Some reporters have to find creative ways to write about race and culture in their beats, but for Errin Haines Whack it’s her job. As an urban affairs writer for the Associated Press, Whack covered issues like racist sports fans, hurricane recovery efforts, and immigrants working in the restaurant industry as part of the news organization’s race and ethnicity team. Less than two years after she joined the Philadelphia bureau, Whack last week assumed a new, larger role at the company as its national race and ethnicity writer.
In an interview with CJR on Friday, Whack talks about what her new position means, the role of statistics in proving the existence of systemic racism, and what she thinks is a key component for every story about race in America. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Describe what today was like in your new role.
The avalanche of sexual accusers kind of continued. I was writing in response to the Weinstein fallout (story not yet published). I’m seeing very few women of color as the accusers and very few men of color being accused. Where are we in this conversation, and is there a historical or cultural explanation for why we are not?
Is this something that would have gone outside of your previous role covering urban affairs?
Not really. Prior to this role, I had already been a member of AP’s race and ethnicity team, which was created in 2016 to respond to the current issues of the day if there’s a racial component. I probably would have written this anyway, but I have a new title.
Do you think “diversity” should be a standalone beat or part of every beat? How do you decide who covers what?
I think both of those things should be happening. I think race is an expertise, and the training we have for that is our lived experience. There are so many people of color who tend to gravitate towards this coverage, whether it’s their official area of coverage or not. At the same time, AP’s race team collaborates with other beats in the company. I think that’s the way it should work because race intersects with every aspect of American life. Not acknowledging that is not fully reporting on America. Reporters who cover education, business, and the economy should be thinking about or should at least be aware of race when they’re looking for stories to report on and when they are considering who to talk to. That helps us have a more diverse idea of what a teacher, a working class person, and a student look like. I don’t think you have that without a conscious effort to go outside your comfort zone.
How do you see your reporting in this role being different or adding to the work of journalists on other beats?
I’m the lead reporter for the team. In addition to news analysis around current events and breaking news, I will be taking a step back to balance with coverage issues I believe deserve a longer look. In addition, I’m going to be doing a lot more radio, television, and other platforms to weigh in on other stories about race that make headlines.
It’s important to amplify the work of others so the burden isn’t just on Ta-Nehisi Coates or Jelani (Cobb), or Nikole (Hannah-Jones). Frankly, they shouldn’t be the only ones shouldering the burden, and they’re not the only ones who are. We do it because it’s important and it matters, we care, and we have to correct the record all the time. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re yelling out of a well every time you hit the button on a story. There are so many talented people out here who don’t deserve that, you know?
There’s an increasing amount of attention on the statistics behind racial inequality. How important is data to your reporting?
My journalism prediction for 2016 for Nieman Lab was “Racism by Numbers,” which is basically proving racism by data. When you pair that with history as the contextual foundation, we’re much more able to go beyond how people feel to what we know is true about systemic racism in this country. Data is a dispassionate way to dismiss any notion of a post-racial society or any stereotypes people have about poverty or crime. I definitely think when you’re able to present things as a matter of fact instead of a matter of opinion, that can be a very powerful as a storytelling tool.
You’ve won recognition for your reporting on the country’s black electorate and black communities. What kind of challenges do you see in covering other racial and ethnic groups, like Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans?
We can’t just be showing up in immigrant communities after an ICE raid. We should be reflecting these places, but we need to show up and show up regularly. Getting into communities like [Standing Rock] can be difficult. Trust and access has to be earned but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to do that. It can’t just be stories about casinos, alcohol, and diabetes. These people were here before we were here, and we owe it to them to include them in the story of America.
You described the position as an opportunity to lead conversation in newsrooms “lacking the demographics or resources to have such discussions.” What are the kinds of stories you hope to cover at AP to help fill in those gaps?
We have such a broad reach, not just in the major outlets like (The New York) Times or (The Washington) Post, but really in middle America, in small cities and towns that frankly do not have diverse newsrooms or a diverse population. We also know globally the rest of the world is fascinated by America’s racial dynamics.
What I would like to do next is to look at the work NFL players have been doing to address criminal justice reform. The meetings that they’re having with NFL leadership, with fans, with activists, and with the police community. Are they going to become more politically active as a result of this? How is this changing them, and do they feel like they’ve changed the country?
We’re having this ongoing conversation about the opioid crisis in America. I think you can’t be an African-American person in this country, especially someone who came of age at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, without recognizing the disparity in the response, not only from the federal government but also from our society to these two crises. Looking into that more deeply so people will understand why we won’t just “move on” from the idea that people on crack cocaine were treated as criminals as opposed to opioid victims being victims.
I see the repeated tragedy of mass shootings in America—every of those stories is heartbreaking—but the other side is the ongoing problem with urban gun violence in places like Philadelphia. If people are jaded and tired of that story, then we need to figure out a new way to grip people into caring. We’re mainly focused on mass shootings, even though that is not the leading reason for gun violence deaths in America—that’s suicide.
Sometimes this beat can feel like a burden to journalists of color. Do you feel that way?
I feel tremendously privileged to do this work. But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t wear on you. I can specifically remember a few shootings after Ferguson, just talking to friends who would have to go to these cities when something would happen and being like, “Shit, we have to do another one of these. I don’t feel like getting on the plane, I don’t feel like getting in the street again. I don’t feel like having to say this again.”
When I was a reporter in Atlanta, I covered the civil rights community a lot. It makes me think a lot about the types of things they had to endure to get the story out and to tell the truth. The society they were in was very hostile. I think about Simeon Booker, who told Emmett Till’s story for Jet magazine, and about trying to write about lynching. The least I can do is get up and get out there everyday and try to tell the truth about these issues.
What are some of the positive stories about race and ethnicity you’re interested in covering?
Even this week, as I’m writing about sexual harassment, I got to write a story that arose from Black Twitter about people losing their minds over the prospect of Atlanta having a mayor named Keisha. That was a fun story to report and write, and I also learned something. It’s always really cool when I’m able to do that.
Last year, even with the heaviness and ugliness of what we saw during the campaign trail before the election, the Olympics came and I got to write about the joy of how many people got swept up with [swimmer] Simone Manuel and [gymnast] Simone Biles.
I wrote about Dillard University because it was a fun graduation story at a small school with a powerhouse physics program for black women. They’re literally growing “Hidden Figures” out of Louisiana. And I thought that was amazing and something people needed to know about even in the midst of everything going on. It’s not all doom and gloom for black folks in America, and people need to be reminded of that.
Who are some of the lesser-known writers who are covering this beat really well?
There are some black journalists who don’t have this as their official beat but are still committed to its coverage, plus others who are. They include Collier Meyerson, Julia Craven, Carron J. Phillips, Sylvia Obell, Vann R. Newkirk II, Alexis Okeowo, Adam Serwer, Natalie Moore, plus my AP colleagues Russell Contreras, Jesse J. Holland, and Felicia Fonseca.
What are the stories that are being missed or need a bigger look?
I think it’s just really important that at all times we tie the stories we are doing to the historical context and foundation that really shows how this is all systemic. There are so many people who are ready to dismiss the types of things that we write about as a one-off or anomalies. I would encourage anyone writing about race in America to be familiar and have a working knowledge of US history and its role in the things you are writing about. We’ve been here before.