White Papers in Blackface
by Clint C. Wilson
July 7, 2005
During the Reconstruction Era, it was not uncommon for Whites to bankroll a newspaper targeted at the Black community with a Black "publisher" or editor fronting the operation. The objective was to entice Black readers into voting for the political party or candidate supported by those who controlled the paper's purse strings and editorial slant from behind the scenes.
Now – some 125 years later – comes word that the New York Times plans to launch a "Black" newspaper in Gainesville, Fla. complete with an African-American at the helm. The objective this time is to exploit the Black community's market potential for the enhancement of White corporate America.
We are told that this new venture is to be called the Gainesville Guardian. One wonders what can we expect this publication to "guard" on behalf of its targeted group? If history teaches us anything it's that this 21st Century version of a White newspaper in blackface will have little in common with the mission and purpose of the Black Press.
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From the moment of its inception in 1827 with the founding of Freedom's Journal in New York, the Black Press set forth a mission for itself that distinctly separates it from its general audience counterparts. Thus, if New York Times executives are under the impression that calling their product a "Black" newspaper will make it so, they are sorely mistaken.
Freedom's Journal proclaimed, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us." Here is the four-part definition of a Black newspaper as established by those who founded the concept 178 years: Black press newspapers are (1) public communications media that (2) are owned, operated and largely staffed by African-Americans with (3) content directed to an African-American audience and (4) intended to advocate on behalf of equal rights and opportunities for all people.
Notice how this definition – and mission – differs from what we commonly see when considering general circulation newspapers and, therefore, can reasonably be expected of the Black-faced Guardian. First, the Guardian's ownership does not reside in the hands of Blacks. Second, profit motive is an admitted major objective of the Guardian.
These are extremely important issues that deserve further discussion. A long-standing axiom in American business affairs is, "he who pays the piper, calls the tune." Simply put, when Whites own a newspaper their employees (Black or otherwise) will ensure that editorial content follows expectations of a profit-centered enterprise. General interest newspapers are committed to their stockholders, not their readers. What, then, can we expect when the best interests of the African-American community clashes with the best interests of the "bottom line?"
This does not mean, however, that Black newspapers aren't concerned with making a profit, but it does mean that such motivation is always secondary to the mission. Remember, Black papers are an "advocate" for their constituents. Incidentally, the real Black press need not worry about offending big national advertisers; they don't have many, anyway. Also, their most important capital asset lies in their credibility with Black communities.
But there's another, even more fundamental, reason why this insidious scheme to perpetrate newspaper fraud on African-Americans is destined to fail. It is something that all social scientists know: communication is a cultural phenomenon. In much the same manner that a Japanese-born and reared person can become fluent in the Russian language, but can never become Russian, neither can a White publisher's expertise result in cultural legitimacy among Black constituents. The notion obviates the premise of Freedom's Journal wherein the Black press seeks to "plead [their] own cause."
Why, one might ask, do White publishers want to publish "Black" newspapers? The answer is strictly economic and lies in the fact that Whites are becoming a racial minority group as the United States population becomes increasingly of Hispanic, Black and Asian ethnicities. Census data confirms that in many major cities, the aggregate population of people of color already outnumbers Whites. Moreover, the various colored groups are younger, have higher birth rates and are entering their peak income earning years. In the face of a declining White consumer market – and comparable declines in their readership base – the New York Times and other newspaper groups have finally turned to people of color for their economic salvation. The problem – if what we've seen from their media cohorts is any indication – is that their intent is not likely to serve but to exploit. In short, they want to use their style of communication ("junk" news about celebrities, sex, crime, entertainment and innocuous clap-trap) as bait to deliver our vast spending power (projected to grow annually from $318 billion in 1990 to $921 billion in 2008) to corporate advertisers.
We've seen this pattern in recent decades with the advent of White-owned but Black-formated radio stations; the takeover of formerly Black-owned grooming and cosmetics firms; and the control of rap and Hip Hop music genres by White mega-corporations. In each instance, the modus operandi has been to effect White control over Black cultural entities – the kind of tactic that results in loss of our Black identity. If schemes like the Guardian were to succeed, the demise of the Black-owned press would be the ultimate final straw.
For perspective, consider the following: when Columbus came to these shores, he mistakenly believed he had reached the Indies. The proud and noble inhabitants he found here had strong self-identities and they knew who they were – Mohawks, Seminoles, and Iroquois, etc. But Columbus, and the White settlers who followed him, decided these people would be called "Indians." Nowadays even those proud peoples collectively call themselves "Indians."
We do not expect to see the day when employees of the Gainesville Guardian will be called part of the Black Press by anyone other than themselves.