Somewhere between "us" and "them" : black columnists and their role in shaping racial discourse

McElroy, Kathleen Oveta
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Communication scholarship on black journalists has mostly focused on their lack of empowerment and the constraints that prevent them from engaging as full partners in the journalism industry, which has been shown to be ambivalent about the role of race in professional work. Racial discourse studies assert that blacks have little say in their representation by the media, where African Americans and other minority groups are treated as the negative “them” rather than the positive mainstream “us.” This dissertation examines journalism and racial discourse from a little-explored perspective in both fields: that of elite black columnists, who have the platform and autonomy to discuss news in general and race in particular from an African-American point of view. This dissertation examined the work of 11 African-American columnists who have won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary or write for one of the country’s highest-circulation publications. After textual analyses of more than 3,000 of their columns and in-depth, elite interviews with five columnists, this study found that elite black columnists wrote extensively and strategically about race at a level previously unrecognized in academia. The study found that the columnists heavily relied on biography and history in constructing a black narrative, which is not usually associated with journalistic work but helped them make sense of the black experience and to explain it to their mostly white readership. The research also identified six related frames the columnists used to provide context to news coverage about black America. Three frames explained the “problem people” image of black America: the devaluation of black life, misrepresentation, and destructive racial discourse. Three were correctives to that image: the raising of critical racial consciousness (while unmasking whiteness), black responsibility and black pride, and reverence for the Constitution and American ideals. The findings showed that elite black columnists were actively engaged in what could be called an antiracist racial project: to not only counter inequality and misrepresentation but also to battle the forces within discourse that feed the “us” vs. “them” ideology.