A backlash running ahead of schedule

Did a reformed black criminal get kid-glove treatment from the Washington Post? Not exactly

Share
Related Topics
A row has developed between the Washington Post and the New Republic over an article run by the latter in its latest issue. The theme of the article, by a young journalist called Ruth Shalit, is the alleged "rising tide of racial prejudice washing over America's newsrooms", much of which, according to Shalit, "seems to be caused less by old-fashioned bigotry than by a sort of post-affirmative action racism".

In other words, if white male newsmen are angry today, it is not because they are racist in the old sense (not wanting to share space with blacks) but in a new post-affirmative action sense (not wanting to share space with blacks). The old bigotry was based on a sense of racial superiority. The new sense of white male hurt comes from ... comes from a feeling that inferior black journalists are being promoted over the heads of superior white ones.

The allegation is that the Washington Post is so keen on "diversification" (the attempt gradually to make the ethnic make-up of the staff reflect that of the society from which they are drawn) that it falls over itself to employ people who are just not up to the job, and to promote blacks to management when they should be left on the newsdesk. This is the injustice behind the "affirmative action backlash".

Shalit's article runs to 13 pages, and on its third page contains a distortion of truth so striking that one feels no confidence about any of the rest. Shalit comes to the case of Nathan McCall, the author of an autobiography published last year, Makes Me Wanna Holler. She writes: "In 1987, when the Post tried to hire McCall from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, editors at the paper inquired about a three-year gap in his resume. He told them he had spent time travelling and `finding himself'. In fact, he had been serving a prison sentence for holding up a McDonald's at gunpoint. Post editors upbraided him for being less than honest but hired him anyway." And she calls this "kid-glove treatment".

Shalit has obviously read McCall's book, because she quotes from it, and anyway it is central to what she is writing about. So she knows that McCall did not get kid-glove treatment. He was approached by the Post and interviewed, and asked about the three-year gap in his CV. The white staffers believed his story about having dropped out. The black assistant managing editor, Milton Coleman, did not. He did some research, found out the truth and confronted McCall with it. McCall at once withdrew his application for the job.

Coleman, who comes across in McCall's account as being absolutely vigilant and firm in his dealings, is also an understanding man. He recognises that here is a guy from a working-class background who has a criminal past but who has, since prison, graduated with honours from journalism school and held down staff jobs on two newspapers. He has six years of work experience and something to show for it.

So Coleman gives McCall the following advice: "At some point, you're going to have to realise that although you have been to prison, you have since built a track record in the work world. You don't have to spend the rest of your life hiding past mistakes. You can now trust your track record, tell the truth, and put the past behind you."

This question of whether a black criminal with a ghetto mentality can indeed put the past behind him is the source of the drama of McCall's autobiography, which makes disturbing reading, beginning with an account of him and his gang beating up a white kid who has wandered by mistake into the neighbourhood, and passing through a life of violence to a 12- year prison sentence.

Before his first parole board, a quarter of the way into his sentence, McCall applies to, and is offered a scholarship by, the journalism department at Norfolk State University. Graduating with honours, he joins the Virginia Pilot-Ledger Star, where the management knows about his past, but when he moves on to Atlanta he is accepted without a CV. That is why he feels he may be able to shake off his record. Hence the Washington Post incident.

But afterwards McCall takes Milton Coleman's advice to heart. By extraordinary coincidence, he is at a seminar on the hiring of minority journalists when he hears his own case being discussed by a Washington Post staffer, with what he takes to be the implication that the reason why it is difficult to hire blacks is that so many of them have criminal records. McCall confronts the speaker and later tells his fellow students that his was the case under discussion. Further emboldened, he goes to his editor in Atlanta, Bill Kovach, and volunteers the information that he he has served time for armed robbery.

"Is that all?" says Kovach.

"Yes."

"Is anybody giving you shit about it?"

"No."

"If anybody gives you shit about it, let me know."

Some time after this exemplary exchange, the Washington Post invites McCall back for another set of interviews, culminating in an encounter with Ben Bradlee, the editor, who asks him whether Kovach had known about his record, and what his reaction had been. By now, McCall can truthfully say that Kovach had known and not cared. The upshot is that McCall is hired.

So now, where's the scandal? Where's the liberal kid-glove treatment? The Washington Post turns a guy down for one job, after he lies in an interview, but gives him a second chance once he has come clean. They are head-hunting black journalists, because they are a newspaper serving, among other constituencies, an inner city that is 85 per cent black, and because they are concerned to mirror the broader society they also serve. One might mention that in 1978, at the time McCall was in prison, black reporters constituted 4 per cent of the reporters on white dailies. By 1993 this had risen, nationally, only to 4.3 per cent. So the post-affirmative action backlash is running rather ahead of schedule.

But that's the thing about this kind of backlash. It presents itself as a novelty, a response to some new set of circumstances. In fact, it is just the same old warmed-up racism posturing, in this case, as investigative journalism in the New Republic.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 25th Awards Gala on 11 November 2013 in Washington  

Bill Cosby: Isn’t it obvious why his accusers have stayed silent up until now?

Grace Dent
 

Our political landscape is not changing anywhere near as much as we assume it is

Steve Richards
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible