A backlash running ahead of schedule

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

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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.

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