Toriano Porter

Former KSHB reporter Lisa Benson Cooper challenged the system and won — sort of

When African Americans challenge systemic racism, the results can be devastating. That has never been more evident to Lisa Benson Cooper, who was fired from her job as a reporter at KSHB-TV Channel 41 for sharing on her personal Facebook page an article on white fragility.

Cooper, an African-American woman, believes challenging the status quo cost her the position she held for 14 years. And she says race was a factor in her failure to climb the ranks at KSHB.

A so-called jury of her peers — we’ll get to that in a moment — rejected Cooper’s claim of discrimination against KSHB’s parent company, E.W. Scripps, in a federal trial. The jury did rule that Cooper was retaliated against for filing the original discrimination suit.

The former television reporter was awarded close to $201,000 in actual and punitive damages for the retaliation claim. A federal judge could award more monetary damages for lost wages and attorney fees, Cooper’s attorney, Dennis Egan, said.

“We appreciate that the jury affirmed that (the station’s) actions had nothing to do with race,” said Scott McIntyre, an attorney representing E.W. Scripps.

Cooper said in an interview that she has no regrets about finally challenging a system that failed to reward her for years of dedicated work.

“I feel like my voice was heard,” she said.

Cooper was unjustly fired for sharing an article from The Guardian that argued that white women play the role of victim when women of color assert themselves.

Two white colleagues at KSHB, identified as Christa Dubill and Jessica McMaster in court testimony, complained that the Facebook post was hurtful. Company officials deemed it inappropriate, suspending and then ultimately firing the veteran reporter.

Conversations about race are inherently difficult. But they are important and necessary. Cooper and other African Americans should not be forced to remain silent about relevant issues in the workplace.

“I wish they would have just talked to me,” Cooper said of her colleagues. “We’ve had difficult conversation in the newsroom about race, politics and sexism. I have no idea why they wouldn’t be willing to sit down with me and have a conversation.

“Did I feel like we were close enough to have a conversation? Absolutely.”

The nearly all-white eight-person jury that heard Cooper’s case was conspicuously missing any African Americans, highlighting a frustration some black people already feel: The jury selection process is biased and flawed.

If you’ve never walked in the shoes of an African American who’s felt discriminated against, can you truly understand their plight?

“Absolutely, race played a factor in the jury’s decision,” Cooper said.

Cooper envisions being back on air in the future. For now, she is content hosting diversity and inclusion seminars around town.

Cooper wants people of color — especially women — to challenge the system. She also encourages white allies to further educate themselves on race relations.

“Women of color never ask why,” Cooper said. “Really dig in and ask questions. Part of my failure was not to challenge it. When I applied for these jobs, I should have said, why not me? I just kind of accepted that I wasn’t ready yet.”

A book written by white author Robin DiAngelo has guided some of Benson’s recent education on diversity. She recommends people of all races read “White Fragility” to learn more about implicit and unconscious bias.

“When I started this (lawsuit), I did not understand what was happening to me,” Cooper said. “I did not understand how I could work for this corporation for almost 15 years and not get one opportunity for growth.

“That is what sent me on this journey for education. I wanted to understand more.”

Although Cooper did prevail on one claim, it’s disappointing that jurors failed to send a resounding message that the rights of minority employees matter, too.

Toriano Porter is an opinion writer and member of The Star’s Editorial Board. He’s received state-wide, regional and national recognition for reporting since joining McClatchy in 2012.