Understanding the lack of students of color in journalism
October 18, 2020
The first time I entered Central High’s newsroom a year ago I was a wide-eyed freshman with bubbling aspirations. Room 029 was where I wanted to be, telling the stories that no one was listening to and closing the gaps between different perspectives. Writing had always been my refuge and my best way to communicate. I was sure I’d find things in common with other journalists and, in that way, people who shared my passion for truth and mutual understanding.
After I became a staff member, I honestly didn’t notice the obvious lack of diversity in the newsroom. The environment had been like any other I’d grown up in my whole life: white and full of overachievers. It was because of this experience that I usually never felt out of place with any of my peers. After all, I grew up as a light skinned biracial kid surrounded by white culture and white people. But as my freshman year went on, I couldn’t help but develop a feeling of disconnect.
No one on staff looked like me and no one grew up with the same cultural background. I was the only student of color on staff. And although this never happened, I couldn’t help but feel that at some point I would be misunderstood or judged because another white student wouldn’t have the experience to understand my perspective. I began feeling a desperation for commonality and, on top of that, a deep sadness that other students of color were not occupying the same spaces I was.
Was this because they didn’t want to or because they couldn’t?
This question has been ruminating in my mind for over a year now. It truly begs the question of whether students of color do not have the same opportunities to be present in journalistic spaces, or if they simply do not want to. And if they don’t, why do white students? The way to get to the bottom of this is by asking what allows students to participate in extracurricular activities, and if each student has equal access to these resources.
In order to participate in extracurricular activities, a student must first have the time and money to do so. Let’s take into account the demographics of people living below the poverty line in the United States. Black Americans make up a little over 13 percent of the population yet make up almost 19 percent of Americans living in poverty. The same goes for Hispanics and Latinos who make up 18.5 percent of the population and 15.7 percent of those in poverty, as well as Asian Americans who make up almost six percent of the population but over seven percent of those in poverty. In contrast, white Americans make up 60.1 percent of the population and just over seven percent of those living in poverty.
Money goes hand in hand with time. One of my parents has a good paying job with flexible hours, which meant as a kid I could always get dropped off at school early and leave school after extra activities and meetings. I also had extra money for things like school trips or club admissions. But for kids living in poverty, which we know are predominantly Black and Latino, they may have to take the bus everywhere or work to support their families and pay for college. Without these resources, it can be very difficult to engage in after school activities.
Minority students also tend to have concentrated populations in underfunded schools with less qualified staff and high law enforcement presence. This is because of historical racial redlining and the result of school funding through property taxes. Children who are people of color are less likely to receive adequate education because of this and in turn less likely to have access to college preparatory courses. Black students are suspended, expelled, referred to law enforcement and sent out of class at higher rates than other students. This leads to less in-class instruction.
All these factors contribute to Black and Latino students making up only 29 percent of the students enrolled in at least one AP course, and are a small fraction of students in higher level classes. Teachers who teach these students do not want to recommend AP courses to their students for many reasons: a student’s GPA might drop, they are not prepared for the course, systemic bias amongst teachers resulting in lower expectations for minority students, etc.
Lack of education and encouragement end up negatively impacting students of color in tremendous ways. College programs and extracurricular organizations, like newspaper and journalism, advertise in honors and AP classes because they have high expectations for the students. If you aren’t introduced to journalism, why would you consider it an option?
We could also speculate that students of color just aren’t confident in their ability to write at a journalistic level given that many kids receive a subpar education growing up. They may also shy away from journalism because most of the students who participate are white. Usually, so is the teacher. The disconnect between peers that I mentioned before may be more prevalent for certain students.
It is also a possibility that many students of color just simply aren’t interested in journalism, which could be a combination of cultural influences on personal interests. But, given the high percentage of white students who are willing to participate in journalism, lacking students of color cannot be completely attributed to disinterest. Action must be taken in order to remedy these opportunity-based differences if more diversity in newsrooms can ever hope to be achieved.