Issac Bailey is a journalist and 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow. He recently published a memoir about what his family endured after his eldest brother was sentenced to life in prison for murder. The Chronicle sat down to speak with Bailey about journalism and race after he spoke at a Tuesday event. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: Let's talk about the role of a journalist as an advocate. You won a medal for stories about a child protection case in South Carolina, and then subsequently the state revamped the way it handles such cases. As a journalist, was this one of your goals, or did this just happen from exposing the truth?
Issac Bailey: At least in that case in particular, I just came across that story because a couple of people walked into the newsroom and said that they had some struggles with the Department of Social Services—DSS in South Carolina. I had been dealing with that system—looking into it—for the past five years anyway, so that's why they came to me. Then I just started looking into their case in particular, and I saw massive, massive problems—massive injustice. Just based on the facts of the case, I saw that.
At that point, my job actually was to tell the story fairly and accurately—so just leave everything else after that to other folks. So for me, if we're going to say that there is some advocacy in journalism, I think that has to be based upon reality, truth, fact—verified facts, in context facts. Just as long as truth is the foundation of what you are doing as a journalist, then I think that everything else will take care of itself.
TC: What role do you think journalists play in the #MeToo movement?
IB: I think that one of the toughest things that journalists have to deal with now is to figure out when to report something like this, and also how. A lot of these cases will be unnamed, which is going to make it difficult by itself. What you are trying to balance is trying to see if this sounds plausible—I'm not talking about whether or not you can absolutely prove that it happened. Once you actually get to the stage of saying that this is plausible, then I think that you can move forward with the story. And you try to get as many independent facts as you can. Which is difficult also, but of course journalism is always difficult.
You have to be careful with it, simply because you want victims to be heard and yet, at the same time, you don't want to unfairly tarnish somebody with something that can't ever be proven. That's the really difficult balance for all of us these days.
TC: You wrote a column about how you won't give your children "the talk" about the relationship between black Americans and police. Did you prepare your children in other ways for their experiences with being black in America?
IB: One of the reasons why I'm not going to give "the talk" is I actually don't want to give them an extra burden, essentially. Also, more importantly, when it comes to these interactions with cops, I think that the person with the most power in that relationship has the most responsibility. It is the cop's responsibility to make sure that everything goes well. We've seen several cases where even if you do everything right, you can still be beaten, you can still be shot, etc. That's why I don't actually do "the talk."
I am very open with my kids about race in every single thing else. They actually read my work sometimes, then we discuss it. We've had frank conversations, at least about my own family's history with the justice system itself. All those sorts of things that I really focus on, I'm trying to get them to see that they should actually focus on what they can control, and try not to worry about all the other stuff. Essentially, just try to be their best, work hard, make the right decisions, to be respectful to everyone—not just cops, not just people in power, but to everyone—and to know that they are worthy of being respected as well.
TC: In your book about your brother, you discuss growing up in the South after the civil rights movement. For a young minority in the South today, how is your experience different, and in what ways has the experience not changed at all?
IB: At least with my dad, and even with my oldest brother, they experienced all of the worst parts of Jim Crow. They were segregated in so many different ways. They were constantly disrespected by people...My father actually came through a period where...black men actually would be jailed on trumped-up charges, like spitting on the sidewalk, that kind of stuff. They would actually be sold to their corporations who would sometimes actually literally work them to death. That's what my father came up through. And for me, the harshest portions of Jim Crow actually have gone away by the time I came around. I still went to this segregated high school all the way through as well. And there were still other differences as well, but at least the harshest stuff had gone already.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
One thing that hasn't changed yet is that at least for many white Christians, they have not really prioritized racial justice yet. Back then they didn't, and even now they're not. At least for me, that is a major, major problem.
TC: In an interview with NPR, you mention that you went to Davidson College, a mostly white college, partially to get away from your blackness. How did those years impact you and your identity?
IB: At first it screwed me up—at first. Going from a small, poor, black, segregated high school to this rich, white, prestigious private school, it's vastly different obviously. I was still struggling with my identity anyway, simply because my oldest brother was in prison for murder, and also I was dealing with this very severe stutter—even now. All those things sort of convinced me to actually try to be somebody else essentially...simply because I didn't think I was good enough or worthy.
The surprising thing about Davidson is the fact that once I got there, I was around what I called "white geniuses." They must be smarter, they must be better, they must be so many things. And yet, once I got there, then I started to actually listen to them—I actually started to see their complexity. I started to understand that they too were dealing with a whole bunch of stuff that they were not letting on. That actually made them fellow human beings who had good points and faults, et cetera. So that taught me that I, too, was just this human being who was also trying to figure out life...If I could see them as worthy, then I could also see myself as worthy.
TC: I'm sure a lot of minority students at Duke feel the same way. What would you tell them, given your experiences?
IB: Two things. One is to actually have a safe space, where you can go and just be your laid-back self, where everybody knows exactly what you are saying, even before you say it...But what is also extremely important is to not live in the safe space.
Don't live in the safe space. Most of your growth is actually going to come in the tension, in the struggle, in those moments and spaces where you don't want to be, where you actually feel outcast. Those are the moments you can grow the most. It doesn't feel comfortable. It's not good, it's not some kind of 'Oh yes, I love being here." You are actually going to find out that you are tougher than you think you are, and that you are more worthy than you think you are.
For me, safe spaces are there just to give you a break from that tension, and to reenergize you. But most of your time—in terms of growth and learning—actually has to be outside the safe space.