I owe our PBS NewsHour audience an apology, and, although I know that this blog will reach only a fraction of that audience, it’s the best I can do. In our NewsHour report about a summer program in Providence, RI, on Monday, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty, an egregious error on our part.
The piece begins with language about how summer highlights social and economic inequalities in our society. To wit, well-off children get to travel, go to museums, go to camp, et cetera, while children in poverty hang out with little or nothing to do. The result is what educators call ‘summer learning loss’ and a widening of ‘the achievement gap.’
That’s all true. What we did wrong was to show only white children in the travel-camp-museum part, and only black and Hispanic children in the poverty/learning loss/achievement gap section.
That is just plain wrong. Most of the children in poverty in America are white, and this country has a substantial middle- and upper middle-class black and Hispanic population.
The error was pointed out by Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor and author of “Bowling Alone,” in a strongly worded letter that he sent to Paul Solman, the NewsHour economics correspondent who is a friend of Dr. Putnam’s (and mine). Paul made certain that Dr. Putnam’s letter got to the right party, me.
Here is part of that letter, reprinted with his permission:
The unambiguous subtext (of your report): Poverty in America is exclusively about race. That is factually wrong, as your fellow editors surely know. … Indeed, most poor kids in America (including most poor kids who are harmed by the summer break, the nominal subject of the story) are white, but you’d never ever guess that from the Newshour story. A deep, deep cultural problem in America-and the biggest single obstacle to addressing these issues in our politics-is the fallacious racialization of poverty. Newshour should be fighting to overcome that racist fallacy, but last night’s program reinforced it. I don’t use the emotion-laden term “racist” lightly, but the segment was racist-unintentionally racist, no doubt, but just as racist as if it were a program about miscreant bankers that depicted only bankers who were stereotypically Jewish. The producers could have found examples of poor white kids who are harmed by the summer break, and many examples of summer programs addressing that problem that serve all races. (Indeed, there is a great one right here in Jaffrey, NH, 95% of whose kids are white.) But your editorial colleagues chose to highlight a racially homogenous program and thus, through negligence, to reinforce a deeply misleading stereotype. Whatever the intent, the visual subtext of this segment was: ‘Virtually all poor kids who need summer help are non-white.’ That is racist nonsense.
It’s clear that our presentation was misleading, wrong and uninformed, but was it ‘racist nonsense,’ as Professor Putnam said? I asked two prominent African American educators whom I have gotten to know over the years. Here’s what Linda Darling Hammond said:
I think it’s helpful to point out the demographics of poverty if you can, but I don’t think it’s racist to report on what’s happening for poor black and brown kids in Providence. It is still true that poverty is disproportionate in these communities.
And Dr. James Comer:
Racist or not, it is good reporting to provide a correct context — that race and poverty are not inextricably linked and that more children in poverty are white. The absence of context contributes to the collective unconscious belief among many that all Blacks are poor because of their performance. This contributes (for example) to the White store clerk who told me that I could not afford a camera that was expensive in his mind but not in mine; or the Black clerk who did not show my wife her best hats until requested.
During the week, Professor Putnam and I exchanged emails, and in a second letter he wrote, “I recognize that you are a serious professional, and that Newshour is not the only media outlet that commits this error. The trope that equates poverty with race lies deep in our culture and is therefore embedded in all our minds, mine as well as yours. You are a victim of that trope, not its creator. But that does not lessen the damage that your program has done, unintentionally, to the very cause you were admirably seeking to promote. With sensitivity to the pervasive misperception, instead of fostering it, Newshour could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.”
Professor Putnam also called my attention to Martin Gilens’ work “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” as well as Gilens’ 1999 book “Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy.” In both publications, Gilens documents the prevalence of images of black urban poor in coverage of poverty.
I responded, in part: “We have spent a lot of time today talking about our process and how we missed what is now obvious. One problem was that …. (we) never thrashed it through face-to-face, as we should have. End of the day, however, I did not catch it, and I should have. We see now that we should have opened the piece with visuals of privileged white, black and brown kids engaged in stimulating activities. Then we should have segued to visuals of impoverished white, black and brown kids. We could also have made the point about the distribution of poverty in our language as well, but first we should have gotten the visuals right.”
We learned a great deal from this experience. I am grateful to Professor Putnam for taking us to the woodshed and I apologize to our audience.