Why this journalist embraces critical race theory

dr meredith clark portrait
Dr. Meredith Clark, Northeastern Associate Professor and Founding Director of the new Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change poses for a portrait at the Southwest Corridor Park in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

It’s been a tumultuous year for Meredith D. Clark, a journalism and social media professor, as well as a prominent thought leader on the Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theory, a body of legal and academic scholarship that examines the integral role of race and racism in society. 

Clark, who joined Northeastern this summer as an associate professor in the journalism department, moved to Boston even though she’s “never lived above the Mason-Dixon line.” The former newspaper reporter, who previously taught at the University of Virginia, stopped tweeting, taking a break from the very social media platform where she cultivated her voice and sharpened her criticisms of the appropriation of Black culture. And the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection left her deeply disheartened with American democracy.

She spoke to News@Northeastern about democracy, diversity in journalism, and her plans as director of the Northeastern’s new Center for Communication, Media Innovation, and Social Change.

What attracted you to this role at Northeastern?

As a Black woman, I looked at the job description and I didn’t think that I was qualified. But I decided to apply, and then I didn’t think I would get it. Again, I’m a Black woman, we read about how women, people of color, women who are also people of color, often because they don’t fit 100% of the criteria, they don’t apply for things. That was the case for me. For this job, when I read the title, I thought “I’m not qualified.” But I looked at the rest of the description, and I was like “Oh, I’ve done all of that, I do that, and the things that they want in this job are the things that I want to do.”

What are some of the things you’d like to do with this new center, which focuses on media and social change?

I would like the center to do work on the demographics of the news industry, but from a more qualitative perspective, looking at the quality of the experience, and the quality of life that journalists, particularly journalists from structurally marginalized backgrounds, are having. There’s so much that’s been proposed about change, and integration and advancement and all that good stuff, so let’s find out how that’s going.

What other research do you want to do?

I work with the News Leaders Association, and I’ve been running the newsroom diversity survey project for the last three years. I was brought on to reinvigorate this project that has been going on since 1978. It’s the largest single source for data about the composition of the news industry. The survey collects data from print and digital news outlets across the country, on their demographics, and trends. It’s clear that more needs to be done to diversify the news, and goodwill is not a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy.

How does critical race theory factor into your teaching, and how will it factor into the new center?

Before we can think about where we go from this moment in history and in journalism, we really do have to dissect our past and learn honestly about our past. I came up with the term “reparative journalism” when I started thinking about the American institutions who do owe reparations, not just to Black people but to anyone who has been structurally marginalized because of who they are.

We have to dig through historically how those structures were built, how they were maintained, and what impact they have today. The example that I worked on is that journalism as a profession in particular was advanced by the University of Missouri, which didn’t admit its first Black students until the middle of the 20th century. It claims to have been the home of journalism and it’s where professional journalism was codified and made an academic discipline since the late 19th century. That’s a lot of time for a lot of people to be left out of the creation of an industry and the art and the practice of journalism. And as we continue to practice that journalism, uninvestigated, uninterrogated and unchallenged, we are continuing those exclusive practices. That’s not going to work for the future. It doesn’t work for this moment.

Can you talk about the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 and how it impacted you?

January 6 broke something in me, and it took me a while to come to grips with that. Seeing that a mob could storm the Capitol of the United States of America. A domestically formed mob could walk right in and attempt to apprehend our lawmakers and make other threats of direct and intentional violence and desecrate these places that we have been taught are almost holy. I stopped believing in the way that we talk about American democracy that day. 

These are people who, by virtue of racial hierarchy in this country, should have every opportunity that can be afforded to someone along racial lines. These are the people for whom American democracy was essentially created, and they are willing to turn it on its head to bend the government and the way that we think about democracy to their will—and our lawmakers did nothing. They did not do enough. The systems that we have in place, did not do enough. That let me know that the idea we have been talking about in terms of democracy, the one I was taught in public high schools and public middle and elementary schools in Kentucky, wasn’t true. It showed me that the idea of democracy that I’ve been taught all my life is a lie. That for me was the final straw.

What’s it been like to juggle teaching and work on the center?

I’m teaching a class this semester on Black Twitter and on Black popular culture. For me, they are so interconnected they are almost one and the same. It’s incredibly stressful, but I love it. I’ve been cursing myself, because I was up at two o’clock working on slides and trying to answer emails. So I’m cursing myself for not getting enough sleep, but it’s worth it—every time I get in the classroom, even on the difficult days where I’m not seeing the looks of recognition that I hope to see about the material.

You’ve cultivated a widely read and well-respected voice on Twitter. Why did you decide to take a break?

I have been on Twitter since 2008. Even though Twitter has often been a refuge for me and a source of community even when I’m totally isolated, I found that with making this big and unexpected transition to Northeastern, there were a number of things that I needed to reclaim my energy from. Social media is great, I enjoyed being there, I enjoy studying it. But it can also be a huge time suck, and it can be a huge energy suck, and that’s just not where I wanted to put my time and attention right now. 

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.