When did we go from celebrating the differences in race and culture among all Americans to barely tolerating them?
That's one of the questions baking my brain as I watch jubilation over election of the country's first black president turn into harsh questions about the cultural pride expressed by Latina Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and anger after the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home.
Media outlets haven't been much help. There's readership and ratings points in chewing over these issues like a piece of well-worked cud, so viewers are treated to endless shouting matches from opportunists of every stripe and precious little original reporting or nuanced thought.
I can't help thinking what civil rights pioneers like Martin Luther King Jr. might think of wealthy, powerful white men such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck accusing America's first black president of racism.
What's obvious is that there's still a wide gulf between how some of us think about these issues, based in part on our race, culture and class standing.
Which, in an odd way, explains why I work with the National Association of Black Journalists.
From the moment I started as a professional journalist nearly 20 years ago, I've been a volunteer member of the NABJ's national organization and local chapters, holding office in the Pittsburgh and New Jersey branches before becoming president of the Tampa Bay area chapter.
At first, membership is about meeting journalists like yourself and networking in an industry where more than 40 percent of the nation's newspapers still don't have any people of color on staff.
But, before long, you learn that NABJ is also about helping the news industry understand and cover race issues better by helping journalists of color earn equal access to newsrooms.
Tampa's going to see that dynamic firsthand this week, as NABJ brings its sprawling national convention to the Tampa Convention Center from Wednesday to Sunday. There's a peculiar form of showbiz at hand, as this year's convention draws a long list of boldfaced names to speak at workshops, film screenings and panel discussions.
A short list includes Chris Rock, the Rev. Al Sharpton, LeBron James, Tom Joyner, Robin Roberts, Gwen Ifill and a screening of the first animated Disney film to feature a black princess, The Princess and the Frog.
It's always interesting to see the effect an NABJ convention has on some cities. Atlanta may not notice a gathering that brings thousands of suit-wearing black and brown professionals to its downtown, but in Milwaukee or Seattle, it's a sight which puzzles the locals.
So, as Tampa prepares for the unique experience that is hosting an NABJ event, here's a look at one media critic's answers to some of the questions which always come up when we come to town. The answers say more about media culture and the nation's twisted history on race issues than anything else.
Why isn't there a National Association of White Journalists?
My quippy answer lists mainstream journalism groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of News Editors, which are dominated by white people.
But the serious reply notes that NABJ's name can be misleading. What we're really about is two values, which remain important to journalists of all ethnicities: accuracy and fairness.
It helps to know a little history. NABJ was born in the aftermath of a rushed integration of many TV and newspaper newsrooms amid the upheavals of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War. As race-focused riots roiled American ghettos, news outlets realized they needed reporters of color to go places white journalists often couldn't. These newly minted journalists realized they needed to join together in facing the peculiar office politics and unthinking limitations of the industry.
The idea is simple. Increasing diversity in newsrooms increases the accuracy of your reporting and analysis, especially when you're reporting on cultures and issues outside white America's comfort zone. The reality is that achieving real diversity is difficult, requiring a wide array of scholarship programs, training, networking and efforts to write a new history. That's why there's an NABJ, a National Association of Hispanic Journalists, an Asian American Journalists Association and a Native American Journalists Association.
Why aren't white people allowed to join NABJ?
That's another misconception: There are white members of NABJ, just as there are white members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Like the NAACP, NABJ's name describes its mission more than its membership.
Can NABJ members really be fair in covering race-tinged issues, such as Barack Obama's election?
To be fair, I think some NABJ members have struggled to balance the advocacy of the group with their own sense of fairness in journalism and perceptions of bias. The issue can emerge in something as simple as crowd reaction to a convention speaker, where Obama might get a more enthusiastic reception than George W. Bush.
The real answer is that each journalist has to be judged on his or her work, not membership in a professional organization.
Do groups like NABJ help dialogue across race or worsen it?
I think we're in a historic moment, where the decades of work by groups such as NABJ has borne fruit.
People of color now hold powerful positions in institutions previously closed to them, and considering their perspectives — sometimes fair, sometimes not — will test the bounds of public discourse and media coverage.
It's important to have journalists of color covering these issues, especially people who have thought about these concepts already in workshops and training sessions.
For journalists committed to the craft, there may be no better way to elevate our discourse on such a divisive subject.
Eric Deggans serves as chair of the NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee and president of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists. He can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected] See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Bill O'Reilly has not accused President Barack Obama of racism. An article in Sunday's Perspective section about the National Association of Black Journalists incorrectly included the Fox newscaster in a list of commentators who have publicly accused the president of racism.