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Readers Respond

Actions speak louder than words: Baltimore Sun readers weigh in on the newspaper’s apology for a history of racist coverage | COMMENTARY

The front page of Volume 1, Number 1.  Published May 17, 1837.

A week ago, on behalf of The Baltimore Sun, the editorial board issued an apology for the paper’s history of upholding and furthering racism throughout its 185 years and failing to serve Black communities, chronicling many of its wrongs along with some more recent efforts to improve. As part of that project, we asked for feedback from readers about what we have yet to acknowledge and how we can do better. We received many thoughtful responses from throughout the region. We have also reached out to area authors, intellectuals and educators who study such issues for their feedback and expect to share those essays in the coming weeks. If you would like to contribute, please send your thoughts to talkback@baltimoresun.com, with the word “apology” in the subject line.

Here is a sampling of the reaction and suggestions readers have had to offer:

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Questions about sincerity and motivation

I applaud The Baltimore Sun first for its deep introspective exercise. However, in this period of social justice, such inward-looking examinations are expected. Naturally it raises questions around its sincerity and motivation. Is this a performative exercise to get in front of the inevitable call for accountability? Is this a genuine pivot toward taking corrective action to effect real change?

The answers to those questions are to be found in the next steps that The Baltimore Sun is prepared to take to combat disparities in health care, employment, education, housing, wealth, justice and civic participation. It’s a heavy lift. It will take more than a DEI focused reporting team. While the proactive steps of increasing representation at this powerful media outlet is a good start, representation alone is not enough. There must be a strategic and intentional positioning in the hierarchy of the power structure of the organization.

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What is lacking is a proactive and strategic community engagement effort that is intentional in leading efforts and partnerships that will have real impact on the ground in all Maryland communities and present opportunities for change for those who have been hurt by the systemic system of racism and prejudice.

I am a Black woman who has been hurt by the systemic oppression that this publication has participated in. I was born and raised in Baltimore and have lived in Maryland almost exclusively my entire life. In the words of Langston Hughes: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” I continue to do my part. I have more education and experience than most. I have two masters degrees and have earned certifications at Harvard Business School. Still, I have been unemployed for over a year because I dare to speak up on the issues of DEI and wellness and the trauma of racism, which makes some people uncomfortable.

Despite my outstanding accomplishments, when I am asked (frequently), “where are you from,” the answer of “Baltimore” is too often a detractor instead of the data point of pride that I carry. This needs to change. The Baltimore Sun is a brand with the power to effect change. I am happy to partner with you. Let’s get it done.

Angela Harris, Silver Spring

Protestors gather in front of Havre de Grace City Hall  to protest the killing of George Floyd and others at the hands of police across the country.

Apology welcome, but actions matter more

While an apology for long-ago positions and actions is long-overdue and welcomed, what’s more important is your stated intention to address recent and ongoing transgressions — for example, the portrayal of white people as good, industrious, intelligent, etc. and Black people as bad, impoverished, helpless, etc.

With your newfound awareness, please do not lower your standard of expectations for Black public officials to the level that you have sometimes applied to white public officials, but instead raise the bar for all public officials to the highest possible standards of honesty, integrity, competency and transparency. Baltimore needs and deserves better leadership than we have had.

Debbie Feldman Jones, Baltimore

Don’t go halfway or halfheartedly

Good start on taking ownership for your history and for perpetuating racism. I hope more papers do the same.

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Going forward, continue diving deeper and deeper into police brutality and the police state. Don’t be late to real movements around defunding/abolishing police and prisons, like you were late to Black Lives Matter and centuries of racial injustice. Lead the way. Dig into the great work that people like Angela Davis, Colin Kaepernick, and SO MANY others have done in these areas and how we cannot have racial justice/progress until we dismantle policing and incarceration as we know it. They are rotten branches from the diseased tree of slavery. Connect the dots for readers. Don’t treat things as one-off events when they are wholly expected outcomes (tragically so).

I commend you for going on this journey. Don’t go halfway or halfheartedly. Be courageous. Be bold. Seek the truth and tell it.

Paul Berg, Minneapolis

The Sun ignored my pleas for help

In 2008 my godson Eddie was murdered. Eddie was a Black man. The Anne Arundel County Police falsely said the death was a suicide and then the Maryland Medical Examiner did the same. Nothing about Eddie’s life or his body pointed to suicide. The facts pointed to homicide and an intentional police cover up.

I begged The Baltimore Sun to look into the problem, which was obviously racist, classist and systemic. The Baltimore Sun ignored the situation, which was what the Anne Arundel County Police wanted. In doing so, The Baltimore Sun became part of the problem. An apology is vastly inadequate.

While the Sun ignored me, the Baltimore Examiner took my concerns seriously. Their article on the situation is archived with the Washington Examiner.

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Kristine Lockwood, Columbia

Baltimore, MD--06/27/07--Baltimore City Public Schools Adminstrative Headquarters building on North Avenue.  Baltimore Sun Staff photo by Robert K. Hamilton

Your apology should be only the beginning

For years I recognized the way that the African American community was depicted in your paper. I refused to read it first because of the way that my community was covered and second because of the writing and reporting itself. Here are my suggestions:

  • Highlight good news about the African American community on top of the fold of the front page that covers more than sports and entertainment.
  • Provide ongoing coverage and support of programs that provide home buying and opportunities for those most in need of permanent housing and those in the low- to middle- income range who are seeking affordable homeownership.
  • As the Baltimore City Public School system is in need of real help, how about developing a mentoring program with middle and high school students to expose them to journalism, editorial writing and advertising? (The program should not be limited to students from the citywide schools.)
  • Champion reading throughout the city where it is encouraged in every business, community center and church in the city so that children as well as adults are encouraged to read. Perhaps incentivize reading where school children can earn points and prizes for reading. Partner with the Enoch Pratt Library. (This benefits you as you develop future readers.)
  • Work with other large companies to provide constructive efforts to improve the living and working conditions for African Americans who have long suffered neglect and disregard by companies and city government only willing to serve those of European heritage (i.e. banks, grocery stores, retail shops and clean open spaces). Development in the city should not be limited to and for affluent communities. Harbor East should not be the main place that development happens.
  • Work with nonprofits such as LULA Inc., Robs Barbershop Community Foundation Inc and 10:12 Sports that seek to build up, enrich, and enhance the lives of youths and adults in Baltimore.
  • Support efforts to open and staff more community centers that provide opportunities for recreation and job training programs that meet the needs of the communities they serve. Provide monetary support to year-round programs.
  • Expose the lack of adequate public works in African American communities and contrast it with the services provided to communities inhabited by people who identify as white or European.
  • Support jobs for returning citizens as well as summer and year-round jobs for youth. Squeegee kids need other opportunities to support themselves and their families. (i.e. Job Corp, Blue Chip-In program by Mayor Donald Shaeffer, etc.)

I also suggest that you challenge and expose the racist systems and structures that your paper championed for nearly two centuries. Seeing those systems and structures require changed lenses. Your staff and leaders must be exposed to the brutal facts that are at the foundation of the racist policies, practices and attitudes pervasive in society because of the bigoted coverage of the African American community by institutions like yours.

The list could go on. Your paper and other entities have done much damage to the African American community. It will take long-term commitment and ongoing efforts to right those wrongs. The city government is limited by the lack of support of good-faith partners who honestly want to benefit the African American community members who have been long targeted and disadvantaged. I sincerely hope your apology is only the beginning of repairing what your work has wrought.

Jacky McCoy, Columbia

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For too long, The Baltimore Sun relied on the word of police and prosecutors, rather than the community, in its crime coverage and featured stories stereotyping African American residents.

Stop prioritizing stories about crime

I would like to see the organization make a more concerted effort to stop prioritizing stories about crime. I think most Baltimore residents and Sun readers are well aware of the crime in our city, but it’s an issue that all urban areas deal with to varying degrees, and the coverage does not reflect the extent that residents should feel concerned for their own safety. The city is still facing a serious population decline and the choice to push stories about crime every day perpetuates racial and geographical stereotypes that diminish the value and character of different Baltimore communities. It creates an unnecessary sense of fear and does not do anything to improve the lives of Baltimore residents. It’s important to honor and respect the victims of crime in the city, but I don’t think stories of shootings and homicides should not be the first thing people see when they open the news.

I think stories addressing important policy changes, great local businesses, upcoming cultural events and various nonprofit successes are much more effective at improving the lives and well-being of the people in this city. Media outlets are largely responsible for shaping how outsiders view this great city and I think unfair coverage of crime has contributed to negative perceptions of communities of color.

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Archer Willauer, Baltimore

You can’t fix what you won’t face

Someone (I think it was James Baldwin) said, “you can’t fix what you won’t face.” I am a 77-year-old African-American female Marylander who thanks you for your apology.

Celestyne De Vance, Upper Park Heights

Be a clarifying and unifying force

Baltimore needs better journalistic treatment, less ivory tower proselytizing and more street level perspectives that will be a clarifying and unifying force, in other words, truth. The Sun should put the issues we face in present day Baltimore within the context of what brought us to where we are today, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to keep bringing up the past wrongs that were committed by people who want to forget them.

Tracy L. Smith Jr., Baltimore

A straightforward apology and accounting

I commend you all for producing a straightforward apology and accounting of The Sun’s institutional racism. It was thoughtful, clear, well-researched and meaningful. Today, I’m proud to subscribe to The Sun.

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Marisa Dobson, Baltimore

Taking ownership for the lies and misinformation

As a long term reader of The Sun I have come to expect a very high standard of journalism, but Sunday’s editorial “We are sorry” has blown me away. There are many words and descriptive phrases that come to mind: very long, beautifully written, heartbreaking, courageous, challenging, painful and very very necessary. The Sun is taking ownership for the lies and misinformation regarding Black people printed in this American newspaper over many generations. Insight appears to be in short supply in our nation, but The Sun is reminding us of who we claim to be. The Sun is telling us what they have done to atone for the sins of the past and what they intend to do moving forward. What an audacious idea! Let’s fix things. Lets not do what we did wrong in the past. Let’s address the challenges facing our city, state and nation. Let’s take pride in correcting what we have gotten wrong over a very long period of time. Let’s treat our fellow Americans with the dignity they deserve.

Edward McCarey McDonnell, Baltimore

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Fredrick Douglass, pictured here in an 1879 photograph by George K. Warren, was born near Hillsboro, Talbot County, Maryland in February 1818. Submitted photo

A monumental mea culpa

Bravo! One can only applaud The Baltimore Sun’s monumental mea culpa “We are sorry” of Feb. 20, in its apology for many years of anti-Black racism and pledge of atonement.

It is indeed unfortunate that this change of heart may be a deathbed repentance, for The Sun no longer shines as brightly since its takeover and, now, despite some great editorials, serves as a news adjunct to The Associated Press and New York Times. And this institutional repentance is not the expression of its original sinners, long gone to judgment, but of a new team able to wash their hands of the past. But bravo all the same; it took guts.

What we see here is another reflection of this nation’s latest great awakening to its long-buried history, emerging in the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” (now in augmented book form) and the boogeyman mysteries of Critical Race Theory. Pushback is inevitable; patriots need an unblemished past.

As an Anglo-American, I’m aware that my Old Country’s holier-than-thou attitude to American racism has also awakened to its vast profits from the slave trade. Slavery is worldwide throughout history. But slave owners treated their slaves well or badly. Justice Tawney liberated his slaves and gave them pensions. His crime was telling truth about a flawed Constitution. The author of All Men are Created Equal left his slaves to be sold off to pay his debts.

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White Americans have always feared that Black Americans would be revenged once they gained power. So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, victims have often forgiven. But some of Africa’s former colonies have endured worse governments, dictators like Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe And Europe’s slave traders bought their slaves from Black Africans. Slavery is not essentially Black or white, but human nature: the exploitation principle. As Lord Action observed: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The belief in Black inferiority was a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you deny people eduction and literacy, they remain unknown. They don’t publish or become eminent and make history. But given literacy: Frederick Douglass, the great American. Reverse the tables, and today many American whites believe lies and conspiracy theories and support Donald Trump.

America today is in crisis, its democracy unhinged. But thanks to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and hundreds of professional truth-tellers nationwide who hold fast to their journalistic faith, our democracy will likely survive. For that too, Bravo Baltimore Sun!

John Brain, Baltimore

Still miles to go

Horrific past of the Sun is almost impossible to rectify. Living in Maryland for 40-plus years, I still see the remnants of the prejudices throughout the state. Younger generations still carrying the torch from their parents and grandparents, which can be traced back to The Sun in a lot of cases. Generally speaking not a bad start, but still miles to go!

Jeff Okeson, Parkville

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Doing the best that you can for today

It was a true challenge for your editorial staff to write “We are deeply and profoundly sorry: For decades, The Baltimore Sun promoted policies that oppressed Black Marylanders; we are working to make amends” in today’s paper. For a respected Baltimore institution like The Baltimore Sun, 185 years of history proves that choices are difficult to make and that you sometimes get them wrong.

The only way to move forward at this point is to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and move on to tomorrow doing the best that you can for today. In our country’s centuries of progress there have been more than a few times that what seemed right at the time was woefully wrong, especially today when EVERYTHING is viewed hypercritically. But decisions have to be made every day which is why strong and conscientious leadership is always needed to look beyond popular opinion to see the best choice for everyone for the long term.

So thank you for the courage to admit to the errors and omissions and the past and continue to be ever vigilant to be the “Light for All” as it says in your masthead.

Dan Crumpler, Bradenton, Florida

Show genuine care and attention

I am a Baltimore resident and first-generation student of a Maryland HBCU reaching out in response to the apology issued by The Baltimore Sun.

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My family has lived in the Baltimore region for many generations. My upbringing is filled with stories of my ancestors and their living memories of racial segregation and other political violence in the United States.

These exclusionary policies and societal norms were and are enforced — systematically — in the institutions led by elected officials, wealthy property owners and law enforcement. I believe that the implications of wealth inequality, environmental degradation, as well as mass incarceration should be central to The Baltimore Sun dialogue.

I hope that this apology comes with a renewed acknowledgment of the prevailing systems of dominance in the United States that perpetuate militarism, racism and extreme materialism. These “three evils,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has described them, continue to exacerbate our contemporary environmental and political crises.

I hope that The Baltimore Sun is unyielding in the investigation of spatial segregation (especially gentrification), white collar crime and police misconduct. I hope that The Baltimore Sun shows genuine care and attention for the community of life in the way that crime is reported across the state. Lastly, I hope that The Baltimore Sun is mindful of racist dogwhistles that are empowered by platforms of mainstream media.

Rondez Green, Baltimore

Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel Prize winner, greets thousands of admirers on a motorcade tour up Baltimore's North Gay Street in October 1964.
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Give equal coverage to all of the good

This was an excellent piece. Thank you for investing the time, research and thought to do it so well. I am glad you have apologized and listed significant offenses and efforts to make improvement. This is good in and of itself, and it’s a good example for all readers.

For the future: The high level of crime in Baltimore necessitates your reporting on it, and the fact that so many of the victims are likely Black makes this reporting crucial. However, the overall picture of Baltimore one sometimes can draw from the paper’s coverage of crime can feel at times devastatingly negative. I hope you will seek to give equal coverage to all the good that people do in our city, all the constructive things that are going on — with photographs that show so much of it being done by persons and groups of color.

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Beth Wells, Cockeysville

Reveal the dark histories of generational wealth

Your editorial apologized for past wrongs and asked for suggestions. Here’s one. The present result of past injustice is the distribution of generational wealth. Slave owners and slave traders became wealthy as a result of treating human beings as property and as a result of breeding them, and selling their offspring, as if they were domestic animals. Some of that generational wealth still exists to this day. When newspapers write articles about wealthy people, the sources of their generational wealth, be it from slavery or from the unethical business practices of their ancestors, should be mentioned.

Henry Farkas, Pikesville

Show more positive images of people of color

Thank you for the article, well overdue. I think if you highlight some of the great things Black men are doing in the community, whether it’s done by Black fraternities or through the Black church, it would be a great start. You have Black guys mentoring young Black boys throughout Maryland, particularly in Baltimore. I know of one organization, the Nu Sigma Sigma Alumni chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, that for sure would love to share the many things they are doing and have been doing. I also think the paper should show more positive images of people of color going about their daily lives such as doctor’s, lawyer’s, preachers, engineers and fathers. These images would uplift an generation of kids who have seen so many negative images. Finally, I think the paper good do a better job showing all images of all people getting along and interacting more. I would love to connect the paper with my organization which is Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc.

Duane Johnson, Randallstown

Baltimore, MD -- January 23, 2018 -- Baltimore, Md. -- Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, center, U.S. Judge Catherine Blake looks on during Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor trial. Left to right, FBI Special Agent Erika Jensen, Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines, U.S. Judge Catherine Blake, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, attorney William Purpura, Detective Daniel Hersl, attorney Thomas Rafter, attorney Christopher Carlos Nieto, attorney Jenifer Wicks and Detective Marcus Taylor.

To bolster non-racist news, start by questioning distrusted systems

For starters, you should stop reciting police and prosecutors’ narratives as fact. Far too often we’ve seen The Sun’s reporting use these statements as facts, to later have these facts dismantled by numerous other witness accounts. Cops lie. Prosecutors hold up those lies. Keith Davis, Sean Suiter, Freddie Gray, the Gun Trace Task Force. The Sun reported all of these stories first from the accounts of the police, all of which were lies. You want to bolster non-racist news, start by questioning the systems that people in this city do not trust, and for good reason.

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Daniel C. Radwan, Baltimore

Sun’s actions consistent with city’s larger racial history

I am doubtless one of thousands of Sun readers who welcomed the Feb. 20 article exposing the paper’s history of racial prejudice in reporting and opining about the lives of African Americans and other minorities. All Marylanders should applaud the changes in the newspaper’s outlook, hiring practices and self-examination.

In some respects, The Sun’s regrettable practices are consistent with the city’s larger racial history. For example, on the eve of the Civil War, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in America. Baltimore’s racial demography was the result of the decline of tobacco cultivation in Maryland, the hiring out of Southern and Eastern Shore slaves at the city’s burgeoning port, and the manumission — often self-purchased manumission — and natural increase of African Americans. In 1860, these roughly 25,000 human beings eked out their existence, alongside about 2,000 enslaved people and amid a still robust urban slave trade. Most freed men and women worked as day laborers, hod carriers, draymen and domestics, though a small percentage fared better as ship caulkers, barbers, teachers, ministers and a handful of pioneers in the photography profession. When full freedom came with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution by 1870, the city’s Black population found its opportunities severely constrained by white-imposed limitations in every aspect of African American life: jobs, education, political participation, police abuse and so on. Over the many decades since the 1860s, of course, Baltimore’s Black population has protested and fought its way to an ever-fuller participation.

Despite The Sun’s prejudicial regard for Baltimore’s Black citizenry, the newspaper has at least left us some record of the vibrant life of that community. This is important for anyone interested in the history of Black Baltimore given the scarcity of surviving personal manuscripts and the disappearance of short-lived 19th-century African American newspapers prior to the establishment of the Baltimore Afro-American in 1892. The fact is that Baltimore’s Black community had a rich social, religious, intellectual, and political life, some record of which The Sun has helped preserve.

For example, Frederick Douglass spoke to audiences here many times during the last quarter of the 19th century. Marylander and Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet was appointed Minister to Liberia. Reverend Harvey Johnson, founding minister of Union Baptist Church, helped organize Baltimore’s Brotherhood of Liberty, a precursor to the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. Black churches of various denominations flourished, as did mutual benefit societies. These happenings, along with reports of lynching, the KKK, Jim Crow and African American efforts to thwart attacks upon the Black community, and news of Black Americans around the U.S. and abroad, are summarized in a new book compiled by Margaret D. Pagan entitled, “African American News in The Baltimore Sun, 1870-1927.” For anyone interested in the life and struggles of Baltimore’s African American community from Reconstruction through the Roaring Twenties, Ms. Pagan’s book is the starting point.

Joe Garonzik, Baltimore


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