National Geographic Apologizes for Past Racist Coverage

Photos show past National Geographic covers. (Greyloch via Flickr)

National Geographic is apologizing for its past racist coverage, saying the only way to rise above the past is to acknowledge its mistakes.

“For decades our coverage was racist,” editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg wrote in a piece for the magazine’s March issue. “Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.”

Goldberg later announced a year-long series of stories on race starting in next month:

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” Goldberg wrote. “We thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

The 130-year-old National Geographic, now a staple of American culture, is famous for its coverage of exotic international locales, often including less developed cultures far away from the United States. While Goldberg wants the magazine to continue to give readers a window into these cultures, it will attempt to do so more respectfully, she said.

Over the years, National Geographic has published numerous articles that would be considered racist by today’s standards. “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings,” one 1916 caption under two photos of Australian Aboriginals read. Though the magazine published plenty of pieces on black people abroad, until the 1970s it did not tend to feature articles about African-Americans. American blacks were even blocked from becoming members of the National Geographic Society throughout the 1940s, at least in Washington, D.C.

Goldberg said the magazine’s modern coverage of Africa, evolving views on gender, and ethnic and religious conflicts would have been “unthinkable” in the past.

National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture,” the editor-in-chief remarked.

The March “Race Issue” received a mostly positive response from readers, many thanking National Geographic for the idea.

The series on race will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4.