"Revolution header" many Black Lives Matter protest signs depicting different sentiments all are placed together
Photo by: Jeff Rogers

Talking about a revolution

The movement for racial justice resonates throughout the country and the USC Annenberg Community.

It wasn’t so much the sign itself that caught Rachel Scott’s eye, but the boy who was holding it.

The throng of protesters in Lafayette Park outside the White House on the evening of June 7 bristled with posters — some with now-familiar slogans like “Justice for George Floyd,” “Defund the Police,” and, of course, “Black Lives Matter.” But among the peaceful, multiracial, multi-generational crowd protesting systemic racism and police violence against Black people, Scott, who was covering the protests for ABC News, made her way over to a child.

“He was holding up a sign that read, ‘I want to be a Black engineer that works for NASA. Will the police kill me before I have the chance?’” recalled Scott, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2015. She spoke to the boy and his parents, learning that his name was King and that he was 9 years old.

“I immediately thought back to when I was 9 years old, which was the first time that I was called the N-word on the playground in elementary school,” Scott said. “I thought about what that meant to be a young person grappling with the weight of racial inequality and of what it means to be Black in America at that age. Here I am, nearly 20 years after having my first experience with racism, and I’m having a conversation with someone who was the same age that I was when I experienced it. That was a moment I will always remember.”

The protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police were a watershed moment for the United States. The New York Times cited research that estimated between 15 million and 26 million people participated in marches and protests through mid-June, which would make these the largest mass protests in United States history — and they continued, in some form, throughout the rest of 2020 in many cities.

Though the spark of the protests was Floyd’s death — as well as the killings earlier in the year of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — the national conversation quickly moved beyond police accountability for violence against the Black community and became a broader reckoning with systemic racism throughout U.S. society. In government, academia and private industry, Black people and people of color spoke frankly about how their elected officials and employers were falling short on issues of racial justice — and many white people began to listen, examining how they benefit from institutions that privilege whiteness.

Looking through the lenses of the disciplines of public relations, communication and journalism, USC Annenberg’s faculty, alumni and students are at the forefront of telling the story of how this new, revolutionary movement for racial justice is transforming our society. They are chronicling how the movement has unfolded throughout institutions public and private — from universities to newspapers to corporations — and how conversations about systemic racism now can lead to a more just America.

“For many of us who are working in this space of racial justice, this movement has given us hope,” said Hector Amaya, director of the School of Communication and professor of communication. “Hope that what we have been striving for will be achieved and will be sustainable — that, at some point in the future, we’ll recognize this as a moment in which the project of racial justice gained significant ground.”

One sign of the profound impact of George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests is the sheer number of statements issued by corporate America in the wake of the tragedy. Some of these statements were effective, but many of them came off as ill-informed or perfunctory. Fred Cook, director of the USC Center for Public Relations (CPR), helped amplify the voice of one of the corporations that did it right.

On the Sept. 9 edition of Cook’s #PRFuture podcast, he spoke with Christopher Miller, the head of activism at Ben & Jerry’s, about how he and his team drafted the company’s statement.

Noting that Ben & Jerry’s is one of the rare corporations that has built its brand on championing causes of social, economic and environmental justice, Cook asked Miller if it was the company’s reputation that gave their statement about Floyd more credibility, while statements by others were met with criticism.

It had more to do with the substance and approach of what we had to say,” Miller said. “The companies that found themselves in the most uncomfortable places were ... the organizations and companies that tried to say something without offending anyone and tried to thread this kind of mushy middle, and I think that’s where people get it wrong.”

Cook noted that the lack of experience many companies demonstrated with their uneven statements about the Black Lives Matter movement tracks with what CPR found in its Global Communications Report, an annual survey of PR professionals released in April 2020.

“The number of corporate communications departments that were planning on working with activists in the coming year was only 14%,” Cook said. “Most communications teams don’t have any partners in the space that they can rely on and call up and say, ‘Hey, what’s the most appropriate thing to say, how should we go about this?’”

But as PR professionals work to help their clients connect with a public that is now more concerned with racial justice, Cook points to another problem: the lack of diversity in the PR profession itself. “If the team isn’t diverse, it can be problematic when it comes to hitting the right notes,” Cook said. “Those numbers are disappointingly low, especially in regard to African American employees.”

Julia Wilson, who serves on the CPR’s board of advisers, says that, as a Black woman in public relations, she has had to forge her own path. After earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1991, she worked as an independent reporter and publisher in Los Angeles before building a successful PR firm in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Wilson now runs her own international strategic public relations consultancy in Washington, D.C.

Even with all her achievements, Wilson says the lack of diversity in the business persists. “There are a lot of women in PR, but the major firms are run mostly by men, and it’s 90% white,” she said. She recalls speaking at a seminar in 2019 and seeing no Black people among 50 or so attendees. “I even asked, ‘Where is the diversity in the room?’ Black people continue to bump up against this white wall.”

The Black Lives Matter movement, Wilson notes, has galvanized many in her industry to look at their own record on racial issues. “We need more Black seats in the C-suites and on corporate boards,” she said. “We need Black voices telling their own stories and creating their own images.”

Some companies are indeed looking to Black PR professionals to help guide their response to the movement for racial justice. Clarissa Beyah, professor of professional practice and Union Pacific’s chief communications officer, says that her fellow Black practitioners are often cautious about such overtures.

“If you’ve made it far in any industry, you know when it’s safe to speak,” said Beyah, who joined the USC Annenberg faculty in Summer 2020. “If your company has a culture where it hasn’t always been safe to talk about issues of race, and now the outside world is saying, ‘Hey, it’s safe, come join us,’ it puts you in a very precarious position.

“We’re in this moment of momentum that has allowed people without voices to rise up, and that’s awesome,” Beyah added. “But those voices are trying to rise in cultures that are aspiring to be better — but that are not better yet.”

Cook calls this a time of “huge awakening” in the PR industry. “There is a conversation taking place on a deeper, more profound level than anything that I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t going away,” he said. “The white workforce is really trying to learn more about race in America. There’s a lot of very positive progress taking place, I see it across the board, and I think it’s going to make a big difference.”

For communication scholars who study issues of racial inequality, the idea that both a street in Washington, D.C. and the courts of the NBA would be painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” would have been unthinkable a year ago. Even though U.S. support for the movement waned as the year went on — from 67% approval in June to 55% in September, according to the Pew Research Center — the movement and its goals are now firmly in the mainstream of political discourse in the United States.

“Americans, in general, like to think about our national identity in terms of its wonderful promise — the American dream, the promise of democracy,” Amaya said. “I think the last few years have been hard on these aspects of our identity. Black Lives Matter allows us to recognize that we have to address inequalities that had been swept under the rug.”

Matt Bui, who earned his PhD in communication in 2020, focused his doctoral dissertation on racial and economic disparities in access to digital resources in Los Angeles. He says the movement energized many activist groups he has worked with in his research. The strain of the pandemic on systems and people, he says, made it plain that the status quo wasn’t working for far too many Americans.

“Here was this moment when we could see that all of the systems were broken,” Bui said. “The health care system, the education system, the political system. We’re just so broken and divided — and working-class communities of color are experiencing the worst consequences of that. Whether it’s the pandemic or police violence, this is life or death for a lot of communities that can’t buy themselves out of the situation.”

Marina Litvinsky, who also earned her PhD in communication in 2020, studies gentrification and resistance in Los Angeles. She echoes Bui’s observations that the stress of the pandemic heightened awareness of in-equality across the country, creating fertile ground for the broad-based movement that arose after George Floyd’s death.

“With COVID, everyone was at their wits’ end,” she said. “It was a huge catalyst, and I don’t doubt that activists who were fighting for issues other than police brutality have also joined this movement because they see it as an extension of their work.”

Amaya says he is not surprised that the movement had a broader impact than on the issue of police brutality alone. “This became a referendum on white supremacy, and it became a referendum on institutions,” he said. “The police and courts are among our most important institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is putting these institutions under scrutiny — and finding them wanting.”

That discussion extends to the institution of academia, where students, faculty and administrators have also been grappling with their own successes and failures in addressing racial injustice. Amaya — who, in addition to leading the School of Communication, is also the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at USC Annenberg — says that USC is working to address those issues on multiple fronts. While hiring and admissions are key areas where more attention to racial inequities is needed, Amaya says issues with curricula and instruction are even deeper and more difficult to address — but thankfully, the Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened students and faculty to push for changes in the classroom as well.

Over the summer, USC and its schools have held numerous virtual forums that allowed students to voice their concerns about racial inequities. At USC Annenberg, Dean Willow Bay has initiated a number of substantive conversations with students, faculty and staff that have led to changes — and commitments to further change.

In July, Bay announced the formation of a Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access Task Force, chaired by Professor Laura Castañeda, which has been reviewing faculty practices, student media training, student support and curricula.

“We have recognized the significance of this moment as one that demands radical change,” Bay said. “It calls upon us to challenge our assumptions, assess the policies and practices upon which they are based, and change our behaviors — institutional and personal.”

Ben Carrington, associate professor of sociology and journalism, says that these efforts represent a “big shift” in USC Annenberg’s approach to racial issues. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we teach better?’” he said. “We are looking for ways to move our curriculum from being passively non-racist to being more actively antiracist. We want to make sure that, in the teaching side of what we do, we are embedding a critical understanding of race and racism at every level.”

Carrington stresses that, as a school of communication and journalism, USC Annenberg has a moral obligation to critically examine how both the school itself and its industries of practice have fallen short in pursuing racial justice. “There’s been a conscious commitment to making sure that our response to the powerful protests around Black Lives Matter doesn’t just get reduced to some facile and banal statements about ‘diversity,’” he said. “I think that Annenberg is recognizing its (perhaps unintended) complicity with reproducing racist ideas and forms of anti-Blackness — and committing itself to do better.”

In one concrete example of this commitment, the Master of Arts in Specialized Journalism program is launching a Race and Justice Reporting track in 2021. Gordon Stables, director of the School of Journalism, lauds the important work faculty have done to create the track, coordinated by Professor Sandy Tolan. The program revisions include a new JOUR 580 class (“Reporting on Race and Justice”) and substantial contributions by Carrington and Allissa Richardson, assistant professor of journalism and communication, in revamping JOUR 595 (“Critical Thinking”).

“We know that a fundamentally race-conscious pedagogy is needed to address the traditional limitations of curriculum and the broader social inequality facing our students,” Stables said.

Beyah, founder of Writer’s Block Ink, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth ignite social change through writing and acting, has already seen the impact of the school’s racial-equity efforts. “The work we’ve done to look into the curriculum and make sure that we’re creating environments where students feel safe has been pretty remarkable,” she said. “And it hasn’t been unique to being Black. In my PR class, I had a lot of Asian students, and we talked about the latest news, whether it was how COVID-19 was sometimes characterized as the ‘Chinese virus,’ or what was happening with TikTok. We’ve opened up space to talk about racial issues and public relations.”

Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication and director of doctoral studies, said he has witnessed “some beautiful moments, reflections and expressions of solidarity, allyship and fellowship” at USC Annenberg in the past year.

“Faculty, staff and students — white and nonwhite — have spoken out and been active listeners in public forums, smaller group discussions and one-on-one interactions regarding issues of race and racism, anti-Blackness, class and socioeconomic inequities, and transforming Annenberg’s culture for the better,” Frazier said. “This energy has been inspiring, especially amid the isolation and disconnection many of us are experiencing during the pandemic.”

As a reporter covering the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Rachel Scott strove to convey to her ABC viewers an authentic sense of who the demonstrators were and what they were demanding.

“Every single person out there has a story,” said Scott, who in January was named ABC News’ Congressional correspondent. “Most of them have either experienced racism themselves, or they know someone who has. They want America to be better, and they’re gathering to send that message.”

Scott, whose father is a retired LAPD officer, knows that relations between communities of color and the police are “strained,” and she hopes that the Black Lives Matter movement can help improve those relations.

“My dad grew up in the Bronx projects, and he wanted to be part of law enforcement because he wanted to be the change in the system,” she said. “There are police officers who care deeply about their community and also want to see the change that many in this country are demanding and protesting for.”

As she covered the protests, the pandemic, and the presidential candidates in 2020, Scott said she also faced repeated reminders of the racist structures, attitudes and assumptions the protesters were targeting. “I’ve been asked for towels in a hotel hallway, I’ve had the N-word shouted at me at a political rally,” she said. “At protests, I was often mistaken for a protester. I went through that thought process we all go through as Black Americans when we get pulled over: Keep your hands visible, no sudden movements, don’t do anything without asking. ‘Hi, I’m a reporter from ABC News, can I reach for my badge to show you?’”

While reporters were covering the protests throughout the United States, news organizations were also looking inward at their own institutional shortcomings on issues of race. In September, the Los Angeles Times published a review of how the paper has covered the Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles over the years; other newspapers, including the Kansas City Star, published similar mea culpas in 2020.

“By turning the spotlight back upon their own stories, these publications highlighted why those stories are far from neutral or objective,” Stables said. “As news organizations try to rebuild their relationships with audiences, that kind of work is important self-reflection.”

Throughout the year, the journalists’ union at the Times — especially the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus — pushed the paper’s leadership to set concrete goals for better representation for communities of color in the paper’s reporting and staff. Controversies over inflammatory content and poor treatment of staffers of color also cost leaders at publications like The New York Times and Bon Appétit their jobs.

“When I worked at The New York Times, seven or eight years ago, I can’t imagine the culture that I was working under being ready to do something like that,” said Channing Joseph, lecturer of journalism. “That shows what happens when a critical mass of people decides to speak out about something.”

Joseph said that Black journalists, at the Times and elsewhere, face many common challenges in newsrooms. “Most Black reporters and reporters of color I know have had the experience of pitching stories that spoke to important issues in the Black community, only to be met with skepticism from their white co-workers and editors,” he said. “When you see something that’s affecting peoples’ lives daily, that’s something you might have seen yourself, and then you’re questioned about it, that’s a demoralizing experience.”

After the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Joseph says that it’s becoming less difficult to get these stories told “People are starting to understand that these are important stories that haven’t been covered, and there’s more openness to Black stories and Black culture.”

Scott says that, despite the controversy and backlash the Black Lives Matter movement has faced, she has seen many people, from many different backgrounds, showing that kind of openness.

“There is a sense of hope here,” Scott said. “We are having those uncomfortable conversations about what it means to be Black in America — and what it means to be white in America. I and so many others were inspired by seeing such diversity among the protesters. I personally met white families who brought their children to that fence outside of the White House to have a conversation about race in America.”

Frazier echoes Scott’s sense of guarded optimism. “We’re in a moment right now that I hope continues, where various institutions will step up,” he said. “They’re seeing that these problems won’t just automatically be fixed through the right kind of mindset. Addressing issues of race also requires really thinking about power — who has it, who’s at the table, what kind of values do we want to instill?

“It’s clear that people are no longer going to accept arguments about gradual change,” Frazier added. “These moments are filled with tension and contradiction, but also really bright with possibility.”

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