Race in the Race

A Q&A with Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times

Eric Deggans is the media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, a position he has held since 2005.

When Obama first declared his presidential candidacy—back in February of 2007, approximately twenty months ago—the announcement provoked a flurry of analysis and debate and anxiety among the media. (Was the country ready for a black president? Was Obama too black? Was he not black enough?) While some questioned whether Obama’s mixed-race identity—and, in particular, his blackness—would prove prohibitive for his aspirations to lead a country that is still plainly conflicted when it comes to race, others celebrated the opportunity Obama’s candidacy provided—an excuse, really, and perhaps even a catalyst—to conduct a frank, open, and productive conversation about race in America.

And race, to be sure, has been a consistent concern on the campaign trail, in ways massive and minor, in ways both explicit (the speech on race Obama delivered in March) and implicit (Reverend Wright, “Barack Hussein Obama,” etc.). But that doesn’t mean we’ve had the conversation we need to have.

As 2008’s hard-faught and exceedingly lengthy presidential campaign comes to a close (fingers crossed, knock on wood) this evening, the shadow of race’s impact—on the campaign, on us—will linger. With that in mind, CJR’s Megan Garber spoke with Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, to discuss what we’ve learned about race, what we’ve missed, and where we go from here.

Megan Garber: What have we learned about race during the campaign? What’s been revealed that we didn’t know before?

Eric Deggans: What we learned, I think, historically, is that we still don’t know how to talk about race very well; we’ve been really clumsy in talking about and dealing with race. The campaign has taken all the weirdness we have in this country—about race, about gender, about class—and splashed it all onto the biggest billboard possible. Everybody’s tuned into this election, because everyone knows how important it is. And it’s just been surprising how much of this weirdness is still hanging around. I’ve been surprised to see how many journalists don’t know how to talk about these issues in a way that’s fair to everybody involved in the discussion. Every voter comes to the election with different lenses in place, and we have a hard time taking those lenses off and seeing the situation from another person’s point of view, no matter what it is. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of talking to each other about this stuff—understanding the perspective of people who have backgrounds difference from yourself, whoever you are.

I’ve also been surprised at the extent to which partisans on all sides are willing to indulge awful attitudes to get what they want. I’ve been surprised at the level of racial code words, and just-short-of-racism statements that very established political figures are willing to either say or condone. I’ve been surprised to see people like Sarah Palin, who’s criticized other people for pointing out sexism in media coverage, and who suddenly realized, “Hey, I’m the object of the same thing.” It reminds me very much of what I saw with Clarence Thomas, and Alan Keyes, and other conservative black people who insist that there is no problem with race in America—until they’re the subjects of racially coded messages. And all of the sudden, the scales fall from their eyes, and they’re upset because they’re being singled out because they’re black, and people are expecting them to act a certain way because they’re black. It was never a “problem” until then.

MG: If we’ve learned all that, what have we missed in covering race? Or, what haven’t we learned that we should have?

ED: I remember writing a blog post months ago—this was before Campbell Brown got her show, and before Rachel Maddow got hers—noting that prime time on cable channels was almost exclusively the province of middle-aged white guys. And I got emails and phone calls from people at some of these establishments dinging me because I didn’t say that they had pundits who were diverse, or that they had reporters out in the field who were diverse. And my only point to them was, you can tell what an outlet values by who anchors the broadcast. That’s the ultimate expression. And when I look at primary coverage, and I see wide swaths of it anchored and controlled and moderated and attenuated by a bunch of middle-aged white guys, and they’re talking about a field of candidates that includes a woman and a black guy…just: What?

And they did seem to get that memo after the primaries were over. That’s when we saw Campbell Brown get her show after the primaries were over, and Rachel Maddow—and that helped a little bit. But this is something we haven’t seen before, where the media establishment is a step or two behind the political establishment on issues of diversity: When you had Obama and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin making these historic firsts, they were being covered by a press corps that wasn’t nearly as diverse as they were.

MG: Did you have any sense that that press corps went too far in stressing the historical nature of the candidacies?

ED: As a person of color, I felt like I was much more cynical about Obama’s chances for success, and about whether America was ready for this. Maybe some of the coverage was a little more glowing, but I think that’s very natural and understandable. And what’s interesting, as well, to me about this is that a great deal of this outcome is dependent on what white people do, because they still outnumber everyone else. So in a weird way, I found it very odd that white people kept asking me what’s going to happen. Because I don’t know. My culture does not determine what’s going to happen. I mean, ninety-five percent of us are going to vote for Barack Obama—we’ve known that for two months. What we don’t know is what white people are going to do. So why are you asking me?

I noticed, as the primaries progressed, that Obama did well in states where there were overwhelming numbers of black people, and where there were hardly any. But in places where there are still race tension—because there’s a sizable number of black people, but not enough to be numerically superior—that’s where he’s having problems. That’s why he had trouble in Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc. That’s a dynamic that I find very interesting, and that we will probably be talking about on election night.

MG: Is that valid? Is it fair to make racial issues a key discussion point tonight?

ED: I’d say, be careful about making racial assumptions about these outcomes. If the results come out, and Obama loses Florida, and he loses Michigan, and he loses Pennsylvania, and he loses Virginia, everybody’s going to talk about the race dynamic—and maybe that’ll be the case, I don’t know—but what has bothered me a lot about this election is all the superficial assumptions about race that have been made. I was on a TV show last week, a call-in show, and someone says, “Over ninety percent of black people are voting for Obama—isn’t that racist?” And you have to say, well, how much of the black vote did Kerry get? Over ninety percent. How much of the black vote did Clinton get? Over ninety percent. And this was at a time when at some point in the race, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were part of it. If black people were just voting for someone because they were black, then Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would have done much better when they were running for president.

The fact of the matter is that most black folks have a narrow range of issues that they care a lot about and that affect their vote. And it’s pretty obvious when you get down to the presidential election which candidate embodies those choices. So Obama has essentially gotten three or four or five percent more voters just because he’s black. That doesn’t sound like racism to me. So you have people making these really superficial conclusions based on a superficial understanding of the situation. And sometimes a superficial understanding of the culture.

MG: Besides avoiding those superficial assumptions, any other advice for news anchors and other members of the media as they cover election night?

ED: You can’t call it too soon. All the stories about the polls are really bugging me, because I hate the idea of the influence it may have—for it to appear for weeks now that Obama’s likely going to win. And to have people say, “Well, if he was white, he’d be leading even more.” I think white people especially think that racism is just calling someone a nigger, or when you refuse to sit next to somebody because they’re black. But racism is also when you remove their individual accomplishments, and you look at everything they do through the prism of race. And what bothers me about Obama is that saying that about him—that the white Democrat would be more ahead in the polls—is robbing him of any individual credit. I mean, I can’t remember the last time a Democrat has run a campaign that has been so smart and lucky—I mean, not even Bill Clinton, really. Obama, except for a few glaring exceptions, has made every smart move you can make throughout this whole campaign. And people don’t seem to be willing to acknowledge that.

I’d also be careful about who gets to speak for whom. Another thing I’m tired of, frankly, is seeing black Republicans get way more visibility in the media than their numbers are in the community. These people are something like five or eight percent of black voters—and I bet you they’re fifty percent of the black people who appear on television to talk about the election. And they’re brought on to talk about black issues in a way that most black people don’t agree with. And I know there’s lots of articulate, intelligent black columnists and journalists and pundits and activists who are not Republicans—and, really, they should be heard.

MG: How do you think we should be talking about race going forward?

ED: I’d just hope that we’d be careful about talking about race—on election day, and as we go forward. Let’s take our time and really try to figure out what happened here. Because regardless of what happens, there’s going to be a lot of hysterical people in the media attributing a lot of crazy motives to what happened. But it’s conventional journalism’s job to keep a lid on that, and to provide perspective that makes sense out of it. And we can’t do that if we’re in the middle of it.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.