Non-Black journalists, students and college administrators need to do better. So do we.
On May 25, Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground. Floyd did not merely “die in police custody” as the Washington Post and other publications continue to insist on phrasing it. As Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, a police officer killed him. Active voice.
Every journalist learns that proper form in writing news articles calls for using the active voice (subject did thing) over passive voice (the thing was done). This is because news journalism, at its best, aims to answer the questions we learned to ask as third graders — who, what, when, where, why and how — as accurately as possible.
In reporting on George Floyd, as well as on the countless other instances of violence against Black Americans and on the protests unfolding across the country as a result, many professional journalists seem to have forgotten this golden rule. Instead, they jump through hoops to avoid saying things that might make White, police-supporting people uncomfortable. Just the other day, The New York Times unabashedly exhibited their bias in one tweet, describing two incidents of police brutality in the anonymous passive voice, but one instance of protestors igniting violence in an active voice.
We point this out to illustrate that journalists have power. The irresponsible, biased use of that power risks perpetuating the same dangerous narratives about Black people that are used to falsely justify their murders. Although critiques of such journalism practices often appear on Twitter, the vast majority of people do not use Twitter. The New York Times and the Washington Post are two of the most widely circulated newspapers in the country, and if they say George Floyd simply died in police custody, a lot of Americans will too. That’s a problem because it erases the longstanding history of police brutality and racist violence against Black people embedded in American political and economic systems.
To that point, and as Black people have been saying for a long time, what is happening in America right now is not just about George Floyd. It is about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. It is about a list of Black people too long to include in this editorial, and about all the people who didn’t become hashtags. It is about the systemic racism that perpetuates this violent pattern.
Our campus is not immune to those systems. In 2013, the Harris County district attorney’s office investigated three Rice University police officers for using batons to beat an unarmed Black man, Ivan Joe Waller, who allegedly stole a bike. The officers did not face criminal charges and were allowed to remain on the force. At the time, the Houston Chronicle highlighted the lack of transparency surrounding the case, urging President David Leebron to release the full video of the arrest, explain what actions have been taken against the officers and hold Rice University Police Department accountable. The details of the case remain unclear, and RUPD has fallen under scrutiny for other racial issues since then. In 2018, the Thresher reported on two instances of racial profiling, although it’s safe to say racial profiling has happened on campus more than twice. And of course, racism takes place on campus beyond instances involving RUPD, as Black students have told the Thresher and campus at large.
The Thresher is not immune to insensitive reporting, either, especially because we have a pattern of being much Whiter than the Rice population. In 2018, our then-art director and former editor-in-chief Christina Tan studied a sample of Thresher articles to gauge our engagement with people of color. She found a number of disappointing statistics, including that 80 percent of our bylines were by White students, only six percent of student quotes were from Black students and our editorial staff had no Black people. Although we believe, based on informal observations, we have improved quite a bit in the last two years, we are still miles away from accurately reflecting the demographics of our student body.
It is the Thresher’s responsibility to provide accurate, sensitive reporting that is relevant to all communities on our campus, and we can do better. In order to do so, we are committing to diversifying the populations whose quotes we include in our stories, pursuing bylines for writers from underrepresented communities and moving towards an editorial team that more accurately reflects our school’s population. We aim to learn from our mistakes as well as mistakes that our professional counterparts have made and provide a platform that uplifts voices that may otherwise go unheard. Finally, we are committing to listening thoughtfully and critically to any feedback on our reporting from the Rice community, especially from Black students and other groups who are not well represented on our staff.
While we turn to examine ourselves and our practices, we ask the non-Black student body and the administration to do the same. For non-Black students, we hope you will use this moment to reflect inwards — whether that is towards your own club, your family, or yourself — and ask yourself how you have benefited from and been complicit in systemic racism. We ask that you donate what you can to Black organizers such as Rice for Black Life and the organizations they supported in their recent fundraiser with nearly $100,000 in donations, and use the ample privilege you have as a Rice student to educate yourself on what exactly is happening.
To the Rice administration, we ask that they acknowledge the mistakes they have made, including the horrific actions that RUPD officers took against Ivan Joe Waller and other discriminatory practices against Black students. We ask that they take steps to ensure that what happened to Waller never happens to anyone again. And we ask that they be transparent about those steps so that they can be held accountable by the Rice community. Although we appreciate Leebron’s email in solidarity with students, we urge the president and the university to put action beyond those words. Two-hundred dollars is not enough.
Editor’s Note: Thresher editorials are collectively written by the members of the Thresher’s editorial board. Current members include Rishab Ramapriyan, Ivanka Perez, Amy Qin, Elizabeth Hergert, Ella Feldman, Katelyn Landry, Simona Matovic and Tina Liu.
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