Journalists of color were right about Trump. Why didn't we listen?
Why America's newsrooms must employ more minority writers
Back in 2016, these journalists of color all used their platforms to send a warning about the racist undertones of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. All too often these writers were dismissed as alarmists, or as race-obsessed practitioners of "identity politics." But as the events in Pittsburgh last weekend and those in Louisville last week have demonstrated, these writers were absolutely right.
This country needs more minority journalists in its newsrooms. And we fellow Americans need to do a better job of listening to them.
Is this really an issue? After all, the writers I've named here work or have worked for places like The New York Times, Slate, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic — all of them prestige publications. Most of them have widespread followings on social media. Hannah-Jones was named a MacArthur Genius in 2017.
But you don't have to look much beyond the surface to detect a real problem with minority representation in newsrooms. A 2017 survey showed that just one in six American newsroom employees are racial minorities — and the situation is even worse for women of color. That's not good enough: America needs these voices. Journalists of color can and often do point out America's blind spots.
Paging through Bouie's 2015 and 2016 dispatches for Slate, one is struck by their stubborn prescience, informed by a deep familiarity with this country's history and a refusal to view that history through rose-colored glasses.
"We can't just dismiss Trump as entertainment," Bouie wrote in 2015, when many pundits were doing just that. Like segregationist politician George Wallace, Bouie wrote, "Trump is an eruption of the ugliest forces in American life, at turns authoritarian, like the Louisiana populist Huey Long, or outright fascistic, like the Second Ku Klux Klan. And like all of the above, he's brought the background prejudice of American life to the forefront of our politics, and opened the door to even worse rhetoric and action."
In the hours after the 2016 election that gave Trump the White House, Bouie was even more blunt: "I see a man who empowered white nationalists and won."
Cobb, writing in The New Yorker on the eve of the election, was similarly uncompromising: "The problem of Trump is not simply that his opinions far exceed his knowledge; it's that what he does know is so hostile to democracy, not only in the Republican Party or the United States but in the world." Having now watched Trump make nice with dictators ranging from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who can now doubt it?
Perhaps because of their racial backgrounds, these journalists haven't necessarily been inclined toward a gauzy view of America's past, and they haven't been immersed in the idea of American exceptionalism the way many of their white counterparts have. As a result, they've often been able to view and describe events with greater clarity than many of their colleagues.
And research since the election has borne out the reporting and commentary of these journalists, debunking the idea that "economic anxiety" powered Trump's victory, and offering evidence that Republican voters in 2016 were instead motivated primarily by the ugly forces of racism and sexism. That's not a message that has often been welcomed in mainstream journalism.
"Donald Trump won the thing by appealing to white voters, and running an unabashed campaign of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and other odds and ends of nastiness," Newkirk wrote after the election, reflecting on his family's history of dealing with racism. "This is who we are."
Why didn't we heed the warnings of minority journalists?
Part of the problem, surely, is that race is complicated: Some of Trump's voters did indeed support Barack Obama during the previous two elections. Some of it was about persuasion: It's hard to win the support of white voters when you're calling them racist. And some of it was simply strategic: Many observers were convinced after 2016 that white working class voters were the key to any election victory, and urged Democrats to play down the concerns of racial minorities to make the appeal.
But the wake-up calls from minority journalists have only become more prescient as time marches on. The problems of Trump's presidency don't go away if you try to ignore them, and these journalists have, by and large, refused to do any ignoring.
Representation matters. It's incumbent upon editors to do more to make sure their newsrooms look like their communities. It's up to us in the audience to make sure that we hear and encourage the minority journalists already being published. They were right about Trump. If only we'd listened.
Editor's note: This article has been slightly revised since it was first published.