I wrote this story in June 1997 for the Omaha World-Herald. At the time, President Bill Clinton was trying to focus the nation’s attention on addressing its racial divide, through a program called “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race.”
We can argue here how much Clinton’s own sexual scandal and impeachment sidetracked any progress he might have made, and how much the election of Barack Obama 11 years later (and re-election four more years after that) advanced race relations and heightened the racial divide. But, as racially tinged police relations explode in city after city, and commentary about race is as polarized as ever, the racial divide is again our nation’s most pressing issue.
I present this story as a model for any journalist examining today’s racial divide. I think it was an excellent story at the time, though it had little impact. I hope you might have more impact with an updated approach, and perhaps a broader digital reach or a bigger microphone today.
This was a long story (actually, a package of multiple stories), made longer by my updating notes. If you’re considering a deeper examination of the racial divide, I hope it will be worth your time to work your way through it.
I will present the story as we published it in 1997, interspersed with recommendations today for data reporting, engagement, interactivity and updating to address how the issues have changed (if they have). The paragraphs from the Omaha World-Herald will be presented in plain text. My notes will be introduced in bold as a “Buttry note” of some kind, with the note following in light italics, either a few words or a few paragraphs.
I have posted the 1997 graphics with the relevant parts of the story. Doing it today, interactive data visualization would be an essential part of the story. At the end of this post, you can see how it was displayed 18 years ago. Sources were cited in a large block of type included with the graphic package.
From Birth to Death, Racial Gap Persists
Originally published June 15, 1997, Sunday, Pg. 1A, Omaha World-Herald
By STEPHEN BUTTRY
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Starting before birth, a black child faces longer odds against survival and success than a white child.
Buttry writing note: I usually found real characters to illustrate stories, but I decided real characters could distract from this story. They either don’t perfectly represent the group you are studying, or a flaw in their character or their story distracts from the problem you are highlighting. I had overwhelming statistics about the difference between black and white life in our community, our state and our nation, and I consciously chose to make a generic “black child” my central character. He or she takes on gender as statistics break down by gender and ages to apply to the divide later in life. But I have no real people in this story, just what the data say about real people. I wouldn’t recommend it often, but I hope and think it worked here as a storytelling device, and might again in today’s situation. The story continues:
Black women are more likely than white women to become pregnant without marrying, to have abortions, to delay or forgo prenatal care. At birth, the child faces a life expectancy that is seven years shorter than a white baby’s.
The bleak outlook continues through life — in Omaha, throughout the Midlands, across the United States. Especially if the child is a boy, he is more likely than a white child to die as a baby, as an adolescent and as a young adult. He is more likely to drop out of school, be arrested, go to prison, contract AIDS, be murdered.
Buttry data and writing note: As noted above, the child became a boy in paragraph three (and grew up quickly), will be a girl next. Notice, also how I’m using data. I have used a dozen data sets in the paragraphs above, but only one number: the life expectancy seven years shorter than a white. I made a conscious decision to use numbers sparingly and simply in this story. If writing the story today, I would probably use the number for how much more likely the black child would be to be shot by a cop.
The story was accompanied by infographics that illustrated all (maybe most) of the numbers and cited sources and details, such as which figures were local, state or national. Today, I would encourage using interactive data visualization tools such as Tableau, DataWrapper, Infogr.am and/or having data journalists and developers collaborate on your own interactive presentation.
And a World-Herald style note: “Midlands” was our jargon (probably still is) for Nebraska and Iowa, the states we covered. Back to the story:
The black child, even if she is a girl, is less likely to finish high school, college or graduate school, less apt to use computers, less likely to have health insurance or to visit the doctor unless it’s an emergency.
Buttry writing note: Back to gender-neutral in the next paragraph:
Even if the child joins the growing black middle class, success is moderated. A black with a doctoral degree earns 15 percent less than a white with the same credential.
Buttry writing note: Now comes what writing coaches and editors sometimes call the nut graph, kind of summarizing and clarifying the purpose of the story for the reader. I used to tell writers that if you needed a nut graph, it should tell the reader why you should be reading this story now. For better or worse, this nut graph is a few paragraphs long:
Whatever progress has been made in fighting racial discrimination and in increasing opportunities for blacks, life generally remains vastly different for blacks than for whites.
People of differing ideologies disagree about the causes of the gap, which are complex and varied. Much of the debate centers on how much racism is a cause and how much it has become an excuse. This story does not address that debate, but concentrates on showing how deep and wide and genuine the gap is, whatever the reasons.
The gaps between black and white aren’t just national trends, weighed down by dismal figures from faraway cities. The differences are as clear in the Midlands, with its low overall unemployment, poverty and crime rates, as they are nationally. In virtually every case where national, state and local figures are available, Nebraska, Iowa and Omaha reflect the national trends, varying only in degree.
In some cases, the differences are sharper here. For instance, Nebraska’s rate of black births out of wedlock is higher than the national average. Three out of four black babies born in Nebraska have unwed mothers, compared with one in five white babies. Buttry data note: This sharp contrast, being higher than the national average, seemed a place to use numbers again. But note the simple explanation with no percentages. I did the math for you.
Fifty years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, 134 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, 34 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and 78 years after an innocent black man was lynched in Omaha, statistics show beyond question that blacks, as a group, continue to lead more difficult lives than whites.
Buttry writing and numbers note: Maybe that was the nut graph. My intention here was to contrast the spare use of numbers in the rest of the story with the heavy use of numbers to illustrate our slow progress from various racial milestones. The Jackie Robinson milestone had been celebrated all spring, so I had to start there, emancipation was the biggest milestone in racial freedom, the King speech the most hopeful moment of the Civil Rights movement (which highlighted how far we still needed to go) and the Omaha lynching localized with Omaha’s ugliest racial incident. Perhaps I should have added (or used instead of the lynching) the more recent court order desegregating Omaha’s public schools.
If writing about today’s racial unrest, the milestones might be different: 1968 Watts (and elsewhere) riots, Rodney King riots, Obama’s election, perhaps something local in your community. In Omaha, I covered shootings of and by police that could be milestones to reference. On with the story:
To be sure, the gap has narrowed in some respects as conditions for blacks have improved since the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, in 1970, more than half of the nation’s black workers had not graduated from high school, compared with one-third of whites. For both groups, it is now less than one in five workers, with the percentage for whites only a few points higher.
Buttry writing note: Editors love, and reporters sometimes mock, the “to be sure” paragraph that acknowledges progress in a story like this. I think it was necessary here. I don’t think my editors forced it on me, though they are welcome to correct my memory. Back to the story:
In other ways, blacks have made progress but the gap has widened as whites made even greater progress. The median income after adjusting for inflation has grown for black families since 1970 by a greater percentage than white income has grown. But the income for white households has grown by more dollars, pushing it further ahead of blacks.
In some ways, the disparities are growing as conditions decline. From 1970 to 1994, the percentage of children living with both parents fell much faster for blacks than for whites.
It is important to note that in most comparisons, the differences are proportional. For example, whites actually outnumber blacks in Nebraska’s prisons by nearly 900 inmates. But blacks account for 30 percent of the state’s prison population and only 4 percent of the state’s total population. Buttry data note: Again, a stark contrast calling for numbers. Now the story shifts from overview to organization:
The disparities exist in nearly every aspect of life – health, crime, education, employment, income, family life, housing, leisure.
If the family is the foundation of a society, black America’s foundation has been crumbling for decades.
Nebraska’s most recent Vital Statistics Report, for 1995, shows the gap repeatedly. The overall rate for out-of-wedlock births is 31/2 times higher among blacks than whites. And it’s not just the result of teen-age pregnancies.
In every age group except 25-29, more than half of black babies are born to unwed mothers. Buttry data note: Using important numbers here, but avoiding percentages, trying to keep it conversational. Now you start to see the accompanying graphics that provided some of the numbers I avoided using in the story.
Among couples who do marry, black families show added stress. The same report showed that divorces were a higher percentage of marriages among black or mixed couples.
Black children, by huge margins, are less likely to live with two parents and more likely to live with a mother who has never married.
Of course, many single parents rear children who are successful by any standard. But studies show that children of single parents, on the average, face a tougher struggle.
And the single black mother tends to have more children making demands on her time, energy and budget. Though fewer black families are headed by married couples, the average family is larger.
By virtually every measurement, whites fare better than blacks in the workplace.
Unemployment for blacks in Omaha is more than triple the rate for whites.
The list of professions in which black representation is less than half the percentage of blacks in the work force is a list of the nation’s most prestigious jobs: physicians, lawyers, architects, dentists, pilots, engineers.
Blacks are similarly scarce among the ranks of editors and reporters.
Black representation about equals the black share of the work force for teachers, clergy, police and athletes.
The occupations where blacks are represented considerably beyond their presence in the work force at large: social workers, correctional officers, maids, janitors, servants, laborers, factory workers and hospital orderlies.
If computers are the future of the workplace, the future doesn’t look bright for blacks. Whites are one-third more likely to use computers on the job, at home and at school.
As middle-class whites see scattered blacks in their neighborhoods and workplaces, see endless commercials featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan and read about black business executives such as Omaha’s Herman Cain, it’s easy to assume that prosperity is spreading among blacks.
It is, sort of.
Greater percentages of American blacks are making more than $50,000 a year, adjusted for inflation, than were in 1970. And with the growth in black population, those larger percentages translate into even bigger growth in the actual number of blacks in the upper income brackets.
Look at the other end of the spectrum, though. From 1970 to 1994, the percentage of blacks in the lowest income category, making less than $ 10,000 a year adjusted for inflation, varied hardly at all. The growth at the upper end reflects only a slight decline among blacks making $ 10,000 to $ 35,000.
At every level of advanced education — bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, professional degree and doctorate — whites are paid at least 15 percent more. Blacks with professional degrees earn 62 percent as much as whites.
Even among high school dropouts, whites are paid one-third more than blacks.
Every way you analyze income, blacks line up far below whites: weekly earnings, family earnings, hourly wages, household income, poverty. And the gap is growing.
In Omaha, median family income for whites was double that for blacks in the 1990 census.
Black families are more likely than whites to receive only three kinds of income: welfare, disability checks and child support. Even there, blacks don’t win. White custodial parents are more likely to receive child support, and their child support payments average $ 1,000 a year more than for blacks.
Though most poor people are white, poverty figures overwhelmingly show that the burden falls heaviest on blacks. More than two of every five black children live in poverty.
And poverty’s grip is stronger on blacks. A national analysis showed that in an average month in 1991-92, blacks were almost three times more likely to be poor. But they were five times more likely to be poor for the full 24-month period.
In virtually every welfare program, blacks’ participation nationally is at least triple the rate for whites. In Nebraska, the welfare gap is even wider.
Though blacks are only 10 percent of the population in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, 43 percent of the food stamp recipients in the two counties are black. Buttry local geography note: Omaha is in Douglas County; Sarpy is mostly suburban and includes Offutt Air Force Base.
Much of this nation’s income is paid in the form of pensions, and blacks, with their shorter life span, receive only a tiny slice of that pie.
Buttry data note: Numbers illustrated the income gap effectively, so I indulged them more here than in other sections, but clarity and selection remained important.
In the case of murder, the black-white gap is so huge that the raw numbers for blacks actually surpass those for whites. Among victims and suspects, blacks outnumbered whites in the United States in 1995, though whites outnumber blacks almost 7 to 1 in the general population.
At every age and gender group except women over age 85, the homicide rate is higher than for whites. Blacks also are victimized at higher rates than whites for other major crimes: rape, robbery, assault, theft, burglary, car theft.
Blacks are also more likely than whites to get arrested. Though blacks account for less than 4 percent of Nebraska’s population, they accounted for more than 10 percent of the state’s arrests for every major offense in 1994 except drunk driving.
Nationally, blacks outnumber whites in the nation’s prisons and on parole.
The numbers in jails are about even. On probation, though, whites outnumber blacks about 2 to 1.
So with all this violence committed by and against blacks, are they more heavily armed than whites? No, according to a 1993 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly half of all white homes have a gun, while a quarter of all black homes do.
Buttry update note: Starkly missing from the crime section here are figures on killings by and of police. They would probably lead this section (and this section might be highest) if you’re doing this today: both local and national figures.
This also should include data on disparity of sentences for drug crimes. I’m not sure whether I overlooked (or failed to discover) this issue in 1997, or if it developed later. But disparities in mandatory minimum sentences for drugs heavily used by blacks — such as crack cocaine — versus drugs heavily used by whites — such as powder cocaine — have exacerbated the racial imbalance in prison, especially on drug crimes. I think I also remember reading that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to prison for marijuana offenses, while whites get probation. Given the role of the drug war causing the underlying conditions in Baltimore, reporting today needs to focus more heavily on drug enforcement and sentencing than I did here.
This story also predated the militarization of police forces, which has been a huge issue, highlighted in Ferguson. That would need to be examined in such an update. The Marshall Project has an excellent project on military equipment used by police (thanks to Tom Meagher for going through these projects this semester with my Interactive Storytelling Tools class):
Buttry writing note: I strayed somewhat from the black child who led the story as I was dealing with adult divisions, but was glad to get back to the child here. That’s where it all starts.
Nebraska Health Department figures show that the disparity starts in the womb: Expectant white mothers have prenatal checkups more often than black mothers and pregnant black women are more likely than white women to use alcohol during pregnancy. (White women, though, are slightly more likely to smoke while pregnant).
Black babies are more than twice as likely to be underweight at birth and to die before their first birthday.
From age 15 to 24, 25 to 34 and 35 to 44, black males die at twice the rate of white males.
The attrition is stark in old age. Nebraska whites outnumber blacks 20 to 1 in the teen-age years and 30 to 1 in the 40s, but 80 to 1 beyond age 85. The difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites is as big as the difference between men and women.
Blacks are more likely to have no health insurance than whites and more likely to have only the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor. They are less likely to visit a dentist or a doctor’s office, more likely to visit an emergency room, less likely to get a flu shot. Blacks are less likely to eat breakfast, more apt to be overweight, more subject to lead poisoning, less likely to get childhood immunizations on time.
Buttry personal note: That paragraph might have been most discouraging for me to research and write. It explains so much of the disparity later in life. I did a lot of reporting later in my career on lead contamination in Omaha, and you can hardly overstate the importance of the racial differences there, and the profoundness of the damage. Smug racists who take credit for their wonderful lives and blame blacks for their crime and poverty need to understand the disturbing and powerful differences early in life. And I bet they haven’t improved, either. Racists who see virtue here are like 100-meter sprinters who get an 80-meter head start and trash talk at the finish line.
Smoking rates differ little by race.
Despite the huge population disparity, the total numbers of AIDS cases reported in 1995 were about the same for blacks and whites.
Education has been the front line of the struggle for equality, from the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional through the battles to integrate Southern schools through court-ordered busing in Omaha and other northern school districts as well.
Schools and universities are no longer entirely separate, but educational achievement is nowhere near equal. Black students in the Omaha School District scored lower on the California Achievement Tests than white students in all three academic areas tested at all five grade levels taking the test from 1994 to 1996.
The overall gap between black and white at Omaha schools was at least 29 percentile ranks at every grade level, a wider chasm than is seen nationally.
The gap is exaggerated by the larger percentage of black children who come from poor families. Regardless of race, children from poor families, as a group, have lower scores. But income apparently doesn’t account for all of the racial gap. In the Omaha tests, black students whose families didn’t qualify for subsidized lunches didn’t test as well as whites whose family incomes were low enough to receive free or discount lunches.
Other educational figures show the same disparity. At every level of higher education, blacks receive a disproportionately small share of the degrees.
American blacks who do complete college take, on average, a year longer than whites. Less than 6 percent of college instructors and professors are black.
Only one in 34 University of Nebraska students is black.
Locally and nationally, blacks are more likely to drop out of high school.
One note of equality that does emerge from the educational statistics: Blacks are enrolled in preschool at about the same rate as whites, even a little higher.
By and large, blacks and whites live in communities or neighborhoods with people of their own race.
Only eight Nebraska counties are home to more than 100 blacks and 62 counties have fewer than 10. Douglas and Sarpy Counties have one-third of the state’s population, but 88 percent of the black population.
Even within Omaha, the state’s most integrated community, the races are clustered. City Council District 2, in north Omaha, has 66 percent black population, while the rest of the city’s black population is 4 percent.
Elementary school attendance areas in the Omaha School District further illustrate the divide. A quarter of the children are black. Yet in most of the neighborhoods, more than 60 percent or less than 6 percent of the children are black.
The difference is strong not just in where the races live but in their circumstances. Though whites outnumber blacks 7 to 1 in Omaha, nearly three-quarters of the residents of the city’s subsidized housing are black.
Two out of three white families in Nebraska and Iowa own their homes, while three out of five blacks rent. Whether renting or buying, Nebraska blacks have older and smaller and less valuable homes, though on average a black household has more people.
Buttry note: I later did some reporting on the end of mandatory school busing in Omaha and read the court case that resulted in Omaha’s school desegregation order. There’s a notion that black people congregated in parts of northern cities because they wanted to live together. But when you read documentation of the discriminatory measures that kept them in place — real estate agents refusing to show black families homes in white neighborhoods, formal neighborhood covenants against selling to blacks — the deliberate creation of ghettos is undeniable.
Even in the activities that bring fun and flair to life, or the inventions that provide convenience and communication, the advantage for whites is strong.
Omaha blacks are more than four times as likely not to have telephones and three times as likely not to have a vehicle. Buttry personal note: I live now near an area of Baton Rouge with a large African American population. I am always surprised at the number of people I see walking to stores and/or waiting for buses.
National surveys show that whites are more likely to watch movies, attend sporting events, visit amusement parks, listen to live classical music, go to the opera or the ballet, watch a play, stroll through an art museum or visit a historic park. Blacks are more likely to attend a jazz performance or watch television (though less likely to have cable TV).
Whites also are more likely to participate in a variety of cultural and recreational activities: reading literature or a newspaper, exercising, camping, hiking, canoeing, home improvement, gardening, playing classical music, pottery and other crafts, needlework, painting, creative writing, buying art and surfing the Internet. Blacks and whites are equally likely to participate in modern dancing.
Whites even partake more in an activity that racial stereotypes associate with blacks: playing sports.
Buttry note: I’ll have more thoughts at the end on how to update this story today. But before I move on to sidebars, I’ll note that this story is 18 years old and some of the data are older than that. I don’t know what’s changed or improved and what you should measure now that you couldn’t then (such as use of smartphones, tablets, social media, satellite TV). But any update to the story would need to update in outlook, not just stats.
I also think in many states and communities now, or if you were doing a national story, you would need to take a similarly deep look at the Latino disparity as well. Omaha had a growing Hispanic community in 1997, so I did a sidebar, but immigration issues were not as hot then as they are now. I’d suggest more equal coverage. And in some communities, Asian and/or Native American disparities might demand similar coverage.
Hispanic Predicament Similar
By STEPHEN BUTTRY
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Hispanic Americans face disadvantages similar to those faced by blacks. Statistics for Hispanics can be more difficult to obtain or assess. They are reported different ways by different agencies — sometimes as a separate group and sometimes overlapping with the racial groups into which Hispanics can fall.
In addition, Hispanics are undercounted in some surveys, because of language differences or lack of telephones and because those who are in the country illegally may try to avoid census officials.
Generally, the figures show a large gap in circumstances between whites and Hispanics. In the areas examined for this report, the gap was usually similar to or smaller than the gap between blacks and whites.
In Douglas County, the teen-age birth rate for blacks was higher than the rate for Hispanic girls in the most recent figures available, for 1993. However, the rate for Hispanics was climbing, closing the gap between the two groups.
In a few cases, the gap was wider for Hispanics. For instance, blacks and Hispanics are employed as maids and servants at disproportionately high rates, but the rate for Hispanics is higher.
In Nebraska, according to 1994 Census Bureau estimates, there are fewer Hispanics than blacks, but the Hispanics are more evenly distributed, with 31 counties having more than 100.
Douglas County had the most of both minority groups, with an estimated 48,945 black residents and 15,244 Hispanics. Blacks were 13 percent of the county population and Hispanics 4 percent. Statewide, blacks were 4 percent of the population and Hispanics 3 percent. Buttry note: I hope this paragraph shows you why I minimized use of raw numbers and percentages in the main story. They can be mind-numbing. Not sure why I used them here.
Many reports do not provide separate figures for Asian-Americans or American Indians. Where numbers were available, they showed that Asian-Americans often fare as well as or even better than whites and that Indians face odds as discouraging as blacks, or more so.
For example, blacks and Indians were the only groups with a majority of 1995 births in Nebraska occurring out of wedlock. People of Asian origin were 3 percent of the nation’s population in 1993, but earned 7 percent of the professional degrees and held 5 percent of college faculty positions.
Nebraska’s population is 1 percent each American Indian and Asian.
Buttry note: You may have noticed that I didn’t quote a single expert or politician in the two stories above. That was a deliberate decision. We wanted to present the facts without explanation or spin. I attributed the figures to their sources sometimes, but kept the main stories about the racial divide solely fact-based.
Then we let the so-called experts have their say. I asked people of a variety of racial and ethnic perspectives to discuss the radial divide, focusing on solutions. I avoided trying to hyperlink the stories above, which ran with no links in those print-first days (or if they had links, they were few and excluded from the archived versions that I kept). However, I add links where I can find them here, to update you on the people I quoted. The story ran with photos, but I do not have them. You can see them on the pdfs at the end of the story. Race and ethnicity were relevant to the story, but I did not always identify speakers by race or ethnicity. The photos did that. Some links provide photos, but I think you can usually tell from the context:
Search for Solutions
By STEPHEN BUTTRY
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Honesty is needed to improve race relations, community leaders agree. But they differ over what painful truths must be faced.
We must admit, says Mayor Daub, that policy disagreements aren’t necessarily racial.
Buttry note: Daub, a Republican, served two terms as Omaha mayor after serving four terms in the U.S. House. Daub defeated African American Councilwoman Brenda Council the month before my story was published, in a campaign that highlighted and heightened the community’s racial divide. My oldest son, Mike, played in a band that entertained at a Daub re-election party and the mayor signed Mike’s jeans.
We must admit, says Liz Karnes, that deep racial wounds persist and demand the community’s attention. Buttry update note: Karnes, a longtime community leader and wife of former Republican U.S. Sen. David Karnes, died in 2003.
Daub and Dr. Karnes were among more than 20 people from various segments of Omaha and other Midlands communities who were asked about possible ways to improve race relations and close gaps between racial and ethnic groups at the community level and the personal level.
Time and again, in different ways, the people of varying viewpoints and backgrounds stressed the need for honesty.
“There are too many people who make their living out of saying there is a racial divide in America,” Daub said. “We really have to quit talking about ‘we have a race problem.'”
Dr. Karnes, who supported Daub in last month’s mayoral election, took a different view. “If people think that there isn’t a racial divide,” she said, “they have their heads in the sand.”
Daub said discussions of race and fear of discussing race keep the community from addressing “deeper problems of joblessness, homelessness, economic disadvantagement.”
Racism has not been eliminated, and should not be tolerated, but it is not the cause of every problem facing people of minority groups, Daub said.
He particularly faulted Omaha Together One Community, a group of churches that addresses local issues. “Everything that happens from an OTOC point of view is played with a race card,” Daub said, vehemently rejecting a suggestion for a community “summit” on race made by Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel, one of the OTOC congregations.
Here and on the facing page are observations of Azriel, Dr. Karnes and others who were interviewed:
Omaha needs a summit of community leaders publicly addressing racial concerns, just as Omaha 2000 has pursued educational goals, said Rabbi Azriel, who started the Black-Jewish Dialogue Group.
“There is so much brain and wealth and power in this town,” Azriel said. “This is definitely one thing we can try to conquer.”
He said the talks should also address what he sees as a rift in the community between east and west. “This imaginary Berlin wall in 72nd Street is absolutely atrocious,” the rabbi said.
Race relations are the community’s most pressing problem, Azriel said. “We need a declaration of war on racism by all the organizations in town that are dealing with racial issues.”
Listen to Voters
Dr. Karnes, a member of the District 66 school board and a Midlands Region board member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said Daub needs to “listen to messages that were sent” in the mayoral election, when voters split almost evenly between him and Brenda Council.
Even before the campaign, in which several racial issues were raised, Dr. Karnes said she heard expressions of concern from community and business leaders that race relations in the community were deteriorating. Daub and Ms. Council need to lead a continuing public discussion of the differing views in the community, Dr. Karnes said.
“Her people and his people need to come together or the next four years are going to be very contentious,” Dr. Karnes said.
She said white people who condemn overt racism and casually know a few minority people in their neighborhoods are too easily satisfied that they have met their responsibility.
“You must make a conscious effort to reach beyond that,” Dr. Karnes said. “Whatever sphere of influence you’re involved with, you have to reach out.”
She praised mentoring programs that link successful adults with disadvantaged youths as particularly important. “It’s a small amount of time with great dividends.”
Buttry style note: The World-Herald maintained courtesy titles for women way longer than any other metro newspaper I knew of. I leave them in these old clips for accuracy sake and to remind of their absurdity in news stories.
Mentoring programs are needed for families as well, said Theresa Barron-McKeagney of Council Bluffs, assistant professor of social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Dr. Barron-McKeagney is running a program sponsored by UNO, the YWCA and the Chicano Awareness Center to provide mentors for families that need assistance in such areas as parenting skills.
“You need to be there to provide role modeling for the family,” she said. “If we don’t strengthen the families and try to get them the support they need, they’re going to fall through the cracks.”
Difficult though it may be to speak out, Billi Aherns said, people who are offended by racism must not tolerate it.
“If you find racism offensive, then don’t tolerate people around you being offensive,” she said. “That gets difficult to do when it’s family and friends.”
Mrs. Aherns, president of the Council Bluffs school board, sees schools as critical to improved racial relations. “Through education, hopefully you can teach people about other cultures so they are more accepting.”
Buttry note: Dan Offenburger was the brother of Chuck Offenburger, who gave me my first job in journalism and who is a fellow lymphoma survivor whom I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog. I covered Dan’s death seven years later for the World-Herald (though that story is no longer available online). Dan was more of a friendly source than a friend, but I’ve mentioned him previously on the blog, too. I also should note that my brother, Don and his wife, Pam, lead a multi-racial family in Shenandoah, the same community where Dan Offenburger lived. My familiarity with Dan’s situation and with Shenandoah’s lack of diversity no doubt played a role in my calling on him for this story. I noted on the blog the 2012 death of Don’s African American son Brandon, serving in Afghanistan, and the community’s salute to Brandon and support for the family.
Children who grow up in rural towns with little ethnic diversity need strong direction from their parents, churches and schools to learn appreciation for the diversity in the world at large, said Dan Offenburger, who returned in middle age to his hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa.
Offenburger confesses that he was racially insensitive enough as a youth to ride around Des Moines once with some Shenandoah friends, yelling racial slurs out the window.
But his mother, Anna, taught enough fundamental human respect that his brother, Tom, became press secretary to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and later to Andrew Young, who came to Shenandoah to deliver the eulogy for Tom Offenburger’s funeral in 1986.
Dan Offenburger also taught his children racial sensitivity. His daughter, Marti, married Kenny Walker, a black former Husker football star, and Offenburger talks proudly of his biracial grandchildren.
Wherever people acquire their prejudices, Offenburger said, they must confront them to overcome them. “Sometimes you’ve got to make people uncomfortable,” he said.
Glenn Freeman, assistant state chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, says the nation should give blacks nothing more or less than a fair chance.
“What you should say is we will have no discrimination, no quotas, no preferential treatment. We will provide Glenn Freeman with an opportunity.”
Freeman, who grew up attending segregated schools in Washington, D.C., said programs such as school busing, welfare and affirmative action are based on the premise that blacks are inferior and can’t succeed without help.
When Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues 50 years ago, Freeman said, he didn’t get any special breaks, like a fourth strike or an extra base every time he hit a single.
“That’s just how ludicrous it is today,” Freeman said. “They brought Jackie Robinson up to the major leagues because it was morally wrong to deny him that opportunity. Once they brought him up, Jackie Robinson had to compete.”
Harriette Washington, a federal probation officer in Omaha, cited Cornel West’s book “Race Matters,” and said it is important not to pretend that race isn’t a factor in everyday decisions and events.
“As a starting point, we need to all admit race matters,” Miss Washington said. “We’re in a stage of denial.”
Community leaders, she said, set an important example and need to be active and visible in all parts of the community. “If they are only seen in certain parts of the community, people will continue to isolate themselves.”
Improvement in racial relations “has to start from the heart,” said Miss Washington, a longtime volunteer at Flanagan High School, Special Olympics and other youth activities. “An individual citizen has to say, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m not going to get anything back from it.’ There’s no glory in it.”
Minority communities help themselves economically and culturally by nurturing businesses such as the Mexican- American enterprises that have opened in south Omaha in recent years, said Jose Ramirez, a longtime leader in the Hispanic community.
“Some of these stores are providing jobs not only for themselves but for others,” said Ramirez. “They also provide merchandise that was not available before that is important in maintaining our culture.”
Larger businesses can help, too. Ramirez, a deacon at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, said area churches are meeting with south Omaha meat packers to urge better pay and benefits for the immigrants who work in the plants.
“They can make a profit and still pay decent wages,” Ramirez said.
Arts Are Important
Music and art can overcome ethnic barriers, appealing to universal appreciation of beauty, said Margaret Lim, an Omaha musician whose parents were born in Korea.
After a recent auto accident, Ms. Lim was hurt by ethnic epithets used by a motorist who mistakenly thought the wreck was her fault. The reminder of how emotional racial barriers can be gave her added appreciation for her circle of friends in the arts community, where “I’m surrounded by people who welcome diversity.”
Ms. Lim is music series coordinator for Joslyn Art Museum and a cellist with the Omaha Symphony. At auditions, she noted, musicians perform behind a screen. “They don’t know if you’re black, white, Asian, short, tall. All that matters is the music.”
Marilyn Browder teaches second grade at Franklin Magnet Center. Children from mostly white or mostly black neighborhoods are bused to the school for their first extended exposure to children of other races.
At that age, Mrs. Browder said, race doesn’t matter. “Prejudice is something that is taught and it’s learned,” she said. “In second grade, if they don’t like you, they don’t like you for a reason.”
Quality academic programs challenge children to excel despite difficult socio-economic circumstances, Mrs. Browder said. The magnet school provides extensive computer experience and Japanese language instruction. Each child writes and publishes a book.
“Hopefully,” she said, “this is a springboard for them as they get older.”
Education for children in poverty must go beyond academic fundamentals and include employment skills that help them overcome cultural barriers, said the Rev. Jim Scholz, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Sacred Heart School has been successful preparing inner-city children for the workplace, he said, by teaching about the value of eye contact and a firm handshake, which create an impression in the first few seconds a person meets a prospective employer.
Buttry note: My family attended Sacred Heart for several years, though I don’t think we had started going there by 1997, when I wrote this. Jim was pretty newsworthy, though, and I think I did quote him a few times while I was a parishioner. I always disclosed this to my editors and asked if we should disclose in stories. They were less inclined than I to disclose such connections, and I don’t think we ever did. Jim later left the priesthood.
Festivals that allow people to experience different cultures help battle misconceptions, said Rudi Mitchell, a psychologist in Macy, Neb., and former chairman of the Omaha Tribe.
He mentioned the Lewis and Clark festival in Onawa, Iowa, and pow wows on Indian reservations as events that “help promote better relationships by educating people about other cultures.”
Such personal contacts, he said, help break down “predetermined opinions about minority groups.”
Whites and blacks view race relations differently, the Rev. Ty Schenzel said, because their experiences have been so fundamentally different, dating back to slavery.
“For whites, race is very rarely an issue at all unless it affects them,” said Schenzel, an urban minister at Trinity Church Interdenominational. “For blacks, it’s an issue every day. It tucks them into bed at night and it wakes them up in the morning.”
Whites who consider themselves above racism should ask themselves, he said, whether they would date someone of another race or how they would feel if one of their children wanted to date or marry someone of another race.
“When you see someone who’s black,” Schenzel asked, “do you have fear? Do you grab your purse? Do you lock your doors?”
If people practiced the religious faith they profess, said Marisela Romero, children would grow up seeing examples of tolerant behavior and racism would vanish.
“Until we stop the hypocrisy – being one thing on Sunday morning and something else on Sunday afternoon – we’re not going to be able to stop bigotry,” said Mrs. Romero, who runs Haven House, a temporary shelter for workers who move to Lexington, Neb.
“It starts with you and it starts right now,” she said, “or it’s never going to end.”
Felands Marion of Papillion, an Omaha police homicide detective, takes a no-nonsense approach to racial snubs.
“I do not accept racism, period,” said Marion, a black whose mother was half American Indian and whose wife is white. “It’s not tolerated.”
He has left places where he has been made to feel uncomfortable by offensive jokes or remarks. Marion, who is a Scout leader and a basketball and football coach, corrects other adults who make inappropriate racial remarks around young people. “I say, ‘We have kids here. We need to set an example.'”
It’s important, he said, to treat youths the same, regardless of race or background. “In Scouting, we have Scouts. In football, we have football players. In basketball we have basketball players,” Marion said. “We’re all one team.”
Each person must bear responsibility for his or her own success or failure,without using racism as a crutch, said Terry Herring of Bellevue, a retired Air Force personnel officer and now a leadership and management training consultant.
“We’ve got to get back to the concept of personal responsibility for personal results,” Herring said. “It’s sad, but we have people who are making a living on racism.”
He called for greater emphasis on American culture, rather than on the cultures from which people came to the country. “The diversity issue has swung too far and now we’re attacking our own national culture that isn’t so bad,” Herring said.
Blacks and whites must realize, Frank Hayes said, how differently they see things that might happen every day.
For instance, he said, a black person who is treated rudely by a store clerk may infer a racial motive behind the person’s attitude. A white person facing the same treatment, Hayes said, thinks the clerk is a jerk.
In truth, Hayes said, racism probably is not as prevalent as the black person suspects but more common than the white person will admit.
Hayes, an Omaha accountant and founder and president of 100 Black Men of Omaha, said actions of individual blacks affect others of their race more than actions of individual whites.
“Whatever we do,” Hayes said, “the person coming behind us is either going to be helped by it or hurt by it.”
Car dealer Roy Smith finds wisdom in the words of an old song: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”
The work of eliminating negative attitudes and views, he said, must be shared by all.
“The majority has to understand that we’re really just one race – the human race,” Smith said. “To hold something against someone because of skin color is a terrible wrong and it’s detrimental to our society.”
Those in the minority, he said, need to quit thinking of themselves as minorities. “They have to think, ‘I have the same opportunity of achieving my goals as everyone else.’ Don’t let small barriers become permanent roadblocks. Admitting defeat is the permanent roadblock.”
Candor, sometimes painful candor, is essential for bridging racial differences, said Magda Peck, a Jew who feels her ethnic difference more acutely in Omaha than she did while growing up in Philadelphia or living as an adult in Boston.
“Until you have dialogue, a full and open exchange of the heart between people who are fundamentally different, you won’t discover how fundamentally the same you are,” said Dr. Peck, a child health specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a member of the Black-Jewish Dialogue Group.
“There are these eggshells we walk around on, this discomfort, this fear, so we talk around it,” she said. “The way to bridge the gap starts with individuals talking from the heart.”
How I’d pursue this story today
If you’d like to do your own 2015 version of this story, here are some thoughts, organized mostly in three areas: Content, data, other storytelling, engagement.
Obviously the racial divide remains, and obviously it’s changed in 18 years. The most obvious changes are the election of an African American president, the focus on police killings of unarmed black men and the recent related violence, especially in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
I’d still concentrate on using data to tell the story, but, as noted above, law enforcement issues would need to be front and center. President Barack Obama’s election and the resulting increase in open and veiled statements of racism should be part of the examination (and perhaps tougher to analyze statistically). I’d also look at the upward mobility for blacks that his election represents as well as how much the divide in other respects has worsened or healed during his tenure.
This was early in my data journalism days and I did the data research through a mix of accessing and analyzing online data and collecting hard-copy data from national reference books (I got a lot from the Statistical Abstract of the United States) and studies and from public local and state agencies. Now I think most of the data would be online, places such as the Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control, similar state and local government agencies and academic studies. I’d be happy to help anyone undertaking an updated look think through your data reporting.
The static print graphics we used with the story were fine for their day, but, as I noted before, this calls for interactive data visualization, using some of the tools I mentioned above. The Marshall Project links I shared above show some possibilities. I welcome links to other interactive examples you’d like to share, especially if they deal with race.
We don’t normally think of video as a data visualization tool, but check out this video about the racial divide (viewed more than 10 million times on Facebook and another million almost on YouTube):
I don’t think the right approach to updating this story would be the old newspaper approach of dropping it all in the Sunday paper or starting a series with a big Sunday splash. I might start with a splash (on a weekday), roll this project out over multiple days and multiple stories. We’d certainly have a landing page for the full project (as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did with its Ferguson coverage).
Each of those interviews I did gathering different perspectives on the issues would be a video, not a talking head, but an interview mostly voiced over B roll showing the issues.
Interactive tools such as Immersive, Creatavist, Storify or New Hive might be effective story vehicles. You could let an updated version of the different prospects for the black child in text, with graphics interwoven where they fit. Or the story could be audio clips, with graphics inserted. Or you could do an interactive on each topic: one on crime, one on health, one on jobs, etc.
I have compiled links to some excellent reporting on race issues (repeating some of the ones above), and I welcome you to send me more.
This story would present multiple opportunities for engagement:
- You could curate community conversation about the topic on social media, either the conversation already going on about the situation in Baltimore (or some other national story that commands attention). In other topics, you might encourage a local conversation using a unique local hashtag, but the topic of race is likely to bring out some ugly conversation. Of course, curation of the ugly conversation, whether using your hashtag or not, is also one way to illustrate the divide.
- You could host a live chat featuring some of the people interviewed for the solutions package. On a live chat, you can filter out the offensive remarks and questions through moderation. Or you can save them up and post them toward the end, with warning, to show how ugly this conversation can get.
- You could encourage your community to download and use the POWER police accountability app (developed by LSU students Wilborn Nobles III and Elbis Bolton for the Manship School’s Social Media News Challenge). It helps people document abusive or exemplary police conduct and share their videos and photos with the news media.
- You could invite people to submit stories of their experiences across the racial divide, both problems and solutions.
I’m willing to help
I am not seeking work with this post, but I’d be happy to help if your news organization wants to take on a story like this today. My LSU duties will take priority over any consulting that I undertake, though I would be happy to open discussions with my dean and other colleagues here about a possible LSU partnership with professional media undertaking a story such as this.
I have a significant schedule of lymphoma treatment remaining the next couple months, though I manage to do lots of work while in the hospital (that’s where I wrote this). But I would be happy to consult with any newsroom — college or pro, legacy or startup, roots in broadcast or print (but agreed on giving the story a digital focus), commercial or philanthropic, collaborative or exclusive.
If someone wants to fund an update as a freelance story through Kickstarter, I will happily help plan and promote the campaign. I won’t work for free, but I’m not planning to get rich. I’ll negotiate reasonable fees, and am happy to tie most of my compensation to results: metrics and/or impact. If you’re interested, I’d like to talk.
The 1997 story
Here’s how the first page of the inside spread appeared in 1997:
Here’s how the second page appeared:
More recent journalism about the racial divide
Some of these focus more on crime and police misconduct than specifically on race:
New York Times’ Upshot blog has compiled current racial-divide graphics on many of the topics I addressed in 1997, but not all (and local information for your community or state might work well with a link to the Times’ national graphics).
Marshall Project’s examination of racial disparity in policing
ProPublica’s Segregation Now project
Marshall Project coverage of the militarization of police: