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Judith Miller's race: the unasked question

KA Dilday
25 October 2005

My mandate for this column is to write about global affairs, but I was asked gently by my editor if I might like to say anything about black history month (October in Britain, February in the United States) and I found that in fact I had a lot to say, much of it inspired by the dialogue in the American press about the reporting of the Iraq war and the ramifications of it at the New York Times where I worked for the past two years.

Yet it seems best to begin at the beginning, because my associations with black history month stretch back to one of the legendary institutions of the civil-rights movement in America.

I think, and I can't quite remember as my childhood is a blur, that we did special things for black history month when I was a kindergarten student at Jackson State University’s Early Childhood Education Center in Mississippi. The university had fostered many of the participants in the civil-rights movement and in the 1970s, it would have been a point of pride to introduce the youngest students on the campus to the many and varied accomplishments of their ancestors. Yet I am certain that we did nothing at the Episcopal school that I attended for the twelve subsequent years of my primary education. What I do remember is hiding in the bathroom when we covered slavery in social studies in third grade. And perhaps that is the lesson that I needed to learn and certainly have: if any among us should have been hiding their head in shame at the actions of their ancestors, it was my white 8-year old classmates.

Now when I think of black history month, I think of advertisements by huge corporations like McDonald’s and Kraft, advertisements that list the credits of an accomplished black person like George Washington Carver or Rosa Parks, whose life this week has been celebrated as her death at the age of 92 has been mourned. I suppose it’s nice for children who may not learn of such people at school, but if, by now, children are not taught such things in American schools than something deeply serious is wrong and it cannot be fixed in one-twelfth of a year.

It seems that black history month’s main purpose is to serve as a protective cloak for companies and schools – something they can dress themselves in for a brief while and then take out when needed for the rest of the year, as they spend huge sums of money on brightly coloured advertisements and commercials narrated in basso profundo. It’s a chance to do something showy and ultimately superficial to promote the veneer of equality.

I think about this as Britain is completing its own black history month. Until this year, I wasn’t aware that Britain had one and during several internet forays in the last few weeks, I could find little mention of the occasion. Blacks are a much smaller percentage of the population in Britain, only about 2% as compared to 13% in America. Nor is the black British community in Britain as cohesive as the one in the United States. America, with its pervasive history of slavery, has a discrete completely American black community, one that has difficulty tracing its roots farther than the American south.

I’ve been told that most blacks in Britain still think of themselves as part of their original country or region, Jamaican or Caribbean, Ghanaian or west African: and that within these communities the concept of “black Britain” is something fairly new and slightly suspect. I can only guess that black Britain is at an earlier stage of developing a cohesive community, one that acts as a political and social force and references a common black British history.

For better or worse – and often it is worse as the black community can be very harsh to those who breach the dictated behaviour – blacks in America have a political and social force and a canonical history, even though it is a dynamic one and every publishing season sees books that rework and re-examine it. But that is largely a scholarly pursuit as what most American blacks are more interested in is what WEB Du Bois (in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk) called the “color line”. That line would be the leitmotif of the 20th century he said. In the 21st century that line still exists – it’s simply more shadowy, difficult to see until one tries to cross it and is strangled as it pulls tight.

The way it works

I think about this as I read from afar the troubles at my former employer, the New York Times. Judith Miller, a once favoured reporter is under fire for dissimulation and flawed reporting, and her editors are being criticised for their lassitude in permitting these. And I think of a few years earlier when newspaper was under fire for the dishonesty and flawed reporting of Jayson Blair, and the evasion and indulgence of certain editors. And I think of how many times race was mentioned back then; the whispered story was that he was promoted because of an implied affirmative action program and that he was indulged because he was black.

I keep waiting for someone to suggest that Judith Miller was indulged because she was white. But race is only the focus of the story when someone is black or Asian. Situations like this are the reason that most blacks in America don’t really care about what a company like the New York Times might do for black history month. I think that most care more about the colour line that is always drawn around someone who is black. Jayson Blair was a disaster and he should have been fired; or, perhaps, he should have been checked before he got to the point where he needed to be fired. But Judith Miller also had a complicated reputation at the New York Times. So I wonder, why is Jayson Blair’s story about race, and Miller’s simply about a reporter run amok?

I also can’t be bothered to care about black history month when I read things like the incredibly oblivious column by Timothy Noah on the online magazine Slate (for which I have written) recounting the story of how he was not hired by the New York Times for a position because the slot was reserved for a member of a racial minority. He was most offended because he was a known quantity to the editors of the NYT, they knew he would be a good hire, yet they still chose to go looking for a qualified person from a racial minority.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Timothy Noah that all of those who are “known quantities” tend to be white – that most of the future gatekeepers, from the day they form their allegiances at elite colleges, are drawn to those most like them both in their professional and personal lives, people who share their background and have similar emotional crises; and that hiring editors are no different.

I gather that it is the same or perhaps worse in Britain with its entrenched class system. Family connections, unpaid internships, collegial connections tend to run along lines of race and class. If editors were not forced to look outside of their social circle then the old-boy network would have an even stronger hold than it does now. And when they do look outside they have made a conscious decision to aggressively engage in professional charity, and thus hope to find someone who fits the template of “poor but scrappy”. It is a theme that the newspapers and magazines never tire of and it happens in Britain as well, although perhaps with a touch more subtlety.

I have a friend who is a newspaper reporter, a black Briton. He had applied for a fellowship for foreign journalists at an American newspaper and was shocked when the editor – seeking his chance to engage in professional altruism – quizzed him about his background. He kept probing for the familiar narrative: the hardscrabble background, the pulling oneself up from one’s bootstrings. My friend was unwilling to hand him that narrative (whether it was his background or not is unimportant); he thought his work should stand on its own. And in fact he was shocked by the blatant need for him to fit into that model.

“But doesn’t that happen in Britain?” I asked. “Not as blatantly,” he replied. I recounted the story to the editor of a major British newspaper, who agreed: “Yes, they wouldn’t ask directly in Britain, but they’d spend the rest of their lives trying to figure it out.”

I’m not sure what this all says. Race is a funny thing and at times it seems to fall away in my life, since if one is black or brown and moving in an elite world of education or perhaps wealth, those who are similar are much rarer; and perhaps by necessity, the commonalities must then become things other than race: a like mind, a like morality, a like sense of humour, a shared experience. But then of course it always comes rushing back. I am aware that like many people of colour, I want people to take notice of race when it suits me and not when it doesn’t, and that we can’t have it both ways.

But I do know that these black history months are merely convenient for the massive institutions that want to create the semblance of caring about the complications of being a minority yet avoid doing the real work. My hunch is that if black history month were to disappear on either side of the Atlantic, it would not be blacks but the corporations and institutions embracing it – deprived of their annual opportunity to display a patina of concern – that would be most bereft.

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