Incognizant Racism

May 14, 2010 

Washingtonian magazine annually surveys DC’s top doctors, lawyers, and dentists. I was puzzled when its list of top dentists failed to include a single African American in a city 60% Black most of whom patronize Black dentists. Washingtonian is a monthly magazine distributed in the DC area since 1965 described as the magazine Washington lives by, focusing on local feature journalism, guidebook style articles, and real estate advice. It tends to give short shrift to communities of color and particularly the well educated upper middle class African American. An explanation can be found in Don Heider’s book White News: Why Local Programs Don’t Cover People of Color.

Heider studied two news broadcast markets in Honolulu and Albuquerque. African Americans are not the dominant minority but included communities substantially populated with other people of color: Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans. The study was conducted 10 years ago when the white population of Albuquerque was 51% while Honolulu had no racial majority. Heider’s thesis was “to understand how and why certain content does or does not end up on the air in a particular local station’s newscasts” and to understand the process and structure that govern news decisions.  He concluded the dominant influences on this process are hegemony and ownership.

The study focused on a newsroom in each market and made the expected observations that top news managers were white males verifying a consistent contention by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that white males are the gatekeepers of the U.S. media. As a consequence little importannce and coverage are attached to issues involving non-white communities such as, gentrification, affordable housing and displacement, environmental racism, development and education. Workplace diversity was superficial with minority anchors and coverage limited to crime and festivals.

Incognizant Racism, a theory advanced by Philomena Essed in Understanding Everday Racism supports the proposition that hidden under the surface of diversity there is a strong tendency among Whites in the United States to assume superiority of Euro-American values. Hidden also is the expectation that in due time Blacks must accept the norms and values of the Euro-American tradition as superior and that adaptation is the only way to progress in American society. As Heider argues, ownership and day to day practices work together to systematically exclude certain groups thus marginalizing issues important to their communities.

In explaining the process of incognizant racism within the newsroom Heider found some reporters tried to cover relevant issues, some realized more needed to be done, and still others did not even have a level of awareness, yet all worked together to produce a product that consistently excluded stories about entire segments of the viewing audience. The practice results in racist coverage that is a distinctly different kind of coverage of people of color than exists for the White population.

Washingtonian’s claim of presenting the best while excluding significant others lacks credibility. How about calling it what it is: a list of DC’s best white dentists. One solution is certain, minority communities need to own and control their own media outlets and not sell out to corporate conglomerates.


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  1. […] theory called incognizant racism asserts that whites often overlook the concerns and interests of non-white people in favor of their […]

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