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Say it with me: Racism

“We are not in the hint business; we are here to report facts, including the difficult facts of racism.”

While I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, here’s one I’m definitely encouraging for 2019: It’s time for all of us in journalism to pledge to not just report on racism, but to call it out.

Many of us know racism when we see it, and we’ve seen plenty of it in recent years, from the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville to white people repeatedly calling the police on black people for doing everyday activities. But we haven’t always reported it that way, and we should be asking ourselves and our colleagues why race continues to be treated like a four-letter word.

We don’t say “gender-tinged” when we mean sexist. If we’re honest, talking about race makes white Americans — including journalists — uncomfortable. We see constant proof of this in the journo-gymnastics of our headlines and ledes, with toothless phrases like “racial rhetoric,” “racially charged” or “racially tinged.” They mean little, and do even less to convey what it is that we’re actually trying to report.

But more than that: Such phrases have risen to terms of art for our profession that often feel like a wink and a nod to viewers, readers and listeners that assumes a shared set of values, putting the onus on them to figure out what we mean instead of being explicit. It’s a “both sides” approach that leaves room for doubt and dismissal.

Our avoidance of this issue — and the historical harm done as a result — has already come under scrutiny on social media and in essays. It also leaves many journalists of color, who are often less hesitant to make it plain when racism makes news, alone in the fight and pleading their case to squeamish gatekeepers.  

By not confronting racism or reducing it to matter of opinion on an individual or systemic level in our journalism — the first draft of history — we leave a less accurate record for those who come behind us. We are not in the hint business; we are here to report facts, including the difficult facts of racism.

There will be much more to report in the coming year. As race intersects with every aspect of our society, from sports to politics to education, journalists must have their own reckoning around talking about race.

In an era that has seen a resurgence in racial polarization, retreat cannot be the response. We must resolve to do better, and make this a resolution that actually sticks.

Errin Haines Whack is The Associated Press’ national writer on race and ethnicity.

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