This past weekend I came across an article in The Economist from Lexington’s notebook on grandparents raising grandchildren – a phenomenon that typically conjures thoughts of struggling, broken black families.
“Child-rearing grandparents are disproportionately black, but in absolute terms most are white, live above the poverty line and own their own homes.”
Even after noting the above, the article proceeded on to discuss this phenomenon from the angle of black, disadvantaged grandparents. For starters, the only celebrity examples listed are Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas (*cringe*) and Richard Pryor. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), the latter example was an example of poor parenting by grandparents.(Given the article’s aim, it is unclear why this distinction is made in the article at all). More importantly, disclaiming a racial tilt and then reporting seemingly focused on one race does little to support that this is a phenomenon that is increasingly affecting both whites and blacks as the result of similar circumstances (unemployment, economic instability, addiction, etc) facing this generation’s parents.
Even if one were only able to name black celebrities raised by grandparents when asked on a whim, let us be reminded of the importance of research in journalism. Since this article was not the first of its kind, a quick Google search brought up the likes of Jack Nicholson, Carol Burnett, Dylan McDermott, Pierce Brosnan, Vanna White, and Willie Nelson as all also being raised by their grandparents. So why only list black celebrities without doing any further research to avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes? Or more importantly, why does it matter?
While I am sure that the author did not purposely strive to further typecast black grandparents as the “silver-haired safety net” it is essential that we acknowledge the role of race in discussions of family structure. Since even before Daniel Patrick Moynihan (former advisor to President Nixon on urban affairs) declared an assault on black families in his infamous work entitled The Tangle of Pathology (1965), black families have been subject to scrutiny. Unfortunately, the author never erases the mental image of black grandparents taking care of the children of absent or irresponsible (black) parents. Instead, the author continues to talk about the struggles of economically disadvantaged grandparents, thus entangling race and class issues of grandparenting into one.
The primary problem with this article – and a lot of news, in general – is the mishandling of race stemming from its purported objectivity. As a product of The Economist one expects (and assumes) a certain level of even-handed reporting. That the article lacks a stated, readily identifiable author to whom the article can be attributed makes the subconscious, racially imbalanced reporting even more ubiquitous. (I mean, since The Economist paints grandparenting as mainly characteristic of black families, it must be true, right?) But most importantly, news should reflect reality. Race is a salient influence for many social phenomena, especially within the United States, and avoiding discussions of race in news and reporting on such phenomena only works to reinforce oft misguided assumptions of what it means to be _(insert race here)_.
In short, journalism should be objective, as not to reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. If racial objectivity cannot be obtained, we’re here to call it out and pick up the slack.
by Portia Allen-Kyle