WASHINGTON – Last month, the Newseum unveiled a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African-American woman to receive press credentials to cover the White House. A few days later, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi published an article entitled “The White House press room is overwhelmingly white. Does that matter?”
Almost 70 years separate Alice Allison Dunnigan’s battle against racism and sexism from today. Yet African-American female reporters still represent a small part of the White House press corps.
And the few who manage to make it to their long-awaited destination, the White House’s James. S. Brady Press Briefing Room, still struggle with discrimination from within, as Brittany Shepherd underlined in her recent story for the Washingtonian.
“‘Good’ journalism in the Trump-era has become synonymous with access. But when you’re talking with people who view any hint of race as an on-ramp to identity politics, it’s almost impossible for a black reporter to gain their trust,” Shepherd wrote about her experience in the White House.
Shepherd goes on describing her skin color as “a barrier and assumption (her) non-minority colleagues aren’t required to face.” Dunnigan had to face the same barrier in the 1940s.
One might have thought that in 70 years, that barrier would have been broken down, but Shepherd’s article and the ratio of African-American women in the White House press corps (less than a dozen, among hundreds of journalists) indicate that it has not.
At the Sept. 21 debut of the Dunnigan statue at the Newseum, sculptor Amanda Matthews said that “Alice Dunnigan envisioned a future of equality and she dedicated her life to that vision.”
The present is not the future of equality Dunnigan had hoped and fought for.
There has been undeniable progress, but women of color remain a very small percentage of American newsrooms overall: 7.95 percent of newspaper staffs, 6.2 percent of local radio personnel and 12.6 percent of local television news operations, according to a study released earlier this year by the Women’s Media Center.
“Women are more than half the U.S. population, and people of color nearly 40 percent. But you wouldn’t know this from our media — because U.S. media does not look like, sound like, or reflect the diversity and experience of more than half the population,” center president Julie Burton wrote in the forward to the report.
The road to equality is still long, but remembering pioneer figures such as Dunnigan can be a source of inspiration on the way.
Right before the cloth was lifted from Dunnigan’s statue, her great niece Penny Allison Lockhart burst into tears: “I can’t wait until little boys and girls in schools to journalism students and everyone get to say ‘wow, let’s talk about Alice Allison Dunnigan today.’”