St. Louis, Mo.
Church media have a vital role to play in combatting racism in North America, according to a panel discussion on race and religion held April 21 at the annual convention of the Associated Church Press (ACP).
The discussion was a topical one: not 20 km away from where ACP members met, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., had become a flashpoint for protests over alleged police brutality across the U.S.
Panelists Lisa Sharon Harper and Leah Gunning Francis said the church press is in a unique position to change how faith communities think about race in America, because they tend to be more trusted by their constituents than their mainstream counterparts. Harper is chief church engagement officer at Sojourners, and Francis is professor of Christian education at Eden Seminary and author of Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community.
Presbyterian News Service editor the Rev. Jerry van Marter, who moderated the discussion, underscored the need for change.
Citing research done by the Public Religion Research Institute, he explained that while 80% of black protestants believe that police violence in the U.S. is part of a systemic pattern of racist treatment, 73% of white, mainline Christians in the U.S. believe they are isolated incidents-which is 11% and 14% more than those affiliated with non-Christian religions and the religiously unaffiliated, respectively.
“If we as writers and editors do not reflect the 73% who believe that state-sanctioned violence is isolated and unsystematic, and our readers do believe this, what explains the discrepancy? How does that disconnect with our own readers come to be?” Marter asked.
Francis suggested that part of the problem is the overwhelming appeal of simple narratives that tell a sensational story.
“The world saw the tanks and the teargas,” she said, speaking of the Ferguson protests of 2014 and 2015, in which she was involved as a community leader. “The world saw the same frame being looped over and over, of folks running in and stealing some things out of stores.” What it didn’t see, she argued, were the thousands of people who protested peacefully, or the people who are “actually collaborating and working in some constructive ways.”
Francis suggested that one of the most practical things the media can do to address misrepresentations is be more intentional about how it gathers information.
“If we’re going to think about constructing a more accurate view of the world, and helping challenge false realities-are we finding the same old sources that reinforce that narrative, or are we willing to expand that table and that pool to help construct a more accurate picture?”
Part of constructing a more accurate view of the world, Harper stressed, involves understanding the long and foundational history of racism and white supremacy in North American legal structures-structures that were sometimes explicitly set up to rob Indigenous people and African-Americans of their political rights and natural resources.
Using the police force as an example, Harper noted that it is an institution that was first organized to escort enslaved people from one farm to another. She said that white Americans need to understand why many African-Americans and Indigenous people might distrust the police before they can understand events like those that transpired in Ferguson.
“Unless we understand the actual history of why the police were invented-which probably wasn’t written down in any newspapers back then-then [we] aren’t going to understand the legacy…or how to change it,” she said.
For this reason, she said, church media must take its obligation to tell the whole story seriously.
“[Journalists] shape the narratives-you are writing history right now. When people look back 20 years on Ferguson, it will just be called history,” she said. “People are going to be reading about it and learning what happened based on what you wrote.”
The panel had originally been organized to include the Rev. Starsky Wilson, a St. Louis-based pastor who serves as co-chair for the Ferguson Commission, but he was unable to be present due to illness.