George on Georgia – Rooms So WhiteGeorge Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.
I am used to being the only Black guy in the room. But I never like it.
Context matters, of course. In a few days I’m likely to be visiting Whitinsville, Massachusetts. I grew up there. No, I did not make that name up. There have been fewer than 200 Black people in this town of about 16,000 since before the United States was a country. I know what to expect. I was That One Black Kid ™ in school in 1990 and it’s fine. This is family.
It’s an entirely different story in 2022 when I’m looking at the “about us” page of some random Buckhead marketing firm or the monochromatic guest list at a transportation conference … or the 15 honorees of Editor & Publisher’s “Editors Extraordinaire!” award a few days ago.
As the number of people in a set grows, the likelihood of all of them being from the same subset of two or more groups diminishes. When you get to a dozen or more people, the odds that all of them will be white just by random chance start to fall below five percent, a legal standard that can be used to prove discrimination. If you conservatively estimate that one out of five editors are people of color, the odds that 15 editors chosen at random would be white are roughly 28 to 1 against.
I write about violence in Atlanta, much of which is intimately intertwined with racial discrimination, exclusion and inequality. A third of Black Atlanta is poor because of dynamics that look like this list. Crime festers in that poverty and it is tearing this city apart. So, when a note from the National Press Club mentioned some backlash about the E&P list, I went to look myself and had a fit.
“Every single one of you should repudiate your presence on this list,” I rage-Tweeted at them. “I will ask each of you directly, and note your responses … and the diversity of your own newsrooms. Whoever put this list up should be held to account.” Then I emailed, phoned or Tweeted at every one of them.
Because, of course, I did. Plainly, I have this kind of time. And I’ve managed to make everyone uncomfortable, including myself.
Let me be clear: there are no racists in this story. Or, perhaps we’re all racists in this story.
Editor & Publisher sent out a note to subscribers and to people who get its email, calling for submissions to this honor. The magazine was looking to highlight regular working newsroom stiffs who get overlooked, folks on copy desks and night shifts who don’t get bylines for their portfolios.
That call for submissions contained an inherent flaw: publications with lots of Black, Latino, Asian and Native talent don’t tend to be subscribers to Editor & Publisher. Each of the publications making a submission did so by looking at who was visible and doing good work in their relatively tiny newsrooms, but in most of those newsrooms there are almost no people of color to choose from. E&P didn’t know all their applicants – dozens of people – and all of their selectees were white until they asked for pictures.
And that is a structural problem with little enough to do with individual bias.
Good local journalism is a labor of love. It comes from a martinet’s obsessive dedication to civic duty. Once it was a middle-class profession. Today it is a luxury practiced by those with a monk’s habits or a second earner in the household. The labor department projects editorial employment will decrease by seven percent over the next decade.
Some superstars emerge from the field, but most editors work far below their value. Advertising revenue diminishes every year, making it hard to offer competitive salaries. Excellent journalists publishing local news usually have to be excellent businesspeople just to survive. Everyone else working as a journalist has a Plan B in the desk where we used to hide a flask.
While revenue shrinks, the industry agonizes over a painfully obvious demographic problem. About 45 percent of the professional workforce under 40 is nonwhite. More than half of college-age and younger Americans are nonwhite. But the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, as are its editors and the authors with book deals.
For example, in 2020, the New York Times looked at the book publishing industry in light of industry pledges to diversify. Of more than 7,000 fiction books published recently where the Times could ascertain the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white authors.
At most of the small publishers whose staff were selected for this award, I suspect they’ll hire anyone qualified who walks through the door and is willing to take the lousy pay. But young writers of color with college debt and no familial wealth to fall back on can’t afford to work there. Either they get a job in a big newsroom with a real paycheck, or they go into public relations and stifle their martinet instincts.
Or, perhaps, they start something they can own instead of relying on the patronage of a publisher who may have inherited his or her grandfather’s small-town paper in a place their own grandfather probably couldn’t sleep in safely. The prospect of being the only Black kid in the room isn’t fun.
I write for Decaturish because I believe in local journalism offered without fear or favor, and so does my editor. We’re both perfectly aware that Decaturish can’t afford to hire me as a full-time employee. The publication’s Black writers are contributors. But I make enough money as a freelancer to make whatever decisions I like about who publishes my work. If I wanted to be in a big-city newsroom, I would be. If I were financially rational, I would have marched my MBA resume into working as a banker somewhere.
If you’re an Editor & Publisher reader, none of this is mysterious to you.
This is what systemic racism looks like. The individual actions of just about everyone who made decisions about whom to hire, whom to promote into an editorial role, whom to nominate and whom to select from the nominees were (probably) without obvious racist intent. But the result is clearly biased, infected by the way an unjust world shapes the industry.
The question to ask is what people should do about it.
This award presents an interesting case. We can ask how well-meaning, progressive, civically minded journalists who are also the beneficiaries of systemic racism should act in response to a plain example. If the response to that is “well, I did nothing wrong. Why should I suffer?” then we have to accept that white people can displace Black people of equal merit without penalty.
But when we then ask for extra outreach and resources to be directed toward journalists of color, we suddenly endure attacks on “affirmative action” and calls to avoid antiwhite racial bias.
I asked each person recognized as an “Editor Extraordinaire” if they wanted to remain associated with the award, given the outcome. Only a few answered.
“[T]he result speaks volumes about shortcomings in our industry that need to be addressed,” said Kevin McKenna, deputy business editor at the New York Times. “I have written to E&P to say so. Do I want to be part of a sea of white faces? No. Do I want to be part of a profession that reflects and represents all communities in this country, and to help advance that goal? Absolutely.”
“We’ll have to keep up with them to see what measures they take and whether they’re willing to continue to adjust them as needed,” said Lisa Reider, managing editor of the Shawangunk Journal. ”Evolution doesn’t happen unless we put in the work. At the same time, I, personally, am so grateful for the kind words that my publisher sent in for the nomination. It was something so unexpected but that she knew I needed in that time. I don’t want to erase her sincere act of kindness by denouncing the nomination. I plan to take her words with me as a reminder that there are truly good people in this world.”
The folks at the Santa Fe New Mexican opened by asking me if I knew a person of color who wanted to work for them. “I do have a position open for an assistant city editor, which I’d like to fill quickly, and I’d love to hire a person of color with all the right skills to further diversify our newsroom,” said Cynthia Miller, news content editor. “A Spanish speaker would be ideal. My national search is just not yielding a lot of applications.”
Miller said she was shocked and honored to win recognition, but disappointed with the racial diversity problem. “I run an awards program for the newspaper honoring volunteers, and ensuring diversity is essential,” she said. “This can be challenging when you’re relying on the community to provide a diverse pool of nominees, but not impossible. … I would not ask Editor & Publisher to rescind my award, and here’s why: I think that would be a slap in the face to Henry Lopez, the colleague and friend, a person of color, who nominated me with the best of intentions.”
She asked me if I would nominate an editor of color for the next round. I think I’m obligated to at this point: I don’t write about problems that I’m unwilling to fix. There will be a Black person in the room next year.
– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.
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