Racism, like COVID-19, is a global pandemic. It has been a systemic element of American culture for 400 years. Like the virus there is neither vaccine nor treatment, it spreads throughout the world in billions of incidents, and as we’ve just been reminded, it can also kill. What can we do?
One more impassioned speech, or “study” won’t eradicate racism. But, as Thomas Paine said, “words pile up and then people do things.” His words in “Common Sense” caused them to fight the Revolutionary War. Words are the “first step in a journey of a thousand miles” — seldom completed on the first try.
Following similar protests for similar reasons, in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson created the Milton Eisenhower Commission with members capable of putting the national interest above political advantage. Their remarkable staff produced both the Commission’s final report (“To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility”) and 11 Staff Reports exposing racism in numerous institutions. Two volumes addressed “Violence and the Media.”
As an FCC commissioner at the time, I brought the experience of being raised in the 1930s and ‘40s as an “anti-racist” in the midst of Iowa City’s “northern racism,” plus my disgust at the “southern racism” during my stay in the South during the 1950s.
At the beginning of my FCC efforts, broadcasting was one of the single most racist and sexist among American industries.
Change required improving licensees’ hiring practices, putting blacks in front of as well as behind the cameras, increasing the odds of blacks owning a radio or television station, enforcing station licensees’ responsibility for meaningful community service, providing public access to the mass media (e.g., license renewal challenges, Fairness Doctrine, public access channels on cable, and low power community FM stations) — and much more.
It’s time to do this again — focusing on police practices and blacks disproportionate incarceration, yes, but the other dark corners of systemic racism as well: food, housing, health care, child care, education and training, employment, transportation, payday loans.
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And fueling racism is how those enjoying white privilege use language; how we think, talk and teach our children. As “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” explained in the 1958 musical “South Pacific,” “You’ve got to be taught/Before it’s too late/Before you are six/Or seven/Or eight/To hate all the people/Your relatives hate ...”
Can it be done? Progress was achieved in my little corner of the media’s racist ruins. Of course, much of that progress was undone once I left — along with Johnson’s much more significant progress.
Johnson was fully aware of the political consequences for the Democratic Party from his civil rights efforts. As he put it to an aide, “There goes the South for a generation.” How many of our current elected officials can you imagine being willing to do the equivalent for the good of the nation?
What do we need? More political and institutional leaders willing to put the defeat of racism above politics, profits, and position. More understanding of the thousands of forms and locations of the racism virus. More willingness to change each of them, one at a time — and to keep at it as long as it takes.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City was an FCC commissioner 1966-1973. email@example.com