Last week, Vice News released a 22-minute documentary of the militant white men who descended upon Charlottesville to make clear that “Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” as one neo-Nazi put it, were not welcome in America. A neo-Nazi named Christopher Cantwell, who on Wednesday turned himself in for arrest on three felony charges, told host Elle Reeve, “We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.”
The video, in which Reeve is embedded with Cantwell and other white supremacists as they travel through the protests, has been viewed over 40 million times and exposes the depth of these vile beliefs in a way that is difficult to dismiss. In it, Reeve walks alongside white nationalists with steely resolve as they chant Nazi slogans like “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” Cantwell tells her he’s “trying to make myself more capable of violence” against blacks and Jews, and unloads multiple firearms and a knife in his hotel room. The documentary is chilling and vital. But watching it, I realized that though I am among those most endangered by Cantwell’s rhetoric, as a brown journalist I would never be able to talk to white supremacists without a certain base-level fear of potential harm in the way that Reeve, who is white and blonde, was able to.
To be clear, plenty of non-white journalists have interviewed white supremacists. But in the recent mainstream resurgence of white nationalists, most have done so in controlled, sterile environments—intentionally neutral ground which tends to obscure the violence they advocate. On Viceland, Asian-American chef Eddie Huang ate a fancy dinner with white nationalist Jared Taylor while Taylor calmly explained why America belonged to the white race. In the CNN documentary series United Shades of America, host W. Kamau Bell sat down with white nationalist Richard Spencer to talk about Spencer’s desire to “bathe in white privilege.” The tone of the interview, which received enough criticism that Bell responded to the backlash with an op-ed, was conversational and even friendly. But Taylor and Spencer, who appear clean-cut and wear crisp collared shirts, put on an air of respectability that deliberately paints their racism as more palatable than that of Cantwell. Though these neutral environments maintain a safer way for reporters of color to gain access to hostile interview subjects, this type of profile can reinforce the same “sophisticated fascist” trope already proliferated by the media.
When reporters of color do embed themselves with white supremacists on their own turf, they can be putting themselves in real, palpable danger. Last month, Univision’s Ilia Calderón visited North Carolina KKK leader Christopher Barker with a small production crew in Yanceyville and confronted him not in a sanitized conference hall, but on his own yard. During the interview, released last week, Barker called her “nigger” and threatened to “burn” Calderón “out” of his property and, symbolically, out of America, because she’s a black immigrant:
“Are you going to chase me out of here?” Calderón asks.
“No, we’re going to burn you out,” Barker says.
“Oh, you’re going to burn me out?” Calderón says, without losing composure.“How are you going to do it? How are you going to do it with 11 million immigrants?”
“Don’t matter,” he responds. “Hey, we killed 6 million Jews the last time. 11 million is nothing.”
“You’re telling me that you’re going to burn me,” she says.
“Yeah. You’re sitting in my property now.”
“He was so furious that a black person stepped in. Some of those names that he called me, I didn’t even hear them before in my life,” Calderón told Jezebel over the phone. “He was not physically violent, but all his body language and speech was hate.”
Throughout their conversation, Calderón pushed back against Barker’s rhetoric aggressively, even asking Barker point-blank, “Are you racist?” (He responded, “No”). Though she leaned forward, challenging him with a raised voice, she was visibly rattled by his outright threat of violence.
“It was hard. It was hard, but at the same time, it is what people out there are facing everyday, you know?” she told Jezebel of her reaction to Barker’s threats. “It was a combination between being scared and at the same time, strong. Like I’m not going to move from here. He’s not going to make me leave.”
Some viewers asked Calderón why she accepted the interview with Barker at all, knowing already that she’d be stonewalled. Her response:“My skin color cannot limit my work as a journalist.”
“I wanted to show the world who are they, where are they, how do they think, why do they hate us, what are the reasons why. I just wanted to face hate,” she said. “I just wanted to look into his eyes and ask him, Why do you hate me because of what I represent?”
Still, “I don’t think they would allow a black reporter to go in deep and spend days with them,” Calderón admitted, and told Jezebel that she doesn’t see a point in embedding herself with, say, the KKK. It would just be “more of the same,” she said.
According to the 2016 survey by the American Society of News Editors, on average, only 11 percent of the staff in digital newsrooms are people of color. My fear, as a journalist and person of color, is that newsrooms that already skew white will become even less diverse as editors shift resources to cover the white supremacy movement as its own specific beat; that the people placed in these positions will be white; and that those who don’t look like the people in the movement will be further shut out.
While the rise of Donald Trump and the increased visibility of the KKK has shocked white Americans, people of color and black Americans have been less surprised. “If more newsrooms covered white supremacy with the intensity it deserves, fewer white people might have been surprised by the events in Charlottesville,” Christiana Mbakwe wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review this week, arguing that newsrooms should cover the threat of white supremacists with the same seriousness that they cover international terrorist organizations like ISIS. “There is a significant risk newsrooms will treat Charlottesville the way they treated the church murders in Charleston—like an aberration rather than a symptom of an ideology knitted into the fabric of America.”
Last year, New Yorker writer Doreen St. Félix pointed out a trend in the media she called “logistical racism,” a term she coined after seeing profile after profile by white reporters about white nationalists. Perhaps the worst was a Mother Jones piece that treated Spencer as an interesting, albeit mildly controversial, personality; it ran with the cheery headline, “Meet the White Nationalist Trying to Ride the Trump Train to Lasting Power.” In the piece, writer Josh Harkinson breathlessly called the white supremacist “[a]n articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic.” A tweet promoting the article described Spencer as a “dapper white nationalist.” This profile was just one example of a spate of them which doted on the nuances of white Trump supporters, explaining away their racism as simply economic and cultural anxiety. St. Félix retweeted her original tweet last Tuesday, in the wake of Charlottesville, after having seen what she described to Jezebel as another soft profile on a white supremacist.
“When I say logistical racism, I mean that there are a lot of presumptions going on,” she told me. “The newsroom understanding that they need to very heavily focus on white subjects. And those might be people who are part of white supremacist movements, but those also might be rural people or they might be middle class people, right? So there’s this idea that they need to focus on those people. And then it just creates this domino effect, where journalists [of color] get shut out.”
“I do think that if you are in a position that you can use your identity that you can get into one of those spaces, I think you should, but I also think that we should be as curious about people who are not white, who are not white and male,” she continued. “We don’t really know what people of color who live in rural America are thinking right now. Because we haven’t had a lot of reporting done that focuses on that part of the population.”(More recently, Mother Jones got it right when they published a story about how rural people of color were faring in Trump’s America. When editor Clara Jeffery shared the piece on Twitter, she wrote, “After endless pieces detailing the feelings of white rural Americans, we talked to rural people of color.”)
One of the best pieces of longform journalism this year is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent profile for GQ, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof.” As America struggles to understand how a 19-year-old white man could murder a black prayer group, Ghansah’s piece is precisely the kind of journalism America needs in order to begin reconciling with its racism.
“In Charleston, I learned about what happens when whiteness goes antic and is removed from a sense of history,” Ghansah wrote. “It creates tragedies where black grandchildren who have done everything right have to testify in court to the goodness of the character of their slain 87-year-old grandmother because some unfettered man has taken her life.”
To most of white America, Ghansah argues, Roof is an aberration; a mentally troubled young man who did a heinous and inexplicable thing. But, as her research into Roof’s childhood and development reveals, his crime was explained very easily: he killed black people because he hated them with a singular focus. Roof was an inevitable, if extreme, byproduct of someone raised in a culture that celebrates the memory of slavery, continues to regard black people with wariness, and excuses racial slurs and racist jokes as idle banter. He simply followed those bigoted thoughts to their logical conclusion:
Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump’s Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.
No white writer, no matter how talented, could have written the feature that Ghansah did, or articulated how researching Roof made her feel as a black woman in America. She wrote:
I am a black woman, the descendant of enslaved people, so I went anyway and walked along the same path that Roof did, where the quarters are set on something cheerfully marked as “Slave Street.” I stood next to the dummies that are supposed to represent black people in their deepest ignominy, and noticed that there were no dummies that were supposed to represent the masters or the mistresses of the plantation. I listened to a group of young white women sigh at the Alley of the Oaks, a corridor of trees near Slave Street. One of them lamented, “It was so beautiful that pictures couldn’t really do it justice.”
Confederate monuments are finally coming down. Since the protests in Charlottesville, Trump’s approval rating is at just 36 percent, and even members of his own party are beginning to denounce his erratic, hostile statements and actions. Media outlets have a real opportunity, right now, to transform America’s understanding of racism. But will they reach for easy takes on outrageous villains and waste this moment? Or can they help forge a path forward?