Race, equity and why attention remains the rarest and purest form of generosity

An introduction from new Examiner columnist Teresa Moore

Life lands on everyone differently. Maybe this seems too obvious to bear mentioning, but the obvious things are the easiest ones to overlook.

As a Black Gen Xer, I grew up minding the gaps between my life and a world that wasn’t made for me. But over the past couple of decades, I’ve seen an acceleration in the ways that all kinds of people are remaking the world to serve their needs and dreams. I’m here for the revisions that make the world bigger and more specific (like filling in the many blanks in American history). But I can’t ignore the revisions that seek to make the world narrower and more exclusive (like fights to keep schoolchildren from learning this country’s complex history).

If you liked the world just fine the way it was, thank you, then this might be scary. But change comes for all of us and often when we aren’t paying attention. Fact: we are living in precarious times. The more we know, the better equipped we can be to respond.

This column is about race, which in my definition includes white people, too; and equity, which is sometimes confused with equality. Instead of giving everyone the same thing (equality), with equity you arrive at fairness by accounting for differences. For example, federal standards for determining a minimum wage or food and child care subsidies may be equal across 50 states, but they are not equitable to recipients living in more expensive states like California. Equity requires attention to differences in how systems and structures affect people.

In order to achieve equity, you have to be able to appreciate someone else’s particular experience. From my perspective as a journalist and journalism professor, there’s a connection between equity and “objectivity,” the Holy Grail of American journalism.

As a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, in 1990 I was fortunate to be in Ben Bagdikian’s last journalism ethics class. Ben, who survived the Armenian genocide, was a hero to generations of reporters for his role at the Washington Post in publishing the Pentagon Papers and his dangerous undercover reporting in a maximum security prison. He taught us the “objective method”: the concept that if we were thorough and scrupulous in our reporting, we would all, regardless of where we started, arrive at roughly the same story.

I believed in this until about a year into my first full-time reporting job. At that time, nearly all of my editors were white men. I struggled to get one of them to understand the complexities of how Black people were responding to the Anita Hill testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Others had a hard time seeing why it mattered whether people with disabilities had decent access to restaurants, stores and public transportation. Another dismissed a story about a proposed change in a juvenile detention policy because “those aren’t our kids.” Weren’t they all supposed to be “our kids”?

These disconnections between their ideas about people and situations and what I was seeing out on assignment happened fairly often. I wasn’t trying to advocate a “side”; rather, it was hard to get them to see how something that didn’t fit their idea of what was real and relevant — objective — even mattered. There’s an old saying: “News is what happens to editors.” The similarity of their perspectives reinforced the objective norms for that newsroom. Most of them were decent guys and I believe all of them thought they were doing a good job. In fairness, we did produce some meaningful work together. Nevertheless, as much as I respected Bagdikian, I realized that most of the time journalistic objectivity was more of a myth than a goal. When the dominant view can’t admit its blind spots, the story isn’t going to be accurate or fair.

I left the newsroom for the classroom many years ago. I’ve been giving the same first assignment since my first class: each student has to ride a single Muni route from one end to the other and report what they can tell about their fellow passengers and the neighborhoods along the way. They are required to note what they can tell about the gender, age, race, nationality, occupation, class, ability of the people along the ride — anything that will help them see what “diversity” looks like in San Francisco. For this exercise, it’s OK that sometimes they are guessing about demographics — the point is to learn to pay attention and test assumptions .

The Muni project tests their ideas about San Francisco and helps them to see themselves in relation to the people around them. In this assignment, there is no assumed white racial default. The phrase “this took me out of my comfort zone” comes up a lot in the course evaluations.

When I was asked to write about race and equity by The Examiner, my thoughts turned back to the summer of 2020 when there was a “racial reckoning” in many American newsrooms. In some cases, Black reporters were barred from covering BLM protests because white editors questioned their “objectivity.”

In other cases, white editors left as a result of Black journalists challenging their handling of BLM coverage. A white Philadelphia Inquirer editor resigned after Black reporters protested a headline “Anger in the Streets: Buildings Matter Too,” equating loss of Black life with property damage. New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet resigned when Black journalists decried his decision to solicit and publish Sen. Tom Cotton’s opinion piece calling for sending the military into the streets to suppress largely peaceful BLM protests.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Wesley Lowery, a Black, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, broke down the essential problem with how “objectivity” is typically practiced: “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities.”

Now, think about how this can play out in other situations, like when the people making decisions about public transit aren’t the ones riding the bus or the people designing search algorithms aren’t thinking about people who aren’t like them. Lowery was talking about race and journalism, but this effect can apply to any situation where the people in power are ignorant of the needs of the people who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

I see a relationship between racial equity, which is meant to recognize and address differences in order to create fair and just conditions so that people arrive on equal footing, and the reexamination of “objectivity” to acknowledge that there is no single true objective norm and a variety of experiences and perspectives can be real and relevant. In order to have equity, you need to be able to recognize and accept that your normal is not everyone’s normal.

For equity to work, you need more of more kinds of people in the room. And the people already in those rooms need to pay more attention. The French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” We can’t get to equity if we can’t see each other in the fullness and complexity of our humanity.

The next time you are at work or at a party or in class or maybe even on Muni, take a look around. Who is in the room with you? Are you the only one of your kind? What does that feel like? Is someone else the only one of their kind? Why is that?

Teresa Moore’s columns will appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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