How We Save Our Body Politic

Farai Chideya
Digital Diplomacy
Published in
20 min readAug 24, 2020

--

Reflections from a Black Female Journalist on America at the Precipice

There is beauty amid the storms. Be well and know you are loved.

Hello friends:

I offered a version of these remarks to a powerful civic group recently. As part of my discourse on America in peril, I explained how hard it has been to be a Black female journalist. This may be the most personal and emotionally vulnerable writing I’ve shared publicly in my life. After all, I wanted to tell other people’s stories, not my own.

Many times I’ve been thwarted in doing my job of telling the truth by managers who either disbelieved my news judgment (see “cherry picking the facts”), permitted me to be harassed/humiliated, or openly stripped me and my team of resources. After I wrote this essay to the group, I had a conversation with prominent trauma studies specialist Jack Saul who said that journalists denied the chance to tell the truth by their newsrooms found it as damaging or more so than the effects of witnessing violence, war, or disaster.

It was a massive aha moment for me. Being denied the chance to tell the truth and help the world by doing so is a betrayal of the very premise of our profession, one I have felt acutely. At times, I have questioned whether my years as a journalist were wasted, since the act of telling the truth did not prevent this painful moment in history or measurably change the newsrooms I tried to de-bias. But I am just one runner in a long relay race towards justice, and I have to accept with humility that I cannot determine the outcomes, only my own actions.

Having covered the past six elections, I now find myself on the cusp of adding my voice to 2020 coverage as well. This fall, I launched the radio show/podcast Our Body Politic with a coalition of public radio stations: KCRW, KQED, and KPCC. Our Body Politic focuses on women of color as a superdemographic in American politics, and ask how we can save and improve our own lives and that of our nation. The marginalization of so many journalistic voices has impoverished our discourse and, as I argue in the essay, imperiled our national survival.

Here are two ways you could help Our Body Politic:

One, feel free to offer a donation. It goes without saying that many people are living on financial fumes right now so I am not here to add to that stress. It is useful for media organizations to get a number of small donations as well as larger ones to demonstrate support for the concept.

Second and more importantly, I want to know you. And I want to know who you want to hear from on the show. This is a show about harnessing our collective wisdom to help co-create a future we want to live in. I’ve been inspired by the work of the Guild of Future Architects and their work on, as they put it, “collaboratively shaping a just, inclusive, and prosperous world.” So this form will allow you to share a little bit about yourself if you want to be part of the interviews, virtual call-ins and voices from around the country; or add the name of someone you want to hear interviewed. (You can also share the form via https://forms.gle/Mdwqq3Ve8phDPxo7A)

Launching a new radio show is both life-affirming and terrifying. I have lots of scar tissue from my past experiences in journalism, and I also play lots of different roles in my career now. In some ways it would be easier to let this part of my life go. The world is filled with brilliant female journalists of color who cover politics exclusively or as a critical part of their work — Yamiche Alcindor, Asma Khaled, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Weijia Jang, Amna Nawaz, April Ryan and Maria Hinojosa just to name a few. All are different from each other and all are complete rockstars. It fills my soul to see them succeed. So I approach what I have to add with humility. I’m also doing this to learn. The past few years of my life have been an education in the business of journalism and storytelling, which I didn’t plan to do with my life but for which I am grateful. I am constantly in awe of creators I know like dream hampton, who can pull together multiple award-winning productions at a dizzying pace. She and the many other sisters in media give me hope.

The following speech/essay is not primarily about my time in journalism, but you will see many examples from it. The ways in which we women of color are marginalized in telling the truth is exemplary of larger national struggles. The primary focus is about how we are dying and will continue to die as a nation because of racial animus, and what we can do about it. It’s long. Get yourself a tea or coffee and settle in.

Sending love to all the people making journalism, America and the world better,

Farai

______________________________________________________________

Reflections from a Black Female Journalist on America at the Precipice

______________________________________________________________

Let me start with a quote from Toni Morrison*:

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

As a Black woman of Zimbabwean and Black American heritage, racism has been more than a distraction to me. It diminished my earnings and my impact on a field — journalism — which I love; impeded my chances to have a biological child when I walked away from a discriminatory workplace and had to spend down savings I planned to use on fertility; and caused the deaths of friends, family and neighbors.

I’ve seen some form of this era of rage, socioeconomic collapse, and reckoning coming, even as others in my profession seemed to think I was histrionic. A lot of that is pattern recognition honed over 30 years of journalism. I also live in a majority-Black mixed-income neighborhood where at least 5 of my neighbors in my building died of Covid in the first month of the epidemic alone. Many are essential workers and retirees, with newer members of the community tending to be white-collar workers of all races.

Think about our era like a train crash and derailment. Many people without privilege, including essential workers, were at the front of the train. Their lives have been impacted throughout the Trump presidency and well before it by catastrophic economic distress and political disenfranchisement. The next people to feel the train going off the track were people like me, who had either had deep lived experience of working income communities of color; pattern recognition skills attuned to race/class issues; or both. Others — including many of those who control what makes the news — live lives of privilege at the back of the train, and maybe didn’t feel anything at first when others were impacted. But I’d say for damned sure that everyone knows we’re off the rails as a nation now.

The economic disenfranchisement of Black people and other people of color is not limited in any way to poor or working class folks. I have dealt with extreme amounts of race and gender discrimination within journalism. Incidents included having a grant made to my Black-interest show at NPR stolen by another team’s white co-workers. No, I am not exaggerating, and yes I have proof. Later I was harassed by my white co-host on WNYC’s The Takeaway. CEO Laura Walker let him create a hostile work environment for three female cohosts of African descent, and sexually harass Asian women. Nonetheless, he was protected and made twice as much as us female cohosts. We lost income and, in my case, probably my last chance to have a biological child. I told Laura about the harassment directly to her face, and she did nothing, so she can’t pretend ignorance. Yet this month, she became a college president!

This is a total #FAIL of meritocracy, decency, and intersectional feminism. No Black woman could survive a documented history of allowing a man to harass a string of white women and then be elevated to college president. But Walker gets to be the moral leader that young women of color, and men and women of every race, rely on to tell them what it means to be a productive and moral citizen in the world. And Walker is far less qualified, with no terminal degree, than many Black and POC candidates for her job. White colleagues protected her, and white privilege protects her to this day. It’s an outrage. In other words, it’s just another day being Black.

I’m gratified to be launching a new radio show next month, Our Body Politic, centering women of color in politics. But it is not an exaggeration to say that I was robbed of years of doing my chosen work at the level of excellence at which I operate, with sufficient resources. Today, I help other journalists and storytellers find financial and production resources.

So, getting paid what I’m worth and being treated with respect in my industry has been a nightmare. If you read in on media news, you’ll see the entire public radio system, and many other media outlets, are being wracked by the racial equivalent of #MeToo. Not only were we journalists of color robbed of opportunity, the nation was harmed by our exile and marginalization. I dare say if you ask any Black reporter about the 2016 election, we knew Donald Trump was a serious contender WAY before our white colleagues realized that. (And some didn’t realize it until election night!)

At FiveThirtyEight, I was prevented from reporting on the impact of racial animus on politics for months, because Nate Silver thought I was, in his words, “cherry picking the facts.” I was just doing my job and matching historical patterns, including the career of Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, to the 2016 race. It took Nate months to announce that he had come around to recognizing the (obvious) pattern of Trump’s viability and reliance on racial resentment. I am still sad about all the stories I was not allowed to tell because a white supervisor believed I was motivated by racial score settling and not telling the truth. Nate and I have talked about it recently, but I’m still not sure he takes responsibility for suppressing work I could have added to our collective knowledge.

I call what I went through the Black Cassandra complex. Black women often see the future, because we have to hone our pattern recognition skills to survive, and we have to imagine a better future to carry on. But when we sound the alarm, no one listens to us. In fact, we get penalized for speaking uncomfortable truths. As one friend of mine who is a black female tech investor said, “I wish it didn’t cost us to tell the truth.”

Let me tell you one story about telling the truth with integrity. In 2016, I was verbally sexually harassed by a Trump voter I interviewed in Eastern Ohio. I could have put it in my story. But I believe it would have prejudiced readers rather than enlighten them. I could have gotten a ton of buzz for talking about my own sadness, anger, and shame at having been verbally violated. But that’s not what I was there to cover. I put the story before my story. I believed and still believe leaving that incident out was the right choice, and that writing about it later in a separate article was the right choice too.

So — remaining true to my calling and earning money has been hard. It’s also been hard to hold on to money. During my life, I have helped members of my extended family, including at one point my father. My dad was brilliant and principled, and dealt with mental illness later in life. He quit his job as the first post-independence news director of the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation because Robert Mugabe was forcing him to add propaganda to the news. He was blacklisted and died in relative poverty. So, discrimination made me earn less than my colleagues; and I also paid what South Africans call “The Black Tax” in aiding family in Zimbabwe and the US.

People who champion capitalism have some hard choices to make — choices just as hard as the ones facing democracy. American capitalism is just one variation on a theme. In many other capitalist nations, people of varied income share both the prosperity and the pain of progress better. Their capitalism is less callous, less cruel, and less unequal. Our version of capitalism grew from the bloody soil of slavery — which Senator Tom Cotton recently called a “necessary evil” — and from the land theft from Indigenous tribes. Please check out the Supreme Court case United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians to learn more about just one case that is pivotal to understanding the scale of theft. In other words, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root” is as much a part of the story of US capitalism as innovation and industry. And although we Black folk are certainly better off than in slavery, we are bound by an intergenerational system of labor discrimination and financial industry bias.

Capitalism is regional in execution. For example, German capitalism, while not perfect, is far more sophisticated and compassionate than American capitalism in many ways, including support for working parents. Of course, we’re the only developed country which doesn’t mandate paid parental leave, and which has little support for childcare. Germany also kicked our ass on an economic strategy re: the pandemic. (See: Kurzarbeit). So we have capitalism, and so does Germany. But here people die as “externalities” to our particular brand of capitalism far too often, in brutal numbers. (See: Purdue Pharma.)

American capitalism is a particular mix of capitalism, kleptocracy and oligarchy, and arguably becoming more of the latter two over time. Nonetheless, I believe that Black Americans should access the wealth and opportunity of this nation. We do the work, and have done it forever. We built the White House and the Capitol for no pay, i.e. slavery, back in the days where we were counted as 3/5ths of a human being. Today, Black women get 62 cents to the dollar that white men make. That’s not half a loaf… but it’s 3/5ths of a loaf, right?

One example of what’s so profoundly wrong with our system comes through analyses of the PPP loan process. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition sent Black and white testers to banks to talk about securing PPP loans for their small businesses. The Black applicants were deliberately given sample profiles that were financially stronger than the white testers. Nonetheless 43% of the time, the white tester received preferential treatment.

Because our federal government does not like keeping racial data anymore, the SBA is not the best place to go to find out where the money went. But some states were more data oriented. In North and South Carolina, which have Black populations of greater than 20 percent, only 3 percent of PPP loans over $150,000 went to Black companies. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Black-owned firms were shut out of PPP funds, and that half of Black owned businesses may not survive the pandemic.

This is just part of a pernicious intergenerational caste system which suppresses the earnings and life options of Black Americans… what some people call “negative compounding interest.”

I advise everyone to read the magnificent book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m fascinated by her words that “the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor beneath which all other castes cannot fall.” Yet whites are falling too, and those who are falling blame Blacks and immigrants, when frankly, we don’t have enough power to dictate their lives. We — Black, Latino, non-white, and immigrant — are being left to feel the blows. The people beating us down blame us for crimes against the American way of life we did not commit.

As a practicing journalist, I believe our race and class caste system has been not only a Toni Morrison-style distraction, but something like a psychic privacy fence, keeping perfectly smart and privileged people — white and non-white — from understanding how desperate our nation has become. Part of that is because the work of Black, Latino, and non-white journalists has been suppressed decade after decade when it didn’t fit the cultural frameworks of our white managers. (Kerner Commission report, anyone? We’re reliving it half a century later.) We also have little access to capital to form our own enterprises, even though the time is ripe. Capital and deal flow affecting Black entrepreneurs is horrid and prejudicial. You can research for yourself. I have spent years researching facts, hoping that “one more thing” that Morrison spoke about would convince white Americans to invest in justice. I still do that sometimes, but I believe that white Americans have to take responsibility for doing data and social analysis to inform their lives, rather than requiring Black Americans to constantly justify our existence, values, and economic fortunes.

Perhaps asking white Americans to do more of their own research about race will actually add to the understanding of the gravity of our times. Perhaps not. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson says: “It was common to hear in certain circles the disbelieving cries, “This is not America,” or “I don’t recognize my country,” or “This is not who we are.” Except that this was and is our country and this was and is who we are, whether we have known or recognized it or not.”

On a recent call my favorite high school teacher, who not long ago celebrated her 70th wedding anniversary and helped desegregate two schools, imagined a conversation with Shocked Good White People thus: “Join the world honey. This is it. You’re looking at it.”

— — — — — -

I’ve been looking at it — meaning American reality, good and bad — for decades now.

My own family is an example of the caste system too. In every generation until mine, we have been forbidden to buy land in white areas (see: redlining), which diminished our wealth, and faced extreme job and salary discrimination. My grandmother paid an awful price — financial and psychological — for being a whistleblower about racial discrimination in her government job. She was vindicated in principle, and changed the system. But she never recouped the money she lost from seven years of being denied promotions and raises; spent her final years in financial anxiety; and died of medical malpractice I believe was related to racism.

She told me many tales about visiting her grandfather in Virginia, James Porter Montague, who served in the Civil War and was raised by a white family. Is this a happy inspirational story? Not quite. From what we know both from historical documents and family oral histories I did with elders, the white family was led by James’ father, who sold his enslaved mother downriver when the boy was nine years old.

What does it mean to be free ONLY to the extent that you have the indulgence of someone who also harms you? It sounds a lot like a metaphor for contemporary America.

Going down the generations, my family has fought in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We are people who serve in many ways — as educators, doctors (a century ago as well as now), plus ecological scientists, programmers and engineers in my and our parents’ generation. All have faced discrimination.

My mother, a promising American journalist who worked in Zambia and interned at the Washington Post after graduate school, was shut out of American journalism based on race and gender. She became a teacher who worked two jobs to support me and my sister when we were young. At a recent dinner with CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker, he told me his father was also an aspiring journalist blocked by racial exclusion, as my mother was. Both of us are walking in the ghost footsteps of parents who never got to live their dreams.

So I have dedicated my life to journalism, and it has paid me back with a mix of joy and pain, visibility and lack of resources; lower earnings than people with less talent and seniority; and an inability to change systems biased against telling the truth. (The original “cancel culture” has been blocking Black and non-white contributions to our collective knowledge.)

— — — — — — — — — -

But enough about the Black people and how the caste system has harmed us. What about whites?

That is not a sarcastic question. It’s a matter of life and death.

Today white Americans are dying of Covid-19 because of the secondary effects of anti-Black racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. The election of Donald Trump would not have been possible without weaponized racial resentment. Any other president — white or non-white; Democrat or Republican — could have done more to stop the virus. But it’s not just the President. Even before he took office, our public health infrastructure was compromised by racial resentment in policymaking, from pandemic preparedness to Medicaid expansion.

Last year, Dr. Jonathan Metzl published the book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”

In the book, he speaks with “Trevor, a forty-one-year-old uninsured Tennessean” living in low-income housing and dying from liver damage from hepatitis C. Neighboring state Kentucky adopted the ACA and Medicaid expansion, while Tennessee blocked it.

Trevor supported that. Quoting him in the book talking to Metzl: ‘ ““Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he told me. “I would rather die.” When I asked him why he felt this way even as he faced severe illness, he explained: “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.” ‘

Metzl says that Trevor died of dogma… “dogma suggesting to Trevor that minority groups received lavish benefits from the state, even though he himself lived and died on a low-income budget with state assistance. Trevor voiced a literal willingness to die for his place in this hierarchy, rather than participate in a system that might put him on the same plane as immigrants or racial minorities.”

Metzl adds, “The white body that refuses treatment rather than supporting a system that might benefit everyone is a metaphor for the decline of the nation as a whole.”

This is how we die, not just as individuals, but as a nation.

We die when Good White People — the white moderates Rev. King criticized as more detrimental to progress than the KKK — simply throw up their hands and say: “This isn’t the America I know!”

Well, isn’t it time to get to know America then? Specifically, I’d love privileged people to dress down, go to the Dollar General. Or go to Waffle House, order a coffee. You don’t even have to drink it. Just….listen. Listen to America. Preferably in many different types of working income communities.

In order to know America, I have met Klanspeople in a parking lot after a blizzard; talked to members of the Aryan Nation; been sexually and racially harassed by both sources and co-workers; and been… free. Give me a set of rental car keys and a tape recorder and I can show you the world. I have foresight, not in the mystical sense but because I’ve honed my ability to predict futures based on study of past patterns and constant meetings with people across the spectrum of race/class/gender/identities. And this is what I know:

No matter who wins this election, the culture wars will rage on. I predict that personal and property crime, including and especially white vigilante violence, will at least briefly intensify rather than subside after the election. And people will die.

Americans of all races will continue to die in part because hard liners, including wealthy ideology-driven funders, pushed the politics of racial resentment. White moderates assumed it wasn’t their problem. Now even some of the wealthiest white Americans cannot travel freely internationally on their private planes because people who only have US passports are global pariahs instead of global citizens. The children of the wealthy may not be able to go to college on campus in the fall, in large part because the weaponization of race and class made us “fail” the pandemic. And that, of course, is nothing compared to what working class people are going through. The willingness of many to ignore — or even leverage for personal gain — racial and class warfare made us less of a nation than we could be.

Let me repeat: This is how we die.

More specifically, if we do not change course, this is how we die both as individuals and as a nation, economically, physically, and spiritually.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

So how do we live?

We live by asking ourselves where we fit in America’s caste system; being honest about whether or not we care about fixing it; and if we do, being about it. We can take whatever role in the universe we occupy, from homemaker to Fortune 500 CEO, and begin a moral inventory about what our role is in solving our collective problems. We go to our areas of excellence, and imbue them with values that make our world better, in ways big and small. We have skin in the game. We lose sometimes. We don’t hoard resources while people are dying, or underpay essential workers. We examine systems of taxation, infrastructure, and education for long-term efficacy. We do not make ending the race/class caste system someone else’s problem.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Let me touch on what companies and co-workers can do.

I recently went through a gut-wrenching moment where another woman of color (from a different race) and I spoke out about a company we both had worked at, and which harmed us both. Many white former employees spoke out in support of us. They named the top manager as the problem, and said he should do better. The only thing is — few of these same people spoke up when we were employed. We walked a lonely road in standing up for our dignity. In my case, I also stood up publicly for all the women in the company — who were overwhelmingly white.

I’m tired of fighting for people who don’t fight for me.

White people: If you see something, say something….. or don’t pretend to be an ally. I don’t need post-facto support. I just need to be paid fairly for the work I do and given a chance to perform in my zone of excellence.

And here’s a suggestion for companies and managers:

Pay people to do diversity work. Women and people of color have been going to boring useless diversity meetings for years, disproportionately doing the unpaid labor which in the end is not embraced by leadership. So: make your diversity committee competitive. Make people apply and state what they can offer; give people a fixed amount of money for serving; offer them a bonus if they do great work; and most importantly, reserve a pot of money that the vetted committee gets to disburse. Diversity work will never be meaningful if it continues to be done only by underrepresented groups for no money.

— — — — — — — — — — — -

Let me circle back to Toni Morrison’s words on racism and distraction. Let’s consider them in the context of white deaths from Covid and the lack of pattern recognition and historical context about how America became what it is.

I think today racism is distracting white people from examining their own mortality, and the mortality of American civic life. Black people live with mortality every damned day — our own, our families’, our communities’.

None of us will live forever. Our nation might not either. And how long America lasts and how healthy it is depends on you. I don’t have enough power and leverage to save America from our own worst instincts. But WE do, collectively. If we can have honest conversations and apply resources where they belong, we have a shot. It will not come without a personal cost to you, just as it has not come without a personal cost to me and others.

We breathe each others’ air. We do not share the same struggles, but we share the same earth. I wish that was enough to reassure me that we are on a path to shared prosperity and civic survival. The jury is out.

I wish us all good luck at co-creating a world we want to live in.

/end

_______________________

* The amazing data journalist Lam Thuy Vo shared the Toni Morrison quote with me. You can listen to Morrison’s full 1975 speech here.

--

--

Farai Chideya
Digital Diplomacy

Radio show/podcast “Our Body Politic” @ farai.com/our-body-politic. Covered every Presidential election 1996–2020. Books include “The Episodic Career.”