Reactions to “The Root”

Eric, here’s what I have so far (no editing). Let me know if you have questions.

From Errol Louis, a columnist for the NY Daily News.

– What do you think of mainstream media coverage of race, class, and urban issues?

Mainstream media treatment of race, class, and urban issues tends to be dreadful, dominated by an episodic, disconnected parade of stereotypes, stock characters and a narrative of multi-generational poverty, violence and despair that seem to be nobody’s fault or responsibility.

You typically find an isolated story about crumbling housing, but no examination of housing policies, redlining, predatory lending or discriminatory practices. Then there’s no coverage for a year or so –”we’ve already reported on that” is what editors tell community advocates seeking attention – and then, lo and behold, the same story pops up the next year. Dreadful.

It says something about the state of the problem that the best examination of urban race and class issues on television today is HBO’s the Wire, a fictional but very true exploration of inner-city Baltimore. It’s no accident that the series creator is an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter – he had to get outside of the paper, in a sense, to finally tell the story of what’s going on in his town.

– Do you think The Root, as an affiliate of the Washington Post, promises a new type of coverage of these issues? What do you think of Dr. Gates’s involvement?

I have high hopes for The Root. It can succeed if Dr. Gates doesn’t let his writers get too flip, snarky and self-referential, which is a common discursive style in university circles and among bloggers, but fatally off-putting almost everywhere else. Readers value earnestness, passion, timely information and good storytelling. Gates knows this, which is why every project he touches has turned to gold. Hopefully The Root will do the same.

Even before this project was announced, The Washington Post had quietly become, in the post-Bradlee era, become a real powerhouse of urban reporting and commentary, thanks to the energy and creativity of great journalists like Donna Britt, Kevin Merida, Jonathan Capeheart and Colbert King. King in particular is a national treasure who explains the workings of Washington DC – not the beltway, but the neighborhoods – like nobody else.

– What do you think of its features allowing visitors to construct family genealogies?

Great idea. My sister, who is our family historian, spent hundreds of hours squinting at census records and humping around to county courthouses in the south and stringing together our history on note cards and scraps of paper. Anything that shortens the process is useful.

– The site will provide “commentary on political, social and cultural issues… showcase the breadth and depth of viewpoints currently shaping black culture.” What other issues and features would you like to see on The Root?

There’s been a renaissance of black literary work in recent years; a solid book review section would be timely and welcome. Also, if commentary is going to be a mainstay of The Root, I hope they will provide links to the works of The Trotter Group, an association of black newspaper columnists of which I’m a member: http://trottergroup.org/

From DeAngelo Starnes, columnist for ebonyjet.com

Q: What do you think of this announcement?

A: My initial impression was that it was typical hyperbole.  Hyperbole is necessary to publicize yourself if you want people amped about something you’re doing.  Reminds me of how dudes try to get you to come to their parties.  “Gonna be off the chain!”  “The place to be!”  And so in that sense, I got a little turned off.

But once you dig into it and see the names of some of the contributors, I thought, “This might be the hype.  Okay, I’m down to check it out.”  And I will.

I recall when Skip Gates brought a bunch of African American intellectuals with him to Harvard in the mid-90s.  His effort received a similar launch.  The New Yorker dedicated a whole issue to his efforts.  I still have the issue.

So it seems that he has friends in the mainstream media.

I didn’t agree with the assessment that The Root was a pioneer.  At the risk of sounding biased, I think ebonyjet.com is covering that ground just well.  I’m sure there are other sites that do the same.  David Mills’ UndercoverBlackMan is innovative and that’s just one cat holding it down.  Our Stakes Be High debate has an edge that The Root probably won’t touch given its corporate sponsor.

Q: What do you think of mainstream media coverage of issues facing African Americans?

A: Slanted.  I think The Wire has given great insight about African American issues are covered.  Lot of details and context eliminated.
I believe that white people are tired of African American issues as they relate to poverty.  They quickly point to multi-million dollar athletes and people like Barack, Colin Powell, and Clarence Thomas as examples for what they believe is the lie of African America.

And when that’s not the case, Black males are “thugs” and Black women “exotic.”

I will say that younger writers deal with African Americans as people. There isn’t a reference to race when discussing the contributions and achievements.  And when there is a reference to race, there’s more sympathy and empathy.

But for the most part, too often when there is an injustice against African Americans, injustices that should make front page news, like the Jena 6 before it gained groundswell, the story is buried.  The near genocide of the impact of drugs and crime on Black youth is not given any serious coverage.  And when it is, it is given business as usual take. When white kids roll up to school and shoot their classmates, there are series of stories on it.  Which results in task groups and heavier police protection.  When a Black child is missing, you don’t see stories about it.  But we’re still reading stories about that girl in Aruba.  The runaway bride?  Britney Spears?  I think if the coverage was more fair and expansive for African Americans, maybe we might do something about it to help.  But the reality of African American life evokes white guilt that is too painful to face.  So that’s why we don’t see the type of coverage we need to see.  I think my essay called “White Out” covers this topic better.

Q: Do you think The Root, as an affiliate of the Washington Post, promises a new type of coverage?

A: I think it’s a start.  I like the mix of writers I’ve seen so far.  But why doesn’t the Post cover African American issues more honestly and expansively anyway?  DC is still a Black city even with all the gentrification that’s taken place for the past fifteen years.

The best news coverage is consistently broadcast on Democracy Now!  I’d like to see a Black Democracy Now! more than a Black Washington Post.  Because I’d can’t crossover Blacks.  And that’s not to say that Blacks need to demonstrate their “Blackness.”  I don’t even know how that would be measured anyway.  But I know crossover when I see it.  Witness Michael Jackson, OJ, and Kool & the Gang.  Barack is doing much of the same as he gets closer to the nomination.

Q: The site will provide “commentary on political, social and cultural issues… showcase the breadth and depth of viewpoints currently shaping black culture” and offer an interactive genealogical tool for site visitors. What other issues and features would you like to see on The Root?

A: I’d like to see some success stories on the genealogical tip.  I’d like to see a roundtable of young and older Black thinkers hammer out issues similar to what Dave and I do on Stakes Be High on undercoverblackman.com.  No hostility.  Healthy disagreement and, hopefully, agreement. Come up with a plan to help Black folks come up.  Hopefully, The Root won’t turn out to be Black infotainment.  Black people have been the best entertainers the world has seen.  How about some movers and shakers?

That’s a start.  Shoot me back my responses so I can clean them up for publication if you think they’re worthy.  Better yet shoot me back what you think is worthy for clean up.

From Gayle Pemberton, Chair of the African American Studies Department, Wesleyan University (Connecticut)

It is obvious to almost anyone in black America that the mainstream
media has never handled issues of race, or black life with much
depth or knowledge.  Anchors, news reports, producers, writers,
directors, camera people — contribute to the notion that a) there
is something called “the” black American; that authentically black
people are poor and ignorant; that a well-spoken black person is a
walking miracle, sui generis.  Etc.
My sense is that The Root is not reaching out to whites, but trying
to go beyond the glossy and utterly superficial Johnson family
publications of Jet and Ebony.  Black Enterprise, another important
magazine, obviously has a more limited range.  The Root may try to
help inform African Americans of important news concerning the black
diaspora worldwide.  That would be good.  The bloggers did nothing
for me.
I don’t know what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wants to do with this; my
speculations wouldn’t be of any use to you, I don’t think.  I do
believe that DNA testing and genealogy trees that are designed to
link modern blacks to Africa are a touch problematic.  We can’t undo
the middle passage; we have bought our citizenship with a price
higher than that of any other group.  My learning what part of Africa
my ancestors came from carries no meaning for me, personally.  I have
so many generations of them here — going back to one who kissed
George Washington.

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