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Investigating racial inequality: Dig deeper and stop obsessing over intent

Find this story in the latest issue of the IRE Journal

By Nikole Hannah-Jones | New York Times Magazine

The last year has been a particularly tumultuous one when it comes to race in the United States. We’ve seen riots in two cities following the police killings of unarmed black men. There have been nationwide protests in response to the dozens of black Americans who have died either at the hands of police or in police custody. And the Republican primary has whipped up old fears of Latino immigrants as a criminal scourge.

Reporters have been there, covering the news as it happens. But reporters have also been grappling with how to tell the deeper stories behind the flare-ups, how to do real accountability reporting about racial inequality. The desire has been evident to me as I have sat on panels discussing this very thing at several journalism conferences over the last year, and each time I have been greeted by a standing-room-only crowd.

Journalists know there are important stories to be dug up, but they struggle to do so in a meaningful way. 

Investigating racial inequality is particularly tricky for journalists. It’s not something many of us have been groomed to do in our newsrooms. Until recently, people thought it pretty radical that I described my beat as investigating the ways racial inequality is created and maintained through official action and policy. Race coverage has often been marginalized in newsrooms, and it’s certainly rare to have an investigative beat built around it.

Newsrooms, and the journalists in them, have often reflected the societal view that present-day racial disparities largely result from the unforeseeable impacts of nondiscriminatory policies, past discrimination, or, in blatant cases, a few bad apples. For instance, I commonly read in a news report some throwaway sentence or another about housing segregation in a city resulting from a “legacy of discrimination.”

This is, of course, partially true, but what is also true is that the federal government and housing enforcement agencies across the country continue to find rampant discrimination among landlords, real estate agents and lenders. What’s also true is that zoning and other land-use policies passed by real people in real communities lead to segregation, as well, and that this is rarely an accident. 

Part of the problem is that, though we’d prefer not to believe it, journalists hold the same racial anxieties, blind spots and assumptions as our society at large. No one wants to be called racist, so we are reticent to call out in others actions and decisions that may be influenced by race.

When white journalists grow up in largely white communities with functioning schools, responsive government, well-maintained infrastructure and a police force that treats them with respect, it makes sense that even the most skeptical among them could take it for granted that this is how America is for others, too.  

Black Americans have been complaining about police brutality in their communities for years, but much of the coverage from predominantly white newsrooms favored the accounts of the very police who were being accused. It is no accident that the media’s scrutiny of policing over the last year was, at least initially, driven by civilians’ cell phone video footage that directly contradicted police accounts.

The reporting on how the Ferguson police were fleecing their black citizens, likely violating their constitutional rights, in order to finance the city’s budget came out only after the Michael Brown shooting brought scrutiny. In addition, the reporting was largely based on the investigations of a local legal aid group and the U.S. Department of Justice ( One has to wonder, with the police track record of racial profiling in that area, why no local reporters had done this story long ago.  

Part of the problem is that, though we’d prefer not to believe it, journalists hold the same racial anxieties, blind spots and assumptions as our society at large. 

It’s clear we want to do better. But how?

Well, for one, stop obsessing over intent. It seems that we become preoccupied with determining and proving intent when it comes to investigating racial inequality in a way we do not when it comes to other reporting. 

Let’s say there is an oil spill on the Gulf Coast. A good investigative reporter would never be content to simply report on how it happened, how many gallons were spilled and the environmental ramifications of the spill. We’d want to know what caused the spill, who was responsible, whether it was part of a pattern, if it could have been avoided, and if so, why it wasn’t prevented. We would not worry about whether the head of the oil company was a climate change denier or hated ducks. If we got that information, it would be a great bonus. But the important things in this case were the action, the harm and whether the spill could have been avoided.

It’s no different when investigating racial inequity. When I wrote about the intentional resegregation of the Tuscaloosa City Schools in “Segregation Now” (, I did not have to show that school officials did not like black kids or wanted to hurt black kids. I only had to show that they made a decision to split apart the city’s integrated high school into three separate ones and then drew the attendance lines in a way that would have predictably created an all-black high school. 

One of the ways I did this was to request the district’s attendance zone maps and then overlay that over a map with census data on racial makeup of neighborhoods. This showed that attendance zones were heavily gerrymandered in order to produce certain racial makeups within schools. I then used school district data to show that promises made — promises about how the students at the all-black school would be provided the same quality of teachers, courses and extracurricular activities — had been broken.

Here, the “why” was interesting, and I reported both school officials’ reasoning and what was likely the real reason for resegregation. But that was not the most important thing, and it certainly did nothing to weaken the investigation. All that really mattered was the action and the harm.

That leads to my next tip: There are almost never smoking guns, so don’t decide whether to go forward based on the ability to find one. Blatant discrimination has been rare since racial discrimination was barred in most aspects of American life in the 1960s. You will almost never find an email that lays out the racist reasoning behind a policing or housing policy. There might not even be a racist reasoning. Often public officials put toxic waste sites or public housing in black and Latinos neighborhoods not because they particularly dislike black Americans and Latinos, but because they face less political resistance than in wealthier white communities. 

What’s important to determine is whether the person in the position of authority would have been able to understand that said action, policy or inaction would disproportionately harm people of color. If so, why did the person or authoritative body make that decision? 

The Tampa Bay Times offers a case study in how this is done in a stunning investigation published in August called “Failure Factories” ( In this exhaustively reported yearlong project, the Times documented how the Pinellas County School Board knowingly created five failing black schools after a judge released the district from its segregation order. What makes this report stand out is not just that it documented school resegregation these stories are a dime a dozen but that it took every claim school officials made about why the resegregation happened and why the schools were failing, and then actually investigated them, allowing the Times to knock each one of the excuses down. This reporting allowed the journalists to write about the injustice done to these children in stark language rarely seen in race reporting.

Third, if you want to do powerful investigations into racial inequality, you need to become an expert in the laws and policies that deal with civil rights. You should also look into research and scholarship done in the particular area of inequality you plan on investigating. A reporter would never presume to be an expert on schools just because he or she attended one. And we should never presume to understand how race works because we belong to one. 

In writing about school segregation, reporters should understand the case law governing what districts can and cannot do. They should understand the workings and purview of the agencies enforcing civil rights, such as the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education. 

It seems that we become preoccupied with determining and proving intent when it comes to investigating racial inequality in a way we do not when it comes to other reporting.

When I first started writing about housing segregation, I was shocked to learn that the 1968 Fair Housing Act did not just ban discrimination — it required governments to affirmatively act to break down housing segregation. This led to a yearlong investigation that exposed how the federal government had failed for four decades to enforce the landmark Fair Housing Act ( I documented this in part by showing that the federal government had only withheld funding from one community in 40 years for violating the law, even when judges had found cities guilty of discriminating. 

Reporters should read relevant laws, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the Equal Employment Opportunities Act, the same way they would read the No Child Left Behind Act if investigating whether districts were complying with that law. Check in with the enforcement agencies at your local, state and federal governments. It’s a good way to find stories of people and institutions violating civil rights laws, but also to discover which agencies aren’t doing their jobs.

In August, The Center for Public Integrity published an astounding series of investigations called “Environmental Justice, Denied” ( The series showed how the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights had not made a single formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite hundreds of exhaustively documented complaints from black and Latino communities. Before this investigation ran, I think it would be safe to assume most of us did not even know the EPA had its own civil rights office. But many federal agencies do, including the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Treasury.

And the last tip is probably the most obvious, but one that simply does not happen enough. Go out into the communities, spend time on the corners, in the restaurants, in the schools, in the homes of the segregated black and brown neighborhoods in your coverage areas. Get to know the people there, and the stories will come. You’ll also learn not to so easily dismiss stories of race that might seem fantastical to an outsider.

When a police shooting or another police incident happens in your community, treat the police account with the same skepticism you do the civilian account. Investigate both sides. Talk to witnesses. This seems like a common sense, but we all know this is not how it typically goes. In case after case, the media has reported verbatim the police account of an incident, only to have the truth revealed by video.

A year before the national media converged on Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray and ensuing riot, The Baltimore Sun published a critical investigation into police brutality there ( The story was about violent, unaccountable policing, but it was also a story about the people in the city who had the least clout — citizens who were both black and poor.

This story was not reactive, as stories about racial inequality often are. It also gave The Sun credibility in a marginalized community. Instead of suddenly “discovering” the plight of these poor black communities in an attempt to figure out what happened after the riot, as is often the case, The Sun story gave this community voice and provided the context about why the city exploded long before it did. 

But also, as is the case with all the stories referenced, The Sun piece was a quintessential investigative project. Period. We must shift our thinking that writing and reporting about race is somehow second-class or marginal, that these stories are not of the same stature or importance as investigations into campaigns, the military and statehouse politics. When done right, when pursued with the same vigor, curiosity, doggedness, skepticism and passion as other investigations, investigations into racial inequality rival the best of our work and more importantly, they can change lives.

Now, get to work. 


Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine covering racial injustice. Prior to joining The Times, Hannah-Jones spent the last few years at the non-profit investigative reporting organization, ProPublica, where she investigated the way segregation in housing and schools is created and maintained through official action. Her 2014 investigation into school resegregation won two Online News Association awards, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service, the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting and was a National Magazine Award finalist.

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