It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I recently reported a story about a small Georgia city called LaGrange, an hour from Atlanta. The city, which owns the water and electric system, will routinely roll over unpaid court and probation fees onto municipal utility bills, threatening to cut off people's water and electricity or denying them accounts over unpaid court fines.
Even though I've closely followed stories of institutional racism from Flint, Michigan, to Ferguson, Missouri, I had never seen anything quite like it: In LaGrange, getting caught driving without a license, an open container violation, or an unpaid traffic ticket could mean losing access to utilities. The court debt policy appears to affect 90 percent of Black people in a city that's less than 50 percent Black. Simultaneously, LaGrange is among several Southern cities to deny utility accounts entirely to its undocumented residents by requiring Social Security numbers. The state and local NAACP, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Project South filed suit in May 2017 against the city over both policies, alleging racial discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act.
After I started pitching the story to national outlets, I learned LaGrange had been in the national news—but not for this. In January 2017, the LaGrange Police Department became the first in the country to publicly apologize for a lynching. In 1940, a group of white men dragged 16-year-old Austin Callaway from the local jail and lynched him. The police department was complicit, the local media buried the story, and no one was ever arrested for the crime. The story lived on through word of mouth, almost exclusively within LaGrange's Black community, while in the white community, no one talked about it.
After learning about Austin Callaway through word of mouth from elderly Black residents, LaGrange's white police chief, Louis Dekmar, led the charge to issue a public apology for his death. The national media flocked to the story: an exceptional, but comforting, tale of racial bridge-building. The lynching apology was covered by NPR, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), CNN, CBS, and NBC News, among others.
As far as I know, none of these outlets except AJC have since covered LaGrange's institutional racism problem, nor have any other national outlets (until my story jointly published by Scalawag and Rewire.News came out last month). This is a blatant example of white-run media's fascination with racial reconciliation, apologies, and bridge-building. This focus on the interpersonal—the individual efforts of a police chief to build trust with residents—makes it easy to look past both the cultural and systemic racism in the same exact place.
LaGrange is, after all, a place where libraries and swimming pools were still segregated in the 1990s (this incredible book documents that well); its tourism bureau continues to openly celebrate its Confederate history; and its Black and Latino residents, especially those who are poor, attest to living in separate, unequal, and unstable conditions systematically reinforced by the court debt and social security policies.
National media's focus only on the apology reeks of typically white-led calls to "start a conversation" about racism in America, calls that ignore the many activists of color asking not just for "conversation" but for concrete institutional change.
Some would say the lynching apology was covered because it is unusual, even exceptional. Arguably, LaGrange's pattern of utility discrimination is also unusual. And both stories speak to broader patterns of institutional racism, grounded in long histories of racial oppression that continue today. Why cover the one, and not the other?
"This apology was a great thing to happen, for people to acknowledge what took place," said Ernest Ward, former chair of the local NAACP chapter who was interviewed for many of the apology stories. "But an apology without some concrete actions to follow is like an engagement without a wedding."
The city has not suggested any willingness to change its practice of denying people utilities over unpaid court debts, nor would any city official consent to an interview about the policy for my story after months of pleading. This culture of silence, says Ward, is familiar in LaGrange: Those in power simply decline to respond to questions about the utility policies. This culture has its roots in slavery and the Jim Crow era, in LaGrange and many other places: In the case of lynching, law enforcement and the media failed to demand justice and were even directly complicit in them. Some newspapers advertised these racialized murders, publishing times and places for future lynchings. An overwhelming silence contributed to this corrupt culture: for Black people, it was driven by fear; for white people, it was driven by racism and, sometimes, the desire to protect their friends and colleagues who participated in and celebrated the violence.
"An apology without some concrete actions to follow is like an engagement without a wedding."
"Lynching was such a hideous crime that it silenced everybody. Blacks didn't talk about it, whites didn't talk about it. You totally erased a human life," Ward said. "That's the same perspective they have about the probation fees. They don't want to talk about it."
It matters that national media looked the other way on LaGrange's systemic racism while fawning over its apologetic police chief. The utility policies date back at least to the early 2000s, and my investigation as well as reporting by the LaGrange Daily News document fear, instability, and extreme marginalization for the poorest and most vulnerable people of color in LaGrange. Imagine what might be true for the residents of LaGrange if NPR, the New York Times, and CNN sent people to investigate its decades of quiet discrimination in housing and utilities.
Chief Louis Dekmar consented to an interview on the grounds that we would discuss policing practices and the lynching apology, but not the lawsuit against LaGrange. To his credit, he was reflective about many of these dynamics.
"It was not difficult for me to understand how these failings of these institutions have created an inherent and significant distrust in the African American community and needed to be addressed in some way," he said, acknowledging that the 2017 apology was only a start. And, he said he doesn't talk about the apology in terms of reconciliation, "because reconciliation infers that there was a relationship to begin with. I refer to it as trust building and an acknowledgment."
I don't have answers as to why reporters or editors might focus on racial redemption stories while ignoring stories about systemic injustice. As a white person myself, I have some ideas. The simplest one is that white reporters like stories that make us feel better about ourselves. It may also be true that white readers like stories that affirm forgiveness is possible—a twist on white guilt in which we seek out stories that make us feel less guilty.
The pictures for the stories about the lynching apology often featured Dekmar and Ward together, on equal footing, a suggestion that there is some balancing of the scales. The idea that apologizing means the scales are balanced and we can move on is a tempting one for white Americans. And a vast majority of white Americans oppose reparations for slavery—they/we want to move on without any gesture at repairing harm.
It is also hard to do good journalism about systemic racism: This work requires time, resources, and analysis. After over a year, I was able to get a grant and two publications to give me the time to report on LaGrange in the way I wanted to, spending ample time there and filing records requests. But it's undeniable that this story is harder to report and harder to generalize than a story about a well-publicized, single, seemingly positive event in LaGrange's terrifying racial history.
For white-run media to play a different role today in covering institutional racism than it did 100 years ago, it would need to face its own internalized white supremacy.
This neglect on the part of newsrooms compounds the violence of the past. During the Jim Crow era, many white people believed lynchings, though bad, were justified, just as many whites today believe policies that disproportionately harm Black and Brown people simply represent fairness and rule of law. As a result, coverage of lynching often advocated a forgive and forget mentality. One article on the lynching of George Taylor near where I live in Durham, in 1918, was headlined "Was to Be Expected," referring both to the lynching itself and to the refusal of local whites to cooperate with the short investigation that followed.
For white-run media to play a different role today in covering institutional racism than it did 100 years ago, it would need to face its own internalized white supremacy. It would require looking closely at this tendency to fetishize reconciliation and "conversation" while turning our backs on cases of institutional racism, even the most egregious ones (this incredible investigation into civil forfeiture in South Carolina by the Greenville News is a good example of local media choosing to dig in). And the news media must recognize our agency in deciding which stories to zoom in on, and how these choices can be biased toward a faulty narrative of inevitable racial progress in this country. As Ward said to me, nothing good that's come to Black people in LaGrange has come because the white community decided it was the right thing to do.
I'm a freelance reporter in an underfunded news economy, so I know: We can't cover everything. But in cases as clear-cut as LaGrange's utility policies, national and regional media could stay on the story, not allowing complicity in systemic racism and white supremacy to infect us, too.
"[For] 13-plus years, people we live among have been suffering with this issue," Ward said. "And to me, that was the same culture with lynching—the trauma, and the pain, and the humiliation that Black citizens were going through in this community, we didn't really realize it was going on."