In their own words: Journalists discuss coverage of racism and blackface

From left to right: Panelists Je South, Mechelle Hankerson, Clarence Thomas and Samantha Willis. (Photo by Raelyn Fines)

Chip Lauterbach, Contributing Writer


Some of Richmond’s leading journalists discussed the impact of blackface — and media coverage of issues like racism — on African-Americans at a panel discussion at the Commons on Monday.

The discussion was held by the Robertson School of Media and Culture, the parent school of VCU’s journalism program. Clarence Thomas, a Robertson School professor whose research focuses include media history, moderated the panel.

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams joined freelance journalist Samantha Willis, Robertson School professor Jeff South and Virginia Mercury reporter Mechelle Hankerson on the panel.

A report from USA Today found myriad examples of blackface and other forms of racist imagery, including people in Ku Klux Klan robes from 1970-1980. Earlier this month, a Commonwealth Times investigation revealed that yearbooks from MCV and the Richmond Public Institute, a school that preceded VCU, had racist imagery in their pages as late as 1989.

These findings led the panel to question the roles and responsibilities of the media when covering deeply sensitive topics.

Thomas began the session by highlighting the damage blackface causes, saying it is never “flattering, innocent or complimentary.”

“Instead, blackface, as a visual notion is much like how the ‘N-word’ is a verbal notion,” Thomas said. “They are both insulting and demeaning, crafted by an insensitive majority culture and inflicted upon a minority population that had no power to do anything about it.”

Here’s what members of the panel said about a number of relevant key issues:


On controversy surrounding Gov. Ralph Northam and how the media missed the mark in covering his past


Jeff South: Northam seemed so bland that I think journalists had an implicit bias, and that is why people didn’t drill into his background. It is clearly a failing of journalists to vet people who are running for office. That is the role of accountable media.

Michael Paul Williams: [Northam’s] refusal to clarify which person he was in that photo is what I found to be highly disturbing. That Klansman in the photo bothers me more than anything else on that page. The fact that there is no distance between that Klansman and his yearbook page is just something that I cannot move past.

Mechelle Hankerson: I think it has to do with a lack of diversity in newsrooms, there aren’t black voices standing up and saying, ‘Yeah the blackface thing is really bad, but you know what is worse, there is a dude in a [Ku Klux Klan] robe, and we should probably ask the governor if that is him or who it was if it was not him.’

Samantha Willis: Seeing both the Klan robe and the blackface in one picture showed just how pervasive racism is in American society. And the fact that media members didn’t give enough thought to say, ‘let’s breakdown why there is this fundamental failure, where our governor appears in a photo with blackface, but also a representation of a domestic terrorist group.’

It speaks to the fact that racism is deeply embedded in all facets of our society.


On whether Virginia can reconcile for racism in its past and move forward


Hankerson: For us as Virginians, this is a big deal, because it seriously looked like our Governor was going to resign, which is an extremely rare event. That hasn’t happened since the 1800s.  

Look at what else has transpired in Virginia in the last couple years. This is just another indication that we are nowhere close to where we should be as a state.

Williams: I think Virginia is the perfect place to address these issues because the original sin of slavery started here 400 years ago, the Civil War ended here, we had the first elected black governor.

If we can solve it here, then we could solve it in America. I would not diminish Virginia’s importance in addressing the issues of race.


Willis: There is just no way we can move forward with a real effort of reconciliation with someone as governor who fundamentally doesn’t understand the needs and histories of communities of color.

I feel strongly that we cannot design our way out this, and there seems to be a lack of accountability for racism the same way we now hold people accountable for other crimes such as sexual assault.  

Unless we get serious and hold racism as the same type of social ill or moral stain on our society the way sexual assault is, we will never get past the problem. We will never progress as a society to make this a more equitable place for all citizens.

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