Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Race, journalism and the Fox News of child welfare

An insightful Columbia Journalism Review essay on covering race and politics goes double for covering race and child welfare


The current print issue of Columbia Journalism Review is about exactly what any journalist would expect it to be about: Donald Trump and the press.

But one essay in that issue applies as well, if not better, to covering child welfare. It’s called “Covering a country where race is everywhere.”

“Race and racism are everywhere, and in everything,” writes Collier Meyerson, who covers race and politics for The Nation. “We are the product of a violent history that privileges one race over all others. And in order to tell that truth, we must look for it everywhere.”

Notice that she did not say “everywhere except the American child welfare system, which, of course, is run by such wonderful people that it is magically immune.”

Sadly, a lot of Americans who consider themselves liberals and would agree with Meyerson when it comes to politics, the police, and just about everything else, carve out a great big, unwarranted exception when it comes to child welfare. 

Child welfare’s caucus of denial


In that field, there is an entire coterie of self-proclaimed liberals, a kind of caucus of denial, who insist that the disproportionate rate at which children of color, especially Black and Native- American children, are investigated for child abuse and torn from everyone they know and love has absolutely nothing to do with racism. (Just for the record, here’s a summary of some of the studies showing that it does.)

Indeed, child welfare is a field so blind to the problem of racial bias that a prominent leader in the field can declare that the states doing the best job of curbing child abuse are the ones that have “smaller, whiter populations” and face no censure for it from the Left.

Giving constant aid and comfort to those in denial about the role of racial bias in child welfare is the Fox News of child welfare, the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.

It’s not just that the Chronicle publishes – and promotes – the dissemination of pernicious racial stereotypes, as is documented in detail here. It’s not just that they’ve published column after column promoting the denial idea.  The problem goes deeper. 

Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel works hand-in-glove with the leader of the denial movement, Elizabeth Bartholet. He co-authored op-ed columns with her, provided her with research assistance for a paper and then promoted her “findings” in the Chronicle (he did disclose his role).  Heimpel’s work with Bartholet is discussed in detail here.

Heimpel joined Bartholet and others in the “denial caucus” in a so-called symposium on “The Liberal Dilemma in Child Welfare Reform” – to which only “liberals” who shared the Heimpel/Bartholet perspective were invited. (The “dilemma,” according to these “liberals” is that other liberals, with their pesky notions of due process, civil rights and civil liberties, are insufficiently willing to tear apart families.) Then Heimpel wrote up a summary in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”

At a time when The New York Times is breaking new ground with stories about foster care as “the new Jane Crow” and a piece about what some lawyers for the city’s child welfare agency really think, the Chronicle ignores all that (except for publishing an attack on the Times story) and showcases the deniers – exactly as one would expect from the Fox News of child welfare.

If he really considers himself a journalist, Heimpel should be paying close attention to CJR essays such as the one from Meyerson, who writes:

Not only do our racial identities as reporters matter, but so does our understanding of how race functions in the United States. It is everywhere, and in everything. It is in what we eat, it is with whom we eat, and it is in what we talk about while we’re eating. It’s where we live and whom we live with. It is in the absence of living around those who are of a different race, and it is living in close proximity to those who are of a different race. It’s in the conversations we have, or don’t have, with our neighbors, our parents, our friends. Race is as much a part of our lives as breathing, and its consideration must be integral to our reporting.

As long as the Chronicle of Social Change doesn’t get that, it will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.