I was happy (though, as you will see, with understandably mixed personal feelings) to learn that journalism was changing for the better in terms of the racial makeup of those hired to cover the news when, in late 1969 or early 1970, the managing editor of the now-defunct Washington Evening Star (later The Washington Star) told me he'd hire me in a minute if I were Black.
I told him I understood and agreed with his desire to bring more people of color onto his reporting team, though that meant that I would have to look elsewhere if I wanted to leave the staff of the (also-now-defunct) Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, where I began work as a reporter in 1967, the year I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
I devoted a fair amount of my time in Rochester covering matters that related directly to the Black community -- from writing about the effects of the new federal Model Cities program there to covering an organization established to promote and protect the interests of Black people in housing, education, employment and other areas -- to say nothing of covering the story when Black students at what then was called the Colgate Rochester Divinity School (Now Colgate Rochester Crozer) protested the lack of Black faculty (along with other issues) by taking control of the main administration building for a week or so.
All of which is prelude to saying a few words about the recent series of articles in The Kansas City Star that explored (and apologized for) the various ways the newspaper here failed to cover Black lives fairly or justly for much of its 140-year history. You can find those articles here. If you haven't read them all, please do.
I came to The Star as a general assignment reporter in 1970 with the understanding that my experience in Rochester would be drawn on to help the staff report on urban dynamics, race relations and related topics. (Indeed, one of the first stories I worked on had to do with racial discrimination alleged by Black soldiers stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.)
The reporting and editing staff that I joined was -- no surprise -- predominantly white, though the newspaper already had two or three Black reporters (and at least one Black photographer) on staff. By then, The Star had abandoned its long and racist practice of refusing to run obituaries of Black people or print wedding or engagement announcements of Black people. In other words, at least some light was entering the old building at 18th and Grand, though much more was needed.
(When I took formal retirement from The Star, one of the people who came to a party at my house to celebrate was my former Star reporting colleague Geri Gosa [pictured here with me], who later became a TV reporter at Channel 5 in KC. She wasn't the first Black reporter at The Star, but she helped to normalize the idea that Blacks and other people of color belonged on the reporting staff.)
In my years as a reporter (before I became an editorial page columnist in 1977), I wrote a fair amount about subjects that the newspaper had pretty much ignored until roughly the 1960s -- housing segregation patterns, racial turnover in neighborhoods, public housing issues, redlining and similar concerns.
Perhaps my most productive year covering such matters came in 1975. I wrote (with a shared byline on one of the pieces) three long articles that year in this general subject area:
1. I demonstrated that about 50 square miles of the city -- Truman Road to 75th, Troost to I-435, where the population was predominantly Black -- had been redlined by conventional mortgage lenders. And I wrote about the damage that did to the city.
2. I then explored the question of how, without conventional mortgage lenders, property in that area changed hands and why the inherently racist and make-do system inevitably led to deteriorating neighborhoods.
3. I also focused on one square block in that area for articles that described how racial turnover -- white to Black -- swept through it and what systems were at work to cause upheaval to people's lives and to take unfair advantage of people of color.
I was proud of that work but, as I look back on it now, I acknowledge that had I been part of a racially integrated team of reporters the articles could have been much deeper and more enlightening. My experience of living for two years in India as a boy had helped to give me a sense of what it is like not to be part of a dominant culture, but that's not the same as having one or more Black partners in reporting the articles I've listed above.
As I look at this history as someone whose work now focuses primarily on matters of religion, I see that what the white leaders of The Star were doing for at least the first 80 or 90 years of the paper's existence was violating the foundational religious idea that all people -- all people -- should be treated with dignity and respect because they all are equal in God's sight.
This failure to live by basic and essential religious standards was not (and still is not) surprising when we understand how Christians in a nation where a majority of the population still identifies as Christian have routinely violated that fundamental teaching about the essential dignity of all human beings. Think of slavery. Think of the many ways women have been treated as second-class citizens. Think of how LGBTQ+ people have been crushed over and over. And on and on.
Acknowledgment of one's own failures is the first step in fixing them. That confession took too long for The Star to get to, but under editor Mike Fannin it's now been offered. Now the more difficult work must proceed to make sure that systemic racism is obliterated from internal Star systems and from its coverage of our community.
From back in the 1950s, when my church-sponsored Cub Scout troop in Woodstock, Ill., used to put on sickeningly racist minstrel shows, until the now, many good things have happened in race relations -- but at enormous cost and with great resistance. However, the sickness of white supremacy that was present at our nation's birth and incorporated into its founding documents still hasn't been obliterated from our community, our culture, our nation. Let's commit to making more progress toward uprooting that evil in 2021 (that's primarily a job for white people), when it appears we'll have national leadership that will help with that project instead of encouraging its opposite.
(If you know Kansas City and look carefully at the upper right center of the photo at the top here that I took a couple of years ago from the Liberty Memorial tower, you can see both the old Star building at 1729 Grand, where I spent most of my career, and the new Star building nearby.)
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SOUTHERN BAPTISTS STUMBLE INTO RACIAL TURMOIL
As we continue to think about race here today (and, by the way, race is a social/political construct, not a biological one), let's look at least briefly at the current race controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, as you may know, was created in 1845 as a church of Southern slaveholders. In more recent times it has apologized for its racist history and issued this long report on that history. But in recent weeks, the denomination kicked a hornet's nest when its six seminary presidents, including Jason K. Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City, issued a joint statement that denounced what is known as Critical Race Theory. (The link I've just given you will give you a pretty good sense of what CRT is about.) Now those SBC seminary presidents are being criticized in various ways and are defending their statement. It's unclear, at least to me, why they felt it necessary in the first place to issue the public statement critical of CRT instead of simply having an internal SBC debate or conversation about what aspects of CRT might be useful and what might not be for an organization so marinated in racism from its origin. Still, this gives all of us a chance to dig a little into CRT and decide whether it's a helpful way to conceive of answers that finally might help us recognize the long, sorrowful history of white supremacy in the U.S. and then work against it going forward.
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column describes my new book, which will be published Jan. 19. The column now is online here.