Fighting for a Place at the Table of Discourse

Updated Feb 3, 2016
Robbie R. MorganfieldRobbie R. Morganfield

What do you do when no one seems to care about what you care about and you are convinced that what you care about is really important?

You can either sit on the sideline, hoping someone of import or power decides to take notice of your cause and makes room for you at the table of broader discourse or you can create your own platform and begin to forge ahead, even if only at a snail’s pace and as a voice barely heard echoing in the wilderness. In the latter scenario, you can hope that as you gain steam you will discover others who value your cause and will help push you along to a place that allows you to impact the broader discourse, even if you remain relegated to the periphery.

Such often has been the case in matters related to the African-American experience in this country and helps to explain why organizations exist today that unapologetically trumpet the cause of elevating and celebrating Black or African-American contributions.

The problem is when these matters are reported in the news media or discussed in the public sphere, the reports and conversations often lack context. The result is those who have experienced longstanding exclusion often are made to look like villains who are promoting racial segregation instead of victims responding proactively to it. Some commentators simply do not allow facts or truth to get in the way of their arguments, and sadly the press often does little to challenge or fact-check their assertions.

In recent weeks, much has been said about protests emanating from certain African-American actors and directors in response to a lack of Black nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Critics, including a handful of Blacks, have said Black actors have no grounds to complain because Black-centered groups annually host awards that, in the critics’ words, only recognize Black people. The fact that the claim is totally erroneous has gone unreported in many media accounts. Also missing is the context that caused organizations to start such awards and to continue them. This is just one way that the press continues to fail to make itself essential to American life and worthy of the constitutional protections that have been accorded it.

When one stops to examine the makeup of journalism and mass communication faculty at predominantly White universities, which produce the lion’s share of journalists in America, it should come as no surprise that the press does less than an admirable or adequate job of reporting on such matters as race and culture. Most journalism schools and departments have sent very clear messages that these matters just don’t matter, period.

Not only is there a lack of diversity on most faculty rosters, students at many, if not most, schools are not required to take any courses on race and culture, which are arguably two of the most hot-button issues in American discourse today. Add religion to the mix and the result is even more damning. Journalism schools continue to say these matters just don’t matter, even though news events suggest otherwise. This lack of focus or urgency in educating students on these matters is evident at so-called flagship state universities, as well as large urban universities, which often claim the most diverse student populations.

Peruse the openings listed on such sites as the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (aejmc.com) and www.higheredjobs.com and you will see hundreds of vacancies for journalism and mass communication professors. Seldom is there a single opening for a scholar or teacher whose focus is on race, culture or religion — matters that pop up almost daily in the news — from police shootings to unemployment to political campaigns to sports — and continue to be poorly reported by a press that often does not reflect the nation’s diversity in either racial composition or in cultural values-orientation and knowledge.

Over the course of my own career, I often have been the lone voice within organizations for which I worked, crying in the wilderness about such matters. There were times when I grew weary, waved the white flag and retreated into the shadows. Over time, I have gone back to school to study race, culture, religion and media in more detail with hopes of better positioning myself to be one who helps to put these important matters into context and at the center of discourse where they belong. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from flagship state universities, I also earned a Master of Divinity degree from a well-respected private university and a Ph.D. in journalism and public communication from one of the nation’s few colleges of journalism. I also boast extensive experiences in newspaper journalism, professional staff development training focused on reporting and diversity, and college classroom teaching.

Each time I have applied for a university teaching job since defending my dissertation a year ago, I have waited for the inevitable courtesy note, informing me that my name would not be among those advanced for further review. In some cases, I didn’t even get a note.

I have concluded once again that what I care about is not what others in positions of import and power care about, even though I know it ought to be something they care about. Now, my challenge is how do I create a platform and begin to forge ahead, even at a snail’s pace and as a voice barely heard echoing in the wilderness?

Robbie R. Morganfield is a former newspaper journalist who now serves as an assistant professor of communications at Anne Arundel Community College and pastor of a United Methodist congregation, both of which are located in suburban Washington, D.C. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Texas Christian University and a Ph.D. in journalism and public communication from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he wrote his dissertation on mainstream and alternative media coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. during the historic 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.