Last week, the Chatham County Board of Health unanimously approved a statement declaring structural racism as an ongoing public health crisis. I was at the meeting, albeit remotely, covering the …
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Last week, the Chatham County Board of Health unanimously approved a statement declaring structural racism as an ongoing public health crisis. I was at the meeting, albeit remotely, covering the board’s discussion for the News + Record.
It was a good and important statement. But like the other myriad statements written during the national reckoning following George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis, it was just that — a statement.
Don’t get me wrong. After watching the initial discussions about crafting such a statement, I was pleased to see the board not mince words, declaring that it’s “an irrefutable fact that race and socio-economic status have innumerable influences on health outcome” and that it’s “not enough to simply declare structural racism a public health crisis.” The board’s statement was admittedly better than many other statements I’ve read over the last months: it didn’t use euphemisms for racism, and it pledged commitment to continued work and objective monitoring of its efforts.
Still, the board’s lack of a formal plan or agenda in addressing “the root causes and secondary influences” of structural racism echoes what I fear is becoming a normalized Band-Aid approach to addressing the pervasive and destructive nature of racism in the United States — joining in a whirlwind of a collective emotional response to the overt ugliness of racism without committing to the collective responsibility required to untangle ourselves from the white supremacy underlying these structural inequalities.
It is easy for a decent person to say it is wrong that Latinx people are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, harder to advocate overturning racialized immigration laws that enable businesses to exploit their essential workers. It is easy for an honorable person to protest blatant police misconduct, harder to critically examine the origins of American policing from “Slave Patrols,” which were meant to capture runaway freed Black people and prevent rebellions among enslaved people through terror and intimidation tactics. It is easy for a respectable person to grimace at school discipline statistics showing Black students disproportionately punished for things their white peers get away with, harder to put practices in place that punish not only the overtly racist teacher but also the well-meaning one acting based on implicit biases. It is easy — and important — for a noble person to name injustice when they see it, harder to acknowledge individual shortcomings and work toward justice.
And yet, the hard work must get done, too.
This hard work must be done by all of us, individually and collectively. It must be done long after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are names used in speeches for political gain rather than to honor and grieve lives lost unnecessarily and too soon. It must be done when businesses — many run largely by white people — stop profiting off of “Black Lives Matter” merchandise and false promises of inclusivity. As so many Black people and activists have urged their followers on social media: “This is a movement, not a moment.” A well-written statement may meet the moment, but it can never sustain the movement.
For starters, more Black people and people of color need to be in financially compensated positions of power and decision-making roles in organizations and businesses. Because diversity for the sake of diversity is not enough. We should care about diversity, not because it makes us look better or more progressive, but because we truly cannot achieve excellence without it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the News + Record’s place in all this — a quick look at the faces of other editorial and opinion writers shows that we are not doing all that should be done. I am a fairly new reporter in Chatham, but I understand that historically, the News + Record (particularly its Chatham predecessors, The Chatham News and The Chatham Record) has employed predominately white people and featured predominantly white-centered stories.
We are a small newspaper with a small staff and limited resources — meaning sometimes simply staying in business is the prerogative, with diversity initiatives sadly falling to the wayside with many other important, “not right now” ideas. This is a dilemma many newsrooms find themselves in. But at the end of the day, we must ask ourselves: is a newspaper really and truly valuable if it only amplifies and covers certain parts of the community?
I believe that the News + Record’s publisher — and my boss — Bill Horner III has made great strides in improving our presence as a community paper, for all of the community. The paper has lost a few subscribers and three single-copy sales outlets in Siler City, and was told this was specifically due to our coverage of race issues — a financial sacrifice I hope we continue to be willing to make. As a staff, we have worked to shed light on inequality, write openly about racism and expand our regular coverage. This summer, the News + Record’s La Voz de Chatham project began its important coverage on the impact of the pandemic on the county’s Latinx community. Still, righting wrongs is not easy.
When it comes to transgressions and shortcomings committed over decades, our work cannot be complete with one statement, project or story. As a News + Record reporter, I pledge to work toward amplifying all voices of the community — not just those who are loudest or subscribe to our paper — and, when I do fall short in my coverage, to listen to and learn from criticism.
At the end of the day, I do not want to be complicit in maintaining a Band-Aid approach to addressing the manifestations of structural racism in this country and our communities. I want to join in the work that’s been done by Black communities and other people of color for centuries, rather than elevating my own voice and ideas. Even when it is uncomfortable and difficult, I want to engage in the work that results not in my inflated ego, but in change. I want to be known not by my statements, but by a lifetime of consistent actions.
What about you?
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com.