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Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

“I do think that our press for the most part covers race in a very flat and uninteresting way.”

Question: What needs to change in the media’s portrayal of race

Harris-Lacewell: Yeah.  I generally hate everything I read about race . . . (laughter) . . . in mainstream press, and most of what I read about it in the . . . you know in the Black press as well.  I mean it’s just . . .  It could be that I’m just a snob.  Part of what happens in the academy is that you get so engaged in the minutia of how things operate that it can be hard to see the big picture.  And journalists are definitely generalists, right?  So the thing that I fundamentally respect about journalists is that they know a little tiny bit about a million topics.  And meanwhile academics know a great deal about one or two things, right?  So we are fundamentally different in our knowledge base in that sense.  But I do think that our press for the most part covers race in a very flat and uninteresting way.  And often because they don’t do a very good job of reporting either scientific or social scientific results, they often say things which simply are not true.  So I’ll give you a contemporary example.  So I guess it’s – where are we now – December.  So in November of 2007, the Pew Foundation along with National Public Radio did a big survey of African-Americans where they found a few things like . . . that African . . . there’s a plurality of African-Americans who believe that Black people do not constitute one race.  In another finding, that African-Americans of the middle class and African-Americans who are poor perceive there as being value differences between the middle class and the Black poor.  Every journalistic report has linked these two ideas.  Every single thing that I’ve seen about this has said Black people believe that because there are these value differences that we aren’t the same race, and that’s just not true.  I mean maybe it’s true.  Who knows?  But you certainly can’t tell it from the questions that were asked whether that is true.  That’s not what the evidence says.  It’s not what those data say.  It simply is inaccurate.  And yet because it sort of looks like that might be what it says, and because journalists are not specialists, they report this over and over again in a way that then has – especially in a presidential election cycle – its own self-perpetuating realities.  So now it is true with the __________ . . .  In other words it’s true as a perception out there in the world that the Black middle class simply thinks that the Black poor have terrible values and don’t even want to be in the race with them anymore; even though I, in fact, think this probably is not true, the more that you report this; the more that you frame the political and social conversation around this kind of false finding, the more that it becomes true simply as a result of this being the way that we talk about the world.  So you know it is . . .  It is in those . . .  I mean that’s just sort of one example; but those kinds of moments where there’s just such a failure to grasp what might be the alternate story so when I read that data, I see two alternate stories.  One, the reason that most Black Americans probably think that African-Americans aren’t all one race has to do with the increasing presence and identification of African immigrants, West Indian immigrants, and interracial people.  Over the past decade we have seen more and more discussion about West Indians, Africans, and interracial people who identify themselves as a different kind of Black person.  That has nothing to do with values.  That has to do with actually ethnic identity, identification with other national origins.  That’s a pretty reasonable sort of perspective to say well, we’re not absolutely all the same.  Similarly, the values question.  The assumption here is that it’s the middle class who has a problem with the poor.  Might we imagine for one moment that the poor and working class have a problem with the middle class?  The poor and working class African-Americans look at the Black middle class and see enormous consumption; see a desire to integrate and move away from Black communities; see a desire to move their children away from involvement with and relations in Black communities; and that maybe, just possibly it’s the Black poor who have anxieties about the value judgments of the Black middle class.  That explanation is equally plausible.  And since there’s no evidence to adjudicate it in the data, there’s no reason to think that it’s not equally true.  What if we told the story that way?  What political implications might emerge from that?  So if instead of beating up on the Black poor, we beat up on the Black middle class a little bit, we might end up with a very different set of behaviors, and organizing, and policy ideas around what is needed to “solve” the problem.  So how we frame the problem I think is a big problem for journalists.  And because journalists often frame the problem incorrectly, it moves our policy agenda toward solving the problem, I believe, incorrectly.  And so in that sense, yeah.  I think for the most part the American media does a bad job with race.