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"K. Fearn-Banks" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
K. Fearn-Banks
Tue, 20 May 2003 21:34:59 -0700
TEXT/PLAIN (192 lines)
  To My Former Students: How Race Works


  Jayson Blair, a young black reporter, recently resigned from
  his job at The New York Times after admitting to systematic
  plagiarism and fabrication over the course of his four-year
  career there. In the wake of the scandal, I sent a version of
  the following e-mail message to my black former students
  currently working as reporters and editors at the Times, The
  Washington Post, and other newspapers around the country.

  Dear [friends]:

  I don't know much more about the Jayson Blair scandal beyond
  what the Times painstakingly pointed out in its front-page
  examination, but I do know how American institutions often
  work, especially when it comes to race. If the past is any
  guide, it's fair to predict that you and your African-American
  peers at the Times and other papers will be under increasingly
  sharp scrutiny in coming weeks and months, just as my black
  peers and I were at The Washington Post in the wake of the
  Janet Cooke scandal in 1981. My advice is to get ready for it,
  emotionally, as best you can.

  Cooke, you'll recall, was the young black reporter (she was
  26, Blair is 27) who admitted to fabricating an article about
  an 8-year-old heroin addict. Cooke was fired, and the Post
  returned the Pulitzer Prize she had won for the article. Those
  were incredibly tough and traumatic times for many of us to
  cope with -- not just the shock, sadness, and sense of
  betrayal sparked by the incident itself, but also the air of
  racial mistrust and paranoia that rapidly spread in the
  workplace like a disease in its immediate aftermath.

  Indeed, the toughest part of the Cooke disgrace was dealing
  with the suddenly sharpened skepticism and questioning
  attitudes directed our way by a few white peers and editors
  about our skill, our abilities, our credibility, our
  trustworthiness, even our right to work there. Bitter and
  jealous that an "undeserving" young black woman like Cooke had
  taken the job of a more "competent" white, they blamed
  affirmative action for opening the Post's door to Cooke and
  other black reporters in the first place.

  Aha! a few white journalists seemed to say, by mood as well as
  furtive whisper: See what happens when you give them a chance?

  Nearly a quarter century later, your era is a bit different.
  For one thing, there are more of you working in your
  institutions now than in 1981. There are more
  African-Americans in positions of authority, as well. In many
  ways that progress represents an important milestone in the
  history of the American press, which first recognized a
  critical need to grant greater opportunities to minorities and
  women after the social tumult of the 1960s, when the country's
  white newsrooms did a generally poor job covering the era's
  seminal events. The National Advisory Commission on Civil
  Disorders prodded the white press as far back as 1968 to make
  these urgent reforms in hiring, saying American race relations
  and our very democracy depended on it.

  But despite such progress it's also plain that racism has a
  way of adapting from one era to another and poisoning people
  just as powerfully as it ever has.

  In the days ahead you will run into a few narrow-minded,
  race-obsessed co-workers who will feel suddenly emboldened to
  question your motives, reporting, writing, sourcing -- your
  very right to hold your jobs. Already the conservative right
  is pointing to the Blair incident as emblematic of what it
  considers the wrong-sighted diversity culture, one in which a
  young black journalist was unfairly coddled and promoted over
  more deserving (and "trustworthy") whites, to the very
  detriment of the public's right to know. We're starting to
  read this nonsense in editorial pages, and the heartland is
  hearing it on right-wing television and radio programs as

  Few seem yet willing to point out that the Blair experience,
  while painful and infuriating, is no more than an anomaly. It
  has nothing to do with race or diversity efforts at all. It's
  the singular story of an emotionally troubled human being who
  crumbled under the very corporate pressure you guys
  courageously contend with, indeed flourish in, each day. The
  system at the Times did not catch on until too late. This
  human being was very young, and he happened to be black.

  Sadly, it's the last fact that some whites will find the most
  telling. Black. And in the process they will conveniently
  ignore the far more important and stirring reality that
  legions of African-American journalists around the nation --
  hired through similar diversity policies -- are performing at
  the top of their game with excellence, distinction, and
  tireless dedication and zeal.

  I don't need to list names. You guys know who you are. You're
  covering every beat imaginable, from city hall to the White
  House, from Wall Street and film and sports to the war and
  reconstruction in Iraq. But the public generally does not know
  that, any more than the public knew "Jayson Blair" was the
  byline of a black journalist before the scandal hit. (It's
  curious, too, that little mention is made of the fact that it
  was another journalist trained under a minority-hiring program
  -- a Latina and your fellow Berkeley alumna, Macarena
  Hernandez, at the San Antonio Express-News -- who finally
  alerted the Times to Blair's fraud after he plagiarized her
  terrific reporting.)

  But that's racism at work, isn't it? It nests and festers amid
  such willful ignorance, and is now set to follow its
  pernicious path in the months ahead in your newsrooms.

  It's a truism among black people that we have to strive to be
  10 times better than the average white person in society just
  to catch an even break. You will feel this sense of pressure
  even more intensely now. Your every mistake will be magnified,
  your every step scrutinized, especially if you are young,
  smart, and ambitious. Some whites will, almost by some
  atavistic impulse, look upon you and your skin color now and
  see nothing but Jayson Blair, just as some white co-workers
  looked at me, Michele McQueen, Gwen Ifill, Courtland Milloy,
  Juan Williams, and others back in 1981, and suddenly saw
  little else but Janet Cooke.

  Amid such pressure you may even end up doubting yourselves.
  You're only human, but fight that stuff as best you can. No
  matter what happens, weather the storm and take solace in all
  those who believe in you, no matter their color. That includes
  an old teacher like me who sympathizes across the generational

  There was a time back in 1982 when I seriously considered
  homicide, did I tell you? This is what happened: A white
  editor pulled me aside one day several months after Janet
  Cooke's firing and asked me if a feature story I had written
  was true. It took me a minute to figure out what the devil the
  guy was driving at, and when I did I felt myself about ready
  to explode. I really came this close to grabbing him around
  his flabby throat and banging his head against the wall. But I
  didn't. All I could do was take a deep breath, choke back the
  rage, and answer that yes indeed, I had been to an illegal
  cockfight in rural Maryland. I told him I'd spent days digging
  into the story, was proud that I had gotten it, and that the
  article was quite true in every vivid detail. I swallowed the
  hostility, in other words, and the story ran on the front

  There may be similar times ahead for you. I hope not, but
  there may be. My advice is to try your best to keep your cool
  and never give anyone a reason to doubt you. Above all,
  remember this: You've earned your right to practice your

  By the way, it's amazing the way race works. A few years ago a
  white reporter for The New Republic named Stephen Glass was
  fired after it was revealed that he systematically plagiarized
  and fabricated his work. As I recall, no one decried the
  diversity culture in which he was hired, nor cast suspicious
  remarks about the credibility of coddled young white
  journalists. Today, Glass has a novel out based on his
  experiences, and Hollywood is set to release a film about him.
  He was featured recently on 60 Minutes. He's doing quite well,
  performing on the talk-show circuit now, and seems headed for

  I point this out for no other reason than to illuminate how
  American racism can be amazingly selective in its memory and
  lessons. Keep up the good fight, and Go Bears.


  Neil Henry is a professor of journalism at the University of
  California at Berkeley and the author of Pearl's Secret: A
  Black Man's Search for His White Family (University of
  California Press, 2001). He was a staff writer for The
  Washington Post from 1977 to 1992.


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