Happy Sunday. The Birds take on the Lions this afternoon with a number of starters out with injuries. And further down the newsletter is a chat with our race and culture reporter Valerie Russ, whose words and reporting provide key context and insight that help us understand how complex issues that have impacted the black community in the past resurface and remain present in modern society.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Valerie Russ, who writes about race, identity and neighborhood, and economic development.
Describe your current role at The Inquirer. How does race, identity and neighborhood, and economic development all intersect?
I had written about neighborhoods and gentrification for a couple of years before writing about race and identity. The topics mesh because often people in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods are the first to see their neighborhoods change. They report being “pushed out” because there is a population change. The new development and new businesses are expensive and geared for a wealthier population, most often white.
What’s been the most difficult part of your work when writing about race? How do you write for audiences who may not understand all of the nuances behind black identity and issues, but also another audience who may already understand those issues and is looking for deeper context?
My goal has been to simply tell the truth. Yet, as in the case when I wrote about members of a predominantly white church that has an “Ending Racism” committee, I sometimes get angry phone calls or emails. One caller left this message: “And this white privilege thing, you are causing more problems than you’re going to resolve by sticking it in white people’s faces ... You guys got to stop writing about this crap.”
What are some issues around race and identity that still need more attention?
It’s a never-ending issue. Race plays a part in almost every aspect of American society, from education, housing, employment, finance, and the racial wealth gap to public accommodation — remember that the Starbucks incident here set off a national discussion about racism in public spaces.
What did you think about The New York Times’ 1619 project, and how can that be localized to Philadelphia?
It was great. It explored the ways the legacy of slavery is still present as inequality. Actually, The Inquirer “localized” the 1619 story five months ago. In March, I wrote about Marion Lane, a Bucks County woman who believes she descends from an Angolan woman among those first “Twenty and Odd” Africans who arrived aboard the White Lion ship at Point Comfort, Va. — now Fort Monroe — in 1619.
You wrote about how Lane was going to Virginia to celebrate the 400-year commemoration of the arrival of some of the first slaves to America. What was covering that experience like? What can Philadelphians take away from this important moment in our history?
Lane said the experience was “fantastic.” The commemoration placed an emphasis on healing from the generational trauma of a people whose ancestors were enslaved for 246 years, then subjected to another 100 years of segregation. In addition to a healing ritual at the Chesapeake Bay, she said the most riveting speaker was Brycen Didly, age 11, who said one way to heal was to be kind to one another. Philadelphians might also want to examine how slavery is taught in schools. The Washington Post reported that for much of the 20th century, schools gave only a slight mention of slavery, often ignoring both its cruelty and black people’s resistance.
We could always use a little nap here and there. Thanks for capturing this cute moment @westofbroad!
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