Sidmel Estes-Sumpter was a lead organizer of the 1994 Unity convention that brought together thousands of Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans for what was billed as the largest gathering of journalists in U.S. history.
But the Atlanta television producer and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists will not join 6,000 of her colleagues for the second Unity Conference, which starts today in Seattle. She is angry because organizers refused to move the meeting, which will generate a projected $20 million in revenue, after Washington state voters approved a ballot initiative last fall that outlawed most state and local government affirmative action programs.
The disputes within Unity over how to respond to the vote exposed racial and ethnic fault lines that have shaken her belief in the coalition.
"I think it is an insult to NABJ and an insult to black folks for us to go to Washington," Estes-Sumpter says. She, like some other NABJ members, blames "the other racial groups" for pushing to keep the convention in Seattle. "The point is the other groups don't get it."
The affirmative action debate is just the latest racially tinged controversy to roil Unity, an ambitious coalition of minority journalism organizations widely hailed as a model of ethnic diversity and cross-cultural understanding. But while minority journalists undoubtedly have much in common, their fledgling alliance also has made clear their many differences.
"I am encouraged that the coalition survived this debate and hopeful that we can in the future deal with these differences in approach to issues in a way that leaves everyone feeling good about Unity," says Vanessa Williams, NABJ president and a reporter for The Washington Post. "But personally, I am not comfortable with having to drop all that money into that state's economy so soon after the passage of that initiative."
Long before the fight over how to respond to the anti-affirmative-action vote, the Unity coalition had struggled through disputes about the racial symbolism of its convention cities, the race and ethnicity of vendors hired by the group and the racial balance of its roster of convention speakers.
Native Americans threatened to pull out of the Atlanta convention in part because the city is home to the Atlanta Braves, a baseball team whose name is an insult to many Native Americans, and also because, in the 1830s, the Georgia government helped remove Cherokees to the West along the infamous Trail of Tears.
Eventually, many Native Americans did participate after provisions were made for a ceremony to honor those who died during the forced march and a panel discussion was scheduled on offensive team mascots.
"I think the purpose of this coalition as envisioned was to share experiences and to help each other if we saw something egregious being done," says Tim Giago, a South Dakota-based Native American publisher who boycotted the Atlanta convention and is doing the same five years later in Seattle. "But I think we are pulling in too many different directions."
Unity's difficulties parallel those encountered by minority civil rights leaders and elected officials. While they agree on many issues, they find their agendas collide on such issues as immigration and competition for jobs or political power. Some of the tension is rooted in the groups' respective histories, their cultural sensibilities and their view of their place in society.
In 1995 a national poll by the National Conference for Community Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) found that while racial minorities share a collective sense of discrimination, they often have widely varying views of one another. African Americans felt they had most in common with Latinos, who felt they had the most in common with whites and the least with African Americans. Asian Americans, meanwhile, felt they had the most in common with whites and least in common with African Americans. Native Americans were not included in the survey.
Those realities can make coalition-building difficult. "There has got to be some real time spent listening to each other's histories," says Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community Justice, which works at building alliances across racial, ethnic and religious divides. "People have to understand who the other person is and that their pain is not the most important pain simply because it is theirs."
To be sure, the four minority journalism groups that make up the Unity coalition share nearly identical missions: to increase their meager ranks in the news business and to broaden and deepen coverage of their communities.
The coalition "has been a challenge at times and there have been obstacles," says Unity President Catalina Camia, a reporter at the Dallas Morning News. "But the thing is that we are committed to overcoming them."
Unity last year started a mentoring program for minority journalists, participates in cooperative agreements with the news industry's dominant trade groups and participates in efforts to monitor coverage of minority communities.
Minority journalists represent just 11.5 percent of newspaper staffers. And 42 percent of the nation's newspapers, most located in rural areas, do not have a minority journalist on staff. Minorities, meanwhile, make up 20 percent of the journalists working in television and 16 percent of those in radio. Moreover, few minorities hold top decision-making jobs in U.S. newsrooms.
The result, Unity leaders say, is a news industry that rarely depicts minorities as part of the American mainstream, even as the country grows more racially diverse. Minorities now account for almost 30 percent of the nation's population; by 2050, the country is projected to have no majority racial or ethnic group.
A study by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, for example, found that Latinos, who make up 11.4 percent of the U.S. population, were featured in fewer than 1 percent of the 12,000 network news stories aired in 1997. And nearly two-thirds of those stories had to do with crime, affirmative action and immigration.
The point of Unity is to address that. More than 250 news outlets have committed to take part in what Unity organizers call the largest "career expo" in the news business. Many news organizations send top executives to schmooze with potential recruits. There also are more than 140 workshops spread over four days on subjects from hate crime to making the jump from reporter to news management. Several presidential candidates have been invited to address the group. And for many journalists, a highlight is the series of lavish receptions that allow them to rub shoulders with their colleagues from across the country.
"It is a great networking opportunity, there are so many good things going on," says Caille Millner, a reporting intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who attended the black journalists' convention last year. That experience made her eager to go to Unity. "It is heartening when you are one of the few journalists of color in the newsroom to be able to go out and see how many others there are."
Monica Rohr, an immigration reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a member of the Hispanic journalists' group, says she has "mixed feelings" about going to Unity because of the affirmative action vote. But that concern is outweighed by her desire to see the coalition work.
"I think it is real important for the groups to find a way to work together because our numbers are so minuscule," she says.
That view prevailed when the coalition was forged 11 years ago. The idea was that the groups could combine forces in their advocacy, and on occasion hold joint conventions to allow their memberships to become more familiar with one another.
"I have always believed that this was the kind of coalition that would be necessary in the 21st century," says Paul Delaney, a longtime NABJ member and director of Howard University's Center for the Study of Race and Media. "Journalists were kind of leading the way."
But the coalition's leaders have found many of their decisions complicated by a series of racial controversies and by a subtle competition for power.
While the four journalism groups are officially equal partners in Unity, NABJ, with a 24-year history and some 3,000 members, is the oldest and largest. That has proven to be a frequent source of tension for the coalition, as Native American, Asian American and Hispanic journalists are wary of being overshadowed. At the same time, some black journalists say they at times feel hampered by the alliance.
"What began as a survival mechanism has become an alliance of four organizations that have relatively little in common," says DeWayne Wickham, a USA Today columnist and former NABJ president who plans to attend the conference despite his misgivings. "At least two represent segments who identify most with [whites] whose actions we are trying to influence."