An Apology



I owe our PBS NewsHour audience an apology, and, although I know that this blog will reach only a fraction of that audience, it’s the best I can do. In our NewsHour report about a summer program in Providence, RI, on Monday, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty, an egregious error on our part.

This is some of the filming we did in Providence.

The piece begins with language about how summer highlights social and economic inequalities in our society. To wit, well-off children get to travel, go to museums, go to camp, et cetera, while children in poverty hang out with little or nothing to do. The result is what educators call ‘summer learning loss’ and a widening of ‘the achievement gap.’

That’s all true. What we did wrong was to show only white children in the travel-camp-museum part, and only black and Hispanic children in the poverty/learning loss/achievement gap section.

That is just plain wrong. Most of the children in poverty in America are white, and this country has a substantial middle- and upper middle-class black and Hispanic population.

The error was pointed out by Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor and author of “Bowling Alone,” in a strongly worded letter that he sent to Paul Solman, the NewsHour economics correspondent who is a friend of Dr. Putnam’s (and mine). Paul made certain that Dr. Putnam’s letter got to the right party, me.

Here is part of that letter, reprinted with his permission:

The unambiguous subtext (of your report): Poverty in America is exclusively about race. That is factually wrong, as your fellow editors surely know. … Indeed, most poor kids in America (including most poor kids who are harmed by the summer break, the nominal subject of the story) are white, but you’d never ever guess that from the Newshour story. A deep, deep cultural problem in America-and the biggest single obstacle to addressing these issues in our politics-is the fallacious racialization of poverty. Newshour should be fighting to overcome that racist fallacy, but last night’s program reinforced it. I don’t use the emotion-laden term “racist” lightly, but the segment was racist-unintentionally racist, no doubt, but just as racist as if it were a program about miscreant bankers that depicted only bankers who were stereotypically Jewish. The producers could have found examples of poor white kids who are harmed by the summer break, and many examples of summer programs addressing that problem that serve all races. (Indeed, there is a great one right here in Jaffrey, NH, 95% of whose kids are white.) But your editorial colleagues chose to highlight a racially homogenous program and thus, through negligence, to reinforce a deeply misleading stereotype. Whatever the intent, the visual subtext of this segment was: ‘Virtually all poor kids who need summer help are non-white.’ That is racist nonsense.

It’s clear that our presentation was misleading, wrong and uninformed, but was it ‘racist nonsense,’ as Professor Putnam said? I asked two prominent African American educators whom I have gotten to know over the years. Here’s what Linda Darling Hammond said:

I think it’s helpful to point out the demographics of poverty if you can, but I don’t think it’s racist to report on what’s happening for poor black and brown kids in Providence. It is still true that poverty is disproportionate in these communities.

And Dr. James Comer:

Racist or not, it is good reporting to provide a correct context — that race and poverty are not inextricably linked and that more children in poverty are white. The absence of context contributes to the collective unconscious belief among many that all Blacks are poor because of their performance. This contributes (for example) to the White store clerk who told me that I could not afford a camera that was expensive in his mind but not in mine; or the Black clerk who did not show my wife her best hats until requested.

During the week, Professor Putnam and I exchanged emails, and in a second letter he wrote, “I recognize that you are a serious professional, and that Newshour is not the only media outlet that commits this error. The trope that equates poverty with race lies deep in our culture and is therefore embedded in all our minds, mine as well as yours. You are a victim of that trope, not its creator. But that does not lessen the damage that your program has done, unintentionally, to the very cause you were admirably seeking to promote. With sensitivity to the pervasive misperception, instead of fostering it, Newshour could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.”

Professor Putnam also called my attention to Martin Gilens’ work “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” as well as Gilens’ 1999 book “Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy.” In both publications, Gilens documents the prevalence of images of black urban poor in coverage of poverty.

I responded, in part: “We have spent a lot of time today talking about our process and how we missed what is now obvious. One problem was that …. (we) never thrashed it through face-to-face, as we should have. End of the day, however, I did not catch it, and I should have. We see now that we should have opened the piece with visuals of privileged white, black and brown kids engaged in stimulating activities. Then we should have segued to visuals of impoverished white, black and brown kids. We could also have made the point about the distribution of poverty in our language as well, but first we should have gotten the visuals right.”

That’s what we are now doing. Sometime in the next week, we will have the revised piece up on our website and YouTube Channel.

We learned a great deal from this experience. I am grateful to Professor Putnam for taking us to the woodshed and I apologize to our audience.


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24 Responses to “An Apology”

  1. Annemarie Harris 23. Aug, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    I truly enjoyed the NewsHour report about the summer program in Rhode Island. I must admit that while watching it, I did notice the race disparity when comparing the summers of the upper/middle income children and the low income children.

    I commend you in addressing this issue with your report. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do, but the most impactful one as well. We all have the capacity to learn and do better. We must give each other the space to do so.

  2. Paul Hill 23. Aug, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Balanced and responsible as always. The error does not offset the great value of your pieces on Providence and the Rainier Scholars.

  3. Kathy Seal 23. Aug, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    What Dr. Comer writes is spot-on and convincing. Kudos to you for delving into this issue.

  4. Saree Mading 23. Aug, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    Dear John,

    I love you for accepting responsibility for the error. “The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are” – C. S. Lewis.

    I am however disappointed that both Darling Hammond and Comer felt the need (not sure if it was truly a need but, walk with me) to placate your emotions with walking the middle of the road. It is so true that folk’s attitude about who Blacks and browns are not directly stems from what they see whites are. And that in turn follows that 85% +/- of white female teachers into the classroom as they try and educated all students.

    It hurts to be tagged a racist and I don’t believe that you are. What I do believe is that until individuals in your position begin to “thrashed it through face-to-face”, America will continue to be spoon-fed falsehoods.

    I know I am rambling but, I do appreciate this error. I am thankful that Putnam had the wherewithal to call you on it. And I am thrilled that you have been man enough to do something about it.

    Hats off to you!!

    Saree Mading

  5. Rachel Tompkins 23. Aug, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    John

    Down here in the Appalachian Mountains most poor people are white. WVU Extension has been running a summer learning program called Energy Express for children in schools 50% or more free and reduced price lunch. Not enough research money to do longitudinal research but each year pre and post show children gaining literacy skills. The stories that grip are the kids classified as special ed who are reclassified after a summer experience. We know that changes life trajectory. Our ESP classmate Jane David’s dissertation taught me to pay attention to summer deficit and so we created this very successful program. It’s rural, not urban, reaches several thousand kids every summer. So glad you focused on summertime learning–Putnam was right to call you on the conflation of race and poverty and am glad you have focused and thought about it. Education reformer’s intense focus on inner city education to the exclusion of other serious education inequalities has reinforced the conventional wisdom that all black children are poor and few white children are. Maybe you should do something that focuses specifically on this problem. You have quite the bully pulpit.

    • john merrow 24. Aug, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      We will

  6. Josephine C. Baker 23. Aug, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Thank you for being forthright in your receipt of constructive criticism. Though we regret the mistake, we have all been made mindful of the stereotypes that continue to plague us about race and poverty. Your Newshour is essential to our education efforts.

    Jo Baker -Member of NACSA and a long time charter school advocate.

  7. Mark Collins 23. Aug, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    Apology accepted. Be careful with the visuals.

  8. Charlotte 23. Aug, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    This is incredibly frustrating. In considering the relationship between race and poverty, this entire apology and subsequent comments overlook a critical fact: black, Hispanic and Native American children are twice as likely to live in poverty as white children. If you are a person of color, poverty is much more likely to be a problem for you. That is why we talk about the two together.

    Here are your stats; and John Merrow, it is unforgivable that you do not make this point clear to your audience in your follow up to the complaints you received. Dr. Darling-Hammond is walking no middle road; she is being incredibly generous towards colleagues who should be much more clear and honest about the nature of this problem.

    From the National Center For Children in Poverty (http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_1049.pdf)

    Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children comprise a disproportionate share of the low-income population under age 18. Together, they represent 38 percent of all children but more than one-half (54 percent) of low-income children. They are also more than twice as likely to live in a low-income family compared to white and Asian children.

    31 percent of white children – 12.1 million – live in low-income families.
    64 percent of black children – 6.5 million – live in low-income families.
    31 percent of Asian children – 1.0 million – live in low-income families.
    63 percent of American Indian children – 0.4 million – live in low-income families.
    43 percent of children of some other race – 1.3 million – live in low-income families.
    63 percent of Hispanic children – 10.7 million – live in low-income families.

    • john merrow 24. Aug, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      Thanks for making this important point. I did not include because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was making excuses for our error in linking race and poverty. It is true, sad and disgraceful that poverty exists to such a large degree and so disproportionately. We shouldn’t be concentrating on the latter but on the former, in my view.
      And, as always, we use schools as our dominant engine to ameliorate poverty, or so it looks to me, by creating food programs and such. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but we also need to pay attention to housing, nutrition, health care and opportunities for advancement. A strong safety net matters, but we also need many more ladders.

      • Charlotte 24. Aug, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

        John, I do not know how anyone can look at the stats above and live in America – which is still a segregated country to a huge extent – and not understand that if you walk into a school that is predominantly black, more often than not, the majority of those students are going to be poor. If you walk into a school that is predominantly white, more often than not, the majority will not be poor. Bottom line, if you are a child today born into a white family, your odds of success in life are significantly better. There is no research out there to prove otherwise. In this way, there IS a significant relationship between race and poverty- too significant to be pushed aside and take a “color-blind” view of this problem, for whatever reason you might want do so. You simply cannot look at raw numbers alone and choose to draw a different conclusion. It is a huge disservice to this country to do so – else we never face up to the tough work that needs to be done to fix it.

  9. Larry Tietz 24. Aug, 2012 at 5:17 am #

    Apology accepted. Some of the best learning occurs from things gone wrong. I have a new vocabulary word – conflated. And a reminder that it is hard,if not impossible, to know how the other guy (gal) feels until you walk a mile in his/her shoes. Also, while summer is a great opportunity for enrichment, if the child is turned off by yet another opportunity he is forced into, you may not want him in your classroom in the fall.

  10. Burch Ford 24. Aug, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Thanks, John. Mistakes and oversights are not uncommon. Alas, taking full responsibility is. That’s leadership and the example to be emulated.

  11. Monty Neill 24. Aug, 2012 at 8:16 am #

    Three things are true: One, poverty hits African Americans, Latinos and Native American Indians very disproportionately, as Charlotte shows. Two, poverty, especially child poverty, is a dangerous epidemic that this nation is largely resistant to addressing. Three, as Putnam says, we should not conflate race and poverty. This is in significant part because identifying poverty with race feeds racism and the inability to confront poverty. Poverty and race are intertwined, and addressing that interconnectedness and its consequences is essential for making any progress. The best way to make up for the program’s one-sidedness would be to do a program that focuses on how that interconnection plays out in our schools, also for Newshour so that it could then garner similar numbers of viewers. I would hope Newshour would be willing to air such a segment (or multiple segments given the complexity of the issue).

  12. Ken Bernstein 24. Aug, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Twice a year I go to Southwest Virginia, to the Appalachian Mountains, to free medical and dental fairs co-sponsored by Stan Brock’s Remote Area Medical and the Virginia Dental Foundation’s Mission of Mercy. I volunteer in dental triage. I go in July to Wise, in October to Grundy. We see tons of poor people for whom these fairs are often their only access to medical or dental services.

    They are almost all white.

    Much of the poverty in America is in rural areas.

    Poverty cuts across all races.

    Some of the poorest places in America are on Native American reservations.

    Some are in inner cities, but there it is possible to get around if one cannot afford a car, and there is sufficient mass that there are accessible free clinics.

    What does one do if one cannot afford a car in rural areas?

    It is criminal that in a country as rich as ours we still have the degree of poverty that we do, yet some argue for shifting even more resources towards those who are already wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most Americans.

    Here I think it worthwhile to quote the words of Hubert Humphrey:

    “It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

    By this moral test, our government and our society fail miserably.

    The results in the schools working with the young people from poor families are a symptom, not the cause.

    And until we will forthrightly address the root causes, we are a society immoral.

  13. Tom Sander 24. Aug, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Gracious admission of complicity and how the story could have been better handled.

    For a blog post on how this misportrayal of the colors of American poverty undermines action to combat poverty and American economic disadvantage, see: http://wp.me/p4v4e-SO

  14. Barbara Cervone 25. Aug, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    John,

    I join the other repliers in saluting you for your gracious admission of complicity and your reflection. As a 40-year resident of Providence, it was great to see you feature summer learning loss and offer a peak at education struggles here in Providence, a city that’s always beguiled me with its possibilities and daunting obstacles to ed reform/equity. Poverty and race are a critical part of the story, to be sure, but other forces, some peculiar to Providence, have taken their toll. (FYI: My doctoral thesis at HGSE was a history of the push and pull of immigrant students in Providence public schools, from the onset of compulsory ed laws in the late 1800s. to the 1980s)

    What caught my eye and rattled my brain as I watched your piece on PASA–in addition to the race and poverty conflation–was how short the experiences being offered these energetic and curious kids fell from “deeper learning.” I winced when I heard you use the phrase. I do not fault, in any way, PASA and all of those behind giving these students an engaging, summer learning alternative; what I saw–e.g., kids getting a hands-on intro to invasive species, guided by caring adults–was heartening. But I was struck by the (forced) modesty of this antidote to (invasive) summer learning loss, the huge divide between the public resources we commit to educating “other people’s” children and our own. When my two boys were young, our family resources made it possible for them to attended a two-week sleep over environmental camp run by U. of Rhode Island (in the woods of central RI)–where the learning was, indeed, deep.

    Your upbeat piece, alas, reminded me that the opportunity gap that fuels learning loss among our nation’s poor kids, whatever the season or the color of their skin, is a national tragedy.

    • john merrow 25. Aug, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

      Agreed that the PASA summer approach is a small step, but it’s not insignificant, and we cannot let the best be the enemy of the good. We ended the piece as we did because that’s what I sensed from the Superintendent, a devotee of Ted Sizer: a desire to change the way schools function by bringing that ‘summer’ approach to year-round school. Maybe we should have said ‘a little bit deeper’ learning, but it’s a damn sight better than business as usual.

      • Barbara Cervone 27. Aug, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

        I agree that we mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good! And I know Sue Lusi well; we were together at the Annenberg Institute years back. She’s a terrific, straightforward, and steadfast advocate for schools that serve and inspire all kids. Providence is so lucky to have her as Superintendent (having been here since ’71, you can imagine how many supers I’ve seen come and go…).

  15. Lillian 27. Aug, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I concur with all of your viewers that praise your ownership of the inadvertent bias. Stuff happens and anything encouraging further dialogue on the gaps in education and opportunity should be lauded; isn’t that what you are all about!? I am glad, however, that Charlotte points out additional stats that can’t be ignored and must be considered in the context of current reality: that the educational population of under-served racial minorities is growing while the while demographic is shrinking. What we must all remember, however, is that all children must be served-regardless of race-especially if they live in poverty.

  16. john merrow 27. Aug, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    While we are focusing on this issue, Charles M. Blow’s column in Saturday’s NY Times is an absolute must-read, IMHO. Please circulate widely. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/opinion/blow-starving-the-future.html?ref=global

  17. Tate Cohn 08. Sep, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    Thank you for educating me through your thorough apology. I missed the mistakes that were made and am now aware that white poverty outnumbers other poverty–a fact I wasn’t aware of (and didn’t care about because poor kids are poor kids no matter their color and need help regardless of their color). I am aware of the situation now, however, and thank you for my direct education rather than a subtle hint through visual presentation. So don’t beat yourself up too badly–your apology was a great education on its own, and it wouldn’t have happened if the mistake hadn’t been made.

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