America's leading black journalists seem to be in denial about what affirmative action means.
ABC's Michel Martin says the fixation with Jayson Blair is little more than "race baiting" for the sake of selling newspapers and magazines. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert declares, "Listen up: the race issue in this case is as bogus as some of Jayson Blair's reporting."
Two days after The New York Times issued its massive mea culpa on l'affaire Blair, Terry Neal, an online columnist for The Washington Post, declared that "diversity has nothing to do" with Blair's mistakes. The next day, Courtland Milloy, another Post columnist asserted that those who seek to use the Blair case as an excuse to discuss affirmative action and race-based hiring have "shortcomings far more pathological than those displayed by Blair."
Forgive me, but doesn't all this sounds a bit desperate? With the noteworthy exceptions of Ellis Cose of Newsweek and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, it seems that a disturbingly high percentage of prominent liberal black journalists have been unwilling to entertain the idea that race is a major issue here (Cose and Page downplay the race angle, but they give it a fair hearing).
After all, Howell Raines, the executive editor of the Times, has admitted that he gave Blair "one chance too many" because of his race. I don't think affirmative action alone explains the Blair fiasco, but it's hard to deny it was a major factor when even Raines says it was.
But enough about Blair, what I find interesting, and in a sense healthy, is the defensiveness of America's best black journalists. Almost all of them -and many white liberal journalists, too -make the argument that it's unfair to single out black journalists. Herbert quotes one black reporter who says, "After hundreds of years in America, we are still on probation."
Many of them complain that there are "affirmative action" programs for women in "short skirts" -according to Michel Martin -or for members of the old boy network or for relatives. They ask: Isn't it unfair to allow these preferences but not allow them for blacks?
It's a fine debating point, but it skips over a major problem. We don't think those preferences are great, either. Kids who get into Harvard because their father bought a library are generally sneered at. They're on probation, too. The same thing is true in the workplace. We tend to look down on nepotism.
I confess that when I got high school and college internships partly through family connections, I always felt like I had to prove myself more than the next guy. I suspect the same thing is true for most women who get hired for their looks. Regardless, it's an odd argument to say that racial preferences are good because they're no worse than other preferences we generally think are bad.
Social connections and the so-called old boy network are more complicated phenomena. Recommendations from trusted friends and peers are still the most reliable form of reference. They're also the most corrupting. If I called you out of the blue and said, "I'll give you $1,000 to hire my idiot son," you'd refuse. If you and I were lifelong friends and I asked you to give my son a job, you very well might do it.
But what's more relevant is the fact that the old boy network is just as unfair to whites as it is to blacks or anybody else "locked out" of the system. I know many white people who've missed out on a job or a slot at a school because they didn't have the right connections. Not one of them has ever said, "Well, at least another white guy got the job." Only people caught up in the poisonous doctrine of group rights think that the old boy network benefits a group rather than a paltry number of specific individuals.
Terry Neal asks, "Why is it that when white reporters commit similar acts of outrageous fraud, no one in the establishment media launches breathy social commentaries about the continued existence of white privilege and entitlement in the newsroom?"
The answer is as simple as the question is misleading: The whites in question weren't hired because they were white. Jayson Blair was hired because he's black, through an internship program designed to give special breaks for minorities. If Blair had been hired and promoted because he was Howell Raines' nephew or because his dad went to college with Raines -or if Blair was a woman in a short skirt! - Raines would have been fired.
Defenders of racial preferences can't have it both ways. They can't demand that blacks get special breaks and simultaneously strike a pose of outrage when those blacks are treated like they're on "probation." If you think that's unfair, don't give blacks unfair advantages.