One of the country’s oldest daily newspapers ran a lengthy editorial on Friday acknowledging and apologizing for its role in helping to maintain racism in a majority Black city.
The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board wrote that Arunah S. Abell, the paper’s founder, was “a Southern sympathizer who supported slavery and segregation,” and that he created a legacy that “reinforced policies and practices that treated African Americans as lesser than their white counterparts–restricting their prospects, silencing their voices, ignoring their stories and erasing their humanity,” long after his death in 1888.
Today, Maryland’s largest city and the broader region of suburbs that sits between it and Washington, D.C., is considered one of the most diverse metropolises on the East Coast. Maryland is home to four HBCUs, including two in Baltimore City, which has a population that’s 62.4 percent Black and has only had one white mayor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, since 1987.
But the city and region’s diverse population have been scarred by racial and class stratification dating back to when Abell founded the Sun in 1837, while Maryland was still a slave state. His newspaper often did more to prop up racism, whether structural or abject, than to dismantle it through its journalism.
As part of its mea culpa, the paper published a bulleted list of some of its sins:
- Classified ads selling enslaved people or offering rewards for their return, the first of which appeared just two months after the paper’s launch in May 1837;
- Editorials in the early 1900s seeking to disenfranchise Black voters because, as The Sun opinion writers wrote, “the exclusion of the ignorant and thriftless negro vote will make for better political conditions” and to support racial segregation in neighborhoods to preserve what Sun writers called the “dominant and superior” white race;
- A failure to hire any African American journalists before the 1950s, and too few Black journalists ever since;The identification of Black people by race in articles into the early 1960s, until progressive readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions if the labels weren’t removed;
- A reliance by too many of us for too long on the word of law enforcement over that of Black residents who said they were being improperly targeted by police;A 2002 editorial dismissal of African American lawyer Michael Steele, running mate to gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, as bringing “little to the team but the color of his skin”;
- A dearth of stories about issues relevant and important to non-white communities, and a failure to feature Black residents in stories of achievement and inspiration, rather than crime and poverty, on a level proportionate to that of their white counterparts.
Some of those offenses are so recent that I was a working journalist in Baltimore when they happened; when Ehrlich and Steele were elected, I was a reporter at a competing newspaper and interviewed Steele in the lieutenant governor’s office not long after the “little to the team but color…” comment was published.
The editorial board was right when it wrote that, “Distrust of the Sun has been handed down through generations of Black Marylanders, deservedly so.” But if that’s the case–and it is–just about every newspaper, magazine, network and digital media org in the country should be writing a similar editorial. The kind of racism the Sun just admitted to is as common in American journalism as a game of spades at summer cookouts: it’s possible to have one without the other, but the experience would be entirely different and somehow, the food just wouldn’t taste the same.