Living the dream?

Recent graduates discuss historic and future progress for African-Americans in media

 | By and

In a time when media is consumed quickly — from texts and specific outlet notifications to Facebook and Instagram live streams — the need to pause and examine its effects is constant. In the case of minorities, lack of representation in media has been a growing concern.

Although society has taken major steps toward achieving equality and ending racial division over the long and arching course of our nation’s history, it has always seemed a tango of sorts.

University of North Alabama mass communications alumni Jovonne Baker, Darien Simpson and Xavier Wherry are three recent graduates who are making a name for themselves in the media industry. But what motivated them to pursue careers in media, and how was that decision shaped by their experiences growing up black in the American south?

All three are fairly recent graduates currently working in radio — Wherry in D.C. for a soul station, Simpson in Birmingham for Cumulus Media and Baker as a radio personality in Huntsville at jazz and gospel station 90.9.

When speaking about role models, both Simpson and Wherry cited Muhammad Ali as someone they think of as embodying black excellence.

“It was nothing easy but he always stood up for what he believed in and tried to do something positive for his people,” Wherry said. “I wish I would have been alive during the height of his career.”

Baker cited former First Lady Michelle Obama as her ultimate role model for black excellence.

“Everything she stands for — dignity, class, education — I love all of that about her,” she said.

As far as someone who embodies black excellence in media and specifically his own field of radio, Wherry cited former sportscaster Stuart Scott as his role model.

“Scott entered sportscasting when it was still entirely dominated by white male voices,” Wherry said. “He added a lot of his own personality to sportscasting, a lot of flavor, if you will. He got a lot of backlash for that. People used to think you can’t show your personality and be a sportscaster, but he proved that was wrong.”

“There definitely isn’t enough diversity in media and, to be honest, it really does bother me.”

Scott gained recognition in the mid-’90s for being one of the first African-American sportscasters, futhermore as one of the first sportscasters who was not a former professional athlete. He worked for ESPN for 21 years until his death in 2015.

Similarly, Simpson cited reporter Steve Smith as one of his idols.

Smith began as a reporter for North Carolina newspapers in Winston-Salem and Greensboro as well as New York. He also was the NBA and Philadelphia 76ers’ columnist for The Philadelphia Enquirer, began his own blog in 2007, hosted several radio talk shows and currently is a talking head for ESPN.

“Any time I see a black man in media, those guys set the platform for what we do,” Simpson said.

Simpson also said that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry inspired him when he was younger and helped set some of the groundwork for himself and other people of color trying to break into the world of media.

“[Oprah] went to school to be a reporter and became the most powerful woman in America,” he said. “She didn’t stick to regular news because she felt like she could do more. I feel like I could do more, too.

“[Perry] has kept everyone he started out with in-house. He brought them all up with him. He gives them all opportunity. I like that. I have a production company I’m trying to get off the ground, and if it succeeds I would like to do something similar.”

Simpson, Baker and Wherry are all podcast fans, and they each mentioned hopes of starting up podcasts or Youtube series in addition to their current work in radio and television. But finding inspiration can be difficult when black people enter a field where they do not see people who look like them in abundance.

“There definitely isn’t enough diversity in media and, to be honest, it really does bother me,” Simpson said. “I watch so much basketball and there are so many African-Americans in the sport, something like 80 percent. So why aren’t there more African-Americans hosting these sports broadcasts?”

The answer to that question is heavy.

The alumni’s ambition is contagious, and their success is especially sweet because they didn’t make it this far without facing adversity. However, as Simpson points out, he never asked for this challenge, and wouldn’t choose it.

“We have obstacles we didn’t ask to overcome, we didn’t bring this on ourselves,” he said. “This is how it is. We have our hands on every aspect of American culture; music, film, politics, science, medicine, yet we still aren’t seen as equals. That isn’t right.”

In 2018, African-Americans are twice as likely to have a degree than they were in 1968, but still half as likely as their white counterparts. Health care is harder to obtain, and the cycle of poverty is still as real as ever. Often this can mean that even once African-Americans have started earning more they are still relied upon by members of their family so heavily that the money is just as tight as before.

All three attested to the fact that it is significantly more difficult to even land an interview when your name looks “different” on a resume. Many critics argue the validity of these statements, but overwhelming research confirms that while civil rights are relatively better, there is still a large gap in equality in all facets of life.

“We have obstacles we didn’t ask to overcome, we didn’t bring this on ourselves,” he said. “This is how it is. We have our hands on every aspect of American culture; music, film, politics, science, medicine, yet we still aren’t seen as equals. That isn’t right.”

A 2017 study from Cambridge University, Northwestern University and the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, Norway, found no progress was made in racial discrimination from the last 25 years.

“Whites receive on average 36 percent more callbacks than blacks,” according to the study. “Accounting for applicant education, applicant gender, study method, occupational groups and local labor market conditions does little to alter this result. Contrary to claims of declining discrimination in American society, our estimates suggest that levels of discrimination remain largely unchanged.”

Baker said she faces a unique difficulty as being not only black, but female, as the unexplained pay gaps between men and women cross racial lines.

“Fair is fair is fair,” she said. “Why are we still having this conversation?”

U.S. Labor Statistics show black men make, on average, 73 cents to every $1 their white male counterparts make. For black women, it’s even lower at 67 cents.

“Numbers don’t lie,” was reiterated by both Baker and Simpson. They described the pressure of higher expectations in the face of more challenges and less opportunity than their white cohorts.

“Fair is fair is fair.”

An in-depth business analysis by The Atlantic found that while the current economy forces everyone to work longer hours, African-Americans are working 20 percent more annual hours than they were 30 years ago, with women working 30 percent more. The black-white wage gap is larger now than it was in 1979, despite a dramatic increase in acceptance of women in the workplace.

A study by Pew Research showed that in 2013, white families made 13 times that of black families, and future recessions will hit that demographic harder.

“Whatever I do I have to do times 10,” Simpson said. “In order to be respected I can’t just be good, I have to be excellent. We have to work 10 times harder in life, even think faster.”

Baker agrees.

“People who say racism is dead are so ignorant,” Baker said. “To be honest, in society right now I definitely don’t see equal representation. Where’s the empowerment?”

While these conversations are difficult to have, both Baker and Wherry were optimistic about the future of race relations despite their personal histories.

Both were turned away at parties they were excited to attend for being black; Wherry at a fraternity party and Baker at a second grade birthday party. Both described the humiliation and deflation that they felt in those moments and the lasting effect those memories have on them, and both situations occurred recently — at least more recently than the perceived height of civil injustice.

But like everybody else, these alumni are taking it a day at a time, doing what they can to pursue black excellence and inspire others.

Simpson said breaking into television is his ultimate goal, and he hopes he gets the opportunity to one day work in both television and radio. He said he already records, edits and independently releases his sports podcast, “The Other Side,” which has also researched and featured social justice issues, such as prison reform.

“I want to keep it sports-dominated, but I want to branch out, too,” he said. “I don’t want to limit myself to sports. A lot of people who already listen to my podcast could listen to those episodes and become informed on things they might not already be familiar with.

“I wanted to talk about the prison industrial complex because in the streets we are barely a speck of the population but in prison we dominate. When you don’t see us outside, that’s because of how many of us there are in prison.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the imprisonment rate for black women is twice that of white women, and black males ages 18 to 19 are almost 12 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts.

What can those of us who are not African-American do to help the black community?

In Baker’s opinion, open-minded empathy is the most important step. By speaking up when we see injustice, by confronting those who imply racism in casual conversation, by being conscious of these prejudices and raising children of the future who hopefully never learn them in the first place, we continue to hope for a better, more unified tomorrow.

In the word’s of a powerful woman in the media, writer, editor and Pulitzer Prize recipient Toni Morrison, “Make a difference for someone other than yourselves.”