Updated Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, 5:52 p.m. EDT: The National Association of Black Journalists released the following statement in support of ESPN’s Jemele Hill:
ESPN’s reprimand of Jemele Hill for tweeting that Donald Trump’s success is tied to white supremacy angered many on social media, but it was hardly a surprise.
Or, at least, it should not have been.
The institution of American journalism has long functioned as the white man’s diary. Its authors are white. The executives who hire the talent are almost always white. The audiences to whom they cater are overwhelmingly white; thus, the narratives they insist on consuming are white. Even though, like all industries, white media executives recognize the power of monetizing black talent for white consumption and hire the best and the brightest, like Hill, to bring some flavor to what otherwise would be their unseasoned chicken-breast-style programming.
But that black talent can’t say or do anything that hurts the bottom line or offends the white media barons who profit from it. Saying that Donald Trump’s rise is a direct result of white supremacy—which it is—does exactly that. You see, black journalists can talk about race, but they really cannot indict racism. That is exactly what Hill’s tweet did, and it was simply too much for the media overlords at ESPN to handle, and ultimately compelled them to apologize for her words.
For Hill’s part, she has yet to delete her tweets or apologize. (Good for her. She shouldn’t.)
Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said that ESPN’s reprimand is tied to the false belief that journalism is supposed to be objective.
“The industry is built on values in which whiteness is the default, that white perspectives, by default, are objective and anything that differs from that shows bias or is partial in some way,” Clark said. “The only way to get over that is to decentralize whiteness. Not just white men, but whiteness in general.”
Decentralization of white people in the media would democratize public debate in ways that would not always favor them. However, that defeats the purpose of journalism’s colonial lineage, which is to prioritize the narrative of white people at the expense of everyone else. So when ESPN reprimanded Hill, it was pretty much functioning just as it should. Hill expressed views countering the media’s white narrative, and the corporate machine corrected itself by essentially threatening Hill not to do it again.
ESPN clearly doesn’t appreciate Hill’s perspective. The network is better with her as one of its top personalities. As a black woman with years of experience as a beat reporter, Hill uses her well-honed intersectional analysis to flesh out complex issues on race and gender in ways that are very rare in the mainstream media landscape. Her ascent to co-hosting (with Michael Smith) her own prime-time show, The Six, was as much a victory for black journalists in general as it was for her. One of ours was making it big and making that good dollar, to boot. But her success comes with headaches—namely, white people’s refusal to deal with their own racism.
It’s one of the main reasons Kimberly Foster left the corporate world and founded For Harriet, a site that exclusively centers black women’s perspectives. After working in corporate America for less than a year, Foster realized that she didn’t have the emotional energy to contend with whiteness day in and day out to hold down a job, no matter how financially fruitful her prospects were.
To be clear, she is not an entrepreneurial evangelist. Running your own media company and maintaining a payroll is not for everyone, and she admits that it can be a struggle at times. But she prefers the grind of being her own woman to climbing a corporate media ladder on which she would face nonstop attacks against her blackness on her way to the top.
“It is unfortunate that if you desire to have a career in media and have access to these huge, well-resourced platforms, you have trade your political self for your talent, your career and interests,” Foster says. “When you chose to work in corporate media, or corporate anything, that is probably what you are going to encounter. Their interests are diametrically opposed to our interests as black women. We should do what we can to lobby for change. I also think white folks are going to be white folks. Capitalism is going to be capitalism. and there is only so much lobbying and cajoling you can do within that kind of structure.”
Black people make up less than 6 percent of all newsrooms, according to the American Society of News Editors’ annual diversity survey (pdf); black women make up 2.49 percent of that figure. The need for black voices in journalism that take on racism and openly talk about it is more urgent than ever. But with media companies like Politico suppressing the political views of their journalists, it will be challenging to engage in the work of decolonizing the industry.
When I asked Clark if creating our own black spaces will alleviate the stress of working corporate media, she cautioned that there are not nearly enough black media outlets with the financial resources needed to employ all of the qualified black talent on the job market. And there is also the reality that we cannot avoid white supremacy. We just have to square up and fight it.
“If you want to stay in this business, you are going to find yourself, at some point and time, working for people outside of our own country,” Clark said. “And I definitely would not call that a trade-off. I’d call that a price.”
We have to deal with anti-blackness, for sure. But the goal is to defeat it. And to do that, you have to destroy white supremacy. Sherri Williams, an assistant professor of race, media and communication at American University, said thatHill and other black journalists will continue to face disciplinary actions for calling out racism until that happens.
“[The current media model] is not working, and it is definitely not working for us,” she said. “That is why [Hill] is in the position that she’s in right now. These forces of hegemony and dominance, capitalism and exclusion, work across the country and lock black people out of systems across the board, whatever the profession is. Those same forces operate in media, particularly in corporate media.”