Separate but equal: journalists of color run out of unity

April 11, 2011 12:49 PM

I'm shocked that the National Association of Black Journalists has decided to pull out of Unity, the coalition of media professionals that always reminded me of the true purpose of being a journalist of color.

As always, dollars are at the bottom of the pull out.

I remember going to the first Unity convention in July of '94, in a hot and steamy Atlanta. There were Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native American journalists all together-6,000 journalists clamoring for diversity in news coverage and employment.

Try to get 6,000 of anyone, let alone journalists in one room, all in agreement. After Atlanta, it felt like we could do anything.

Indeed, one of the goals for Unity was to show how through journalism, we could lead the U.S. into a more enlightened sense of race relations.  It was an independent non-profit with a real purpose.

From the Unity website:

UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. does not merely espouse the virtues of diversity and cross-cultural understanding; it is a model of diversity in practice. No other organization or professional association can boast that it has attracted equal participation from all four of the country's largest communities of color and worked to develop a fair and equitable system of governance. UNITY was recognized by President Clinton and the panel of his Initiative on Race as a model in the effort to "build one America."

UNITY has become a vehicle for the different ethnic groups to work through differences while supporting and collaborating on a common agenda-a constantly expanding mission that is strengthening ties and understanding among communities. Given the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy, journalists play a crucial part in helping to shape American beliefs and actions; in UNITY, journalists learn from their differences and pool their resources in pursuit of common goals.

It may not always be an easy alliance, but it serves a vital purpose by modeling how different
segments of our diverse country can participate equally in shaping the future.
To date, Unity's record has been spotty. But maybe that's because it's just enough that we manage to come together every four years, like a Woodstock of media diversity.

In the end, that simple act of being all together gives force to the name Unity.

It means a lot more than you think, these days.

As the country becomes more diverse, newsrooms have become less so, losing journalists of color each year. The internet has changed business models, and media profits are diminishing.  Diversity is now seen as a luxury, a matter of budget.

It's always about the dollars, isn't it? And that is essentially why NABJ is pulling out of Unity.
In a statement worthy of a politician, NABJ still says it supports and likes the idea of Unity; it just can't afford the diversity Unity-style.

Since NABJ has always had a greater participation rate in conventions past, NABJ wanted a bigger cut out of the next convention in 2012. It wanted a bigger say in what goes on.

Instead of going along with the others this time, the NABJ board voted to go its own way and have a separate convention.

Separate but equal? Or separate and more equal?

That certainly wasn't the spirit in Atlanta.

But times have changed. The NABJ board voted 12-1 to leave Unity.

The idealists have lost. The bean counters have won. NABJ board members kept referring to the vote as purely a "business decision." But when has it ever been purely about business?

Besides, how can you have Unity without unity?

Same way NABJ thinks it's supporting Unity by pulling out.

That's some message to send the world after years of massive gatherings of journalists of color.

What's NABJ saying? That sometimes diversity isn't worth it?

For more on the NABJ withdrawal from Unity, read Richard Prince, Journal-isms, at

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. In this -- as in the civil rights movement generally -- the cost of forgetting Ben Franklin's wise urging to hang together will be painfully high. What a pity!
Posted by: Peter Lederer | Apr 11, 2011 2:35 PM

2. Nice try. But this wasn't just about the money. It was about respect for positions and repeatedly, the other partners in this coalition felt the need to disregard the thoughts and views of the largest partner. That was true in the discussion over Seattle when NABJ was essentially forced to go somewhere that its members didn't want to go for philosophical reasons. The model worked for everyone as long as NABJ knuckled under and took one for the team when it did not make good business or financial sense. And it's unclear what NABJ members ever got out of the coalition. I was not involved in this itteration of things. But as a past board member, I know this is a place we have almost gotten to on several occasions and just finally got pushed over the edge. Coalitions have to produce real results for all of its members. Otherwise, what's the point. Not sure that ever happened with this coalition beyond a token gathering every four years. Certainly did not transfer to our newsrooms. Painting NABJ as the bad guy in this scenario might be easy for those without all of the facts but it does not jive with reality. If it had only been the money, this would not have been a 12-1 vote, with support from past presidents and board members. This was a realization that this--in its current form--was not working and it was time to move on to something else.
Posted by: Robert Pierre | Apr 12, 201111:32 AM

3. Most of them didn't know the importance of separate but equal or Brown vs. Brown case in the past. When there was money or power involved, most people forgot their identity. Therefore we shouldn't be easily bribed by politicians who has money and power to hinder our goal. Think and see clearly. They must be a part of political stooge or puppet. Someone could be playing behind the scene as if a puppet.
Posted by: Kai | Apr 13, 2011 8:50 PM

4. I take exception with Mr. Robert Pierre's remark that when UNITY '99 was held in Seattle, "NABJ was essentially forced to go somewhere that its members didn't want to go for philosophical reasons." The very same argument could be made by AAJA, NAHJ and NAJA about the UNITY conventions held in Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Chicago. There is a concept of shared sacrifice that everyone has to embrace for any multi-racial and multi ethnic convergence of diverse groups to truly be successful. There have always been many fissures and cracks in the wall of UNITY. It is unfortunate that money is what led to the demise of NABJ's participation in UNITY, but despite the spin to the contrary money and who gets the lion's share of it was an overwhelming factor in this decision. That's not painting NABJ as the bad guy. That's just the unvarnished truth.
Posted by: Jeff Winbush | Jul 7, 2011 1:46 AM

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