in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act will not be easy to forget for the current generation of news readers, just because of the amount of coverage the 1882 law received after the shootings. Yet, there is also anti-Blackness in the Asian and Asian-American communities. Tou Thao, one of the Minneapolis police officers soon to stand trial for aiding and abetting Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd is Hmong-American, and whether we like it or not, his indictment will simply remind us of this.

Two, is that the American news media gets indirectly or directly called out for its history in oversimplified and stereotypical coverage of people of color in general and Asian-American communities in particular. As an example, American mainline journalism has simply not covered the complexity of Asian American identities and experiences in everyday reporting. Several stories, opinions, and podcasts on anti-Asian racism post-Atlanta captured some of this complexity through the eyes and perspectives of Asian Americans themselves. 

One of the best pieces was Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast (Sway) interview with Korean-American poet and award-winning author Cathy Park Hong. Hong explained why she’s seeking power, not assimilation. And at a time when it would have been easy to rail against white supremacy, Hong chose to say this:

“Asian Americans are trying to find a way to define themselves as a coalition, as a kind of political alliance, as a way to kind of really finally assert themselves in this sort of Black-white dialectic in this country. And that doesn’t necessarily mean crying out and saying, oh, we are victims, too. Pay attention to us. It’s not that. It’s more, how are we also complicit in this white supremacist and capitalist structure? How do we also eradicate anti-Blackness in our culture as well? And how can we work as allies to bring social justice?”

Read the transcript here

But in the same conversation, Swisher asks Hong about how to bring change in the discussion. And the poet says this:

“I think people don’t know how to talk about interracial conflicts and misunderstandings or misperceptions. We haven’t quite developed a vocabulary for it.”

To me, this is a critical gap the news media is amply suited to fill. The whole point of having national conversations on race is that we need a vocabulary to help both the much-needed discussion on racist violence against Black Americans (e.g. George Floyd’s murder) and complexity where victims can become oppressors even as their communities face microaggressions and quiet racism themselves.

In his interview with Tina Nguyen of Politico, Andrew Yang reminds us of the media coverage. “After a while, he said, he gave up on trying to correct media outlets mischaracterizing his (Asian-American) identity, hoping to stay on message,” writes Nguyen, noting Yang’s surprise at how the American press covered his presidential campaign. There was hardly any exploration of his identity as an Asian American, and juxtaposing that with those of many other groups of Asian Americans. Unless deep questions are asked of people and communities to draw out their perspectives, especially on race and racial conflict, mischaracterization will almost always result.

It’s the end of Yang’s interview that got me. Nguyen ends her piece with these telling lines:

“Earlier in our interview, I asked Yang why he’d never really discussed the issue of Asian-American identity in depth before. “Mostly,” he said, “because no one asked.”

Professional journalistic practice and its exercise of power in defining “what is news” has always had difficulties with covering racism. This is because journalism at its core sits in society as a cultural occupation. Implicitly that has always reproduced the perspectives of the dominant cultural groups at the cost of other groups, especially communities of color. Without self-reflection, the whole area of news judgment, i.e. determining “what is news”, is implicitly culturally self-validating to the journalist.

For his book White News, from 21 years ago, Donald Heider, executive director of our very own Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, studied the news judgment of white managers and leaders in American newsrooms. Heider addressed the question, “Why Local News Programs Don’t Cover People of Color.” He called it “Incognizant racism—the consistent behavior of well-meaning journalists without intention to continue to participate in a journalistic practice that systematically excludes meaningful coverage of people of color.” 

Heider called out white hegemony in the American press, to frame coverage of people of color in terms of traditional ethnic festivals or as deviant criminals. “Hegemony is evident in the practice of news decision making that continually reinforces values and norms held by white managers who have no stake in radical change,” he wrote then. The legacy of that still continues, even as plenty of newsrooms have started making substantial strides around diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

There has always been a gap between a rosy image and the stark reality of American democracy. Historian Heather Cox Richardson says this in her Twitter profile: “I study the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.” And she points out the contrast almost every night in her newsletter. What is less talked about is the similar gap between the image of American journalism as pro-democracy and its reality, and this tracks with the democracy gap. On the one hand, the American press has a long and shining history of exposing wrongdoing at high places and standing for justice. On the other hand, dealing with racist and hegemonic forces with the same vigor is much harder because it has been part of the culture both in society and in newsrooms. This story is not different in the Indian press where I ran two publications.

The good news is that Asian-American and Black-American communities are doing the kind of coalition-building that has not been seen before. Communities of color are embracing the complexity in their identities and asserting themselves. As Hong says, “taking up space,” and seeking power, not assimilation. In the meantime, journalistic practices are going through a far deeper review than ever before. Systematically selecting stories and centering the perspectives of communities of color on how racism impacts them is critical. This redistributes power to marginalized communities and will systematically build multiculturalism into news judgment. Journalism may then enable the emergence of a humanizing vocabulary on race and culture for all Americans. 

 

Good reads:

Asian-American Artists, Now Activists, Push Back Against Hate

Andrew Yang's Asian American Superpower

An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’


Apr 26, 2021