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Journalism professor dedicates career to promoting diversity, garners recognition

Jan 21, 2021

Posted in: News

By Ebonique Little, Communications Intern

Thomas, Clarence
Dr. Clarence Thomas has served as a professor at the Robertson School for three decades.

One mission has been integral to the career of broadcast journalism professor Dr. Clarence Thomas — increased diversity and inclusion.

Thomas, a tenured associate professor of mass communications in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, seeks to accomplish this goal through teaching as well as providing criticism and commentary regarding media history, media ethics and media and society.

“When I first came to VCU, there was not a lot of diversity at all,” Thomas said. “You could kind of count the [minority] students on your hand. And so I've always been interested in why that was the case, and trying to help them get better.”

A native of Norfolk, Thomas’ childhood experiences lent interest to the subject of diversity.

“If you were to go back to when I was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s, you wouldn’t know that Black people existed if you looked at advertising,” Thomas said. “And if you saw somebody [Black,] it would be in a demeaning role, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.”

Thomas began professionally pursuing broadcast journalism at WTAR-TV (now WTKR-TV) in 1974 and eventually went on to continue his educational endeavors at the University of Florida, where he received a doctorate in mass communications specializing in media history.

Thomas was drawn to teach media and diversity at VCU because of his mother’s educational experience, as she graduated from the St. Philip School of Nursing in the 1940s, which, at the time, was a separate school for African-American women within the Medical College of Virginia campus.

Over the course of his 30-year career at VCU, Thomas has spearheaded many organizations aimed to uplift minority students. One of which is the Robertson School Diversity Committee.

“I was one of the founders of the Diversity Committee to kind of probe into the questions of why there's so few African-American students and African-American faculty members,” Thomas said. “And so we saw that and pretty much tried to delve into it and see if we could get solutions for it.”

Some of these solutions include creating a working and learning environment where differences are encouraged and valued as well as increasing the number of minority students and faculty in decision-making capacities.

Through these initiatives, Thomas said he has further researched how societal biases can pervade the ways in which journalism is taught.

“You didn't see African Americans on most TV and radio stations, even in the news rooms. You didn't see people in advertising agencies. That is the norm in the country,” Thomas said. “I can't give you the reason for it, other than just racism within the society, but I can note that it was there, and we hopefully want it to get better over time.”

These disparities are addressed in a course he developed titled MASC 474 Diversity in the Media. Students enrolled in the course examine the historical and contemporary media representation of various minority groups, based on factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and religion. 

“What we try to do is give them an awareness that the world is a diverse place, whether they want it to be or not,” Thomas said. “We should recognize that we have a diverse world, and we should reflect it in the workplace.”

His work extended to serving as the vice president of the VCU Black Education Association, where he helped to advocate for Black students and faculty and assisted in increased recruitment, foster their professional development and forge relationships between University leaders and community members.

Thomas made note of the community’s impact on news reporting, evidenced by the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, an unarmed Black man who died by the knee of a police officer on his neck in May.

“The content of news reporting, as well as the content in many other areas, such as broadcasting and advertising, definitely has changed,” Thomas said. “When this happened, people in other countries were protesting, and it’s making us become more aware of the fact that we need to pay attention to race relations in our country.”

Thomas said Floyd’s death was a “spark” and encourages his students to use their voice.

“We will continue to speak up until we are treated differently,” Thomas said, “and we're beginning to see that might make a difference.”

The work Thomas has pursued to combat systemic racism and the “deep roots” he continues to nourish at VCU are appreciated.

“We highly value Dr. Thomas as a voice of conscience and as the cornerstone and initiator of many diversity initiatives,” said Robertson School Director Dr. Marcus Messner. “Dr. Thomas’ initiatives ensured that the Robertson School and VCU have become more diverse and inclusive places to work and learn.”

Recommended by his Robertson School peers, Thomas won his latest award, the 2020 Trailblazer in Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Award of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, in October and was grateful to have the importance of his work recognized.

“I appreciate it,” Thomas said. “And to me, I wasn't doing it for an award, I was doing it because it was just me.”