Remembering a Journalist's Struggle with Racism in the Newsroom
Below is Natalie Moore's essay about McClain that ran earlier this year in The Root magazine.
Years ago, I sat in my public-policy journalism class when a professor circulated a 25-year-old essay that ran in the Washington Post. None of my mostly white peers could read beyond the provocative headline: “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.”
Only I, the lone black student in the classroom at Northwestern in the late 1990s, defended the writer, Chicago journalist Leanita McClain. She had also graduated from our program. A racist, my classmates called her. She's so angry, they remarked as they screwed their faces.
McClain, then an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, was describing her reactions to the 1983 mayoral race. Harold Washington had been elected Chicago's first black mayor. In response to Washington's victory, euphoria had swept over much of the city, initially. It wasn't long, though, before embittered white Chicagoans started a racial backlash. In McClain's Washington Post essay, she wrote: “So many whites unconsciously had never considered that blacks could do much of anything, least of all get a black candidate this close to being mayor of Chicago. My colleagues looked up and realized, perhaps for the first time, that I was one of ‘them.' I was suddenly threatening.”
She continued: “This affair has cemented my journalist's acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration.
The sullenness and cynicism that McClain expressed was apparently unshakeable. She killed herself in May 1984, less than a year after the controversial Post essay was published. She was 32 years old.
Twenty five years later, Chicago is still a place of de facto segregation, despite the sea of change represented by the election of Barack Obama. I am the same age that McClain was when she wrote that essay working as a black journalist in Chicago. Thankfully, I haven't experienced the kind of backlash she described. But in many ways, the segregated picture she painted isn't much different today.
As I navigate my journalism career, I remain gripped by her experience.
When she took the job at the Tribune in 1973, McClain joined the first wave of post-civil rights black professionals. The burden and privilege weighed heavy on her mind, In the days before McClain took her life, one of her white colleagues on the Tribune editorial board, says she saw McClain working late in her office with the lights off. She asked if there was anything she could do.
“Don't worry about me. I'm fine,” McClain replied, her hands cupping her face. Then McClain didn't come to work. When a colleague eventually went to check her apartment, he found her in bed, hair combed, make-up applied. The lights were on. An overdose of pills took her life.
I am still working to process McClain's story and the lessons in it for me. I don't struggle with issues of depression as Leanita clearly did. But I do struggle with balancing two worlds. I chose journalism as a profession because I saw my black communities alternatively neglected and misrepresented in the news media. I remain acutely aware that McClain wrote for black people rather than simply about them in a mainstream, daily publication.
Each day, as I work the Chicago beat, I know Leanita's story is one I can't afford to forget.