The first step to solving any problem is admitting you have one. As America in the age of Trump grapples with the consequences of his rhetoric, this first step seems hard to take.
The media in the U.S. serves a vital role in shaping national discourse and how we see ourselves and our society. As such, when covering the issues of the day, the media has a responsibility to be intentional about how it characterizes events and provides impressions to readers. On the subject of race, it has largely failed.
Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of stories that have exemplified this blindspot in media coverage.
On a Jan. 27 Meet the Press panel discussing the politics of President Trump’s proposed border wall, veteran journalist Tom Brokaw said, “the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That's one of the things I've been saying for a long time.” Brokaw hastily followed it up with a series of muddled apologies, but the sentiment of his words remains insidious.
The notion that the xenophobic and racist rhetoric aimed at Hispanic people is their own fault, and that they must align themselves with white people’s idea of American identity in order to be accepted, is racist. It fuels the Trumpian conception of America, wherein you either blend into a whiter America of the past, or you don’t count at all.
In the hours following Brokaw’s comments, an argument ensued online, as people debated whether or not his statements should be called racist. A constructive debate would center on Brokaw’s words themselves, and the connotations they carry. However, the conversation drifted away from the objective definition of “racist,” and moved to litigating the credentials of Brokaw himself. How, his defenders argued, could a man with such a well-respected career of journalism now be condemned as racist? For example, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough wrote that Brokaw “hopefully will be shown grace for his half century of civil rights reporting.”
The real question, however, has nothing to do with the quality of Brokaw’s work. Rather, the issue is whether it is racist to say that a group cannot be considered American because of their culture or the language they speak. The racism behind this statement is clear. No journalist should get a pass from criticism when they give voice to such bigotry.
A few days later, a similar debate played out, this time over the translation of racist sentiment into a violent act.
On Jan. 29, actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in what the FBI is now investigating as a potential hate crime. His attackers beat him, poured a chemical on him, and tied a noose around his neck, while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and “MAGA country.”
Media reports of the attack also showed an unwillingness to call the act what it was. According to Anne Branigin in The Root, many outlets called it homophobic, but simultaneously refrained from acknowledging it as racist, instead using the phrase “racially charged,” or omitting that dimension altogether.
There are few symbols more closely associated with the history of racism in America than a noose; to interpret it as anything but is disingenuous. “Racially charged” is essentially meaningless, an empty phrase used to avoid the assumed controversy of calling something racist.
Both of these characterizations by the media reflect an environment in which calling someone racist is viewed as worse as the actual act of racism, where journalists bend over backwards to find some combination of words that is close, but not quite the same.
The failure to label these incidents racist, the choice to instead tiptoe around it, to hedge their language, effectively excuses the offenders. In doing so, the media gives cover to the offenders, failing to condemn their acts with the strength necessary to truly bring change.
Each of these incidents are cases in which white men — Brokaw and Smollett’s alleged attackers — define the parameters of what is acceptable to be American, and act on those definitions to marginalize people they see as outside that definition.
The rhetoric exemplified by Brokaw feeds into the violent actions against Smollett. The failure to call out verbal instances of racism allows people to transfer the ideology into action. Brokaw’s comments suggest that difference is necessarily harmful, that discrimination against Hispanic Americans results from their supposed refusal to see this.
Smollett’s attackers took this concept one step further. They saw Smollett’s deviance from their idea of acceptability and targeted him for it. In effect, they were executing the spirit of Brokaw’s comments, policing with force the boundaries of what is acceptable to them. Of course, Brokaw did not suggest that Hispanics who do not assimilate should be targeted with violence. But he made his comments in the context of explaining the appeal of Trump’s border wall, which is the physical manifestation of racial animus.
By giving mainstream voice to the racism behind the wall, Brokaw advanced the normalization of these harmful views. This normalization then gives encouragement to people who are willing to act on their prejudice, as Smollett’s attackers did. When the ideology becomes real, it affects anyone from the average person to a famous actor; everyone becomes vulnerable.
Indeed, hate crimes are on the rise in Trump’s America. According to the Anti-Defamation League, domestic extremists — with all but one attack being tied to right-wing movements — killed at least 50 people in the United States last year, the fourth-deadliest year for such crimes since 1970. But this trend does not get the coverage it deserves; instead the media amplifies Trump’s racist rhetoric about immigrants and crime, and balks at opportunities to confront its consequences.
The failure to definitively contextualize his statements within the realities of immigration and the harmful effects of the hate he advocates for allows for an environment where these crimes take place. If we are to change this reality, the media cannot treat the label “racist” as more dangerous than the hateful acts at issue. Veteran journalists must learn how important this is. Young journalists and readers alike must challenge the media to live up to its responsibility to speak the truth, even and especially when doing so causes controversy.
Julia is a first-year from Wellesley Hills, M.A. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.