Civil Liberties

Race Card Stud

Facing up to the race issue in the Jayson Blair debate


Even in this age of global crises, wars, and terrorist threats, social issues in America, particularly those related to divisions along the lines of race, gender, and other group identities, are never too far from the surface. Claims and counterclaims fly back and forth—of discrimination and prejudice on one side, of political correctness and a culture of victimhood on the other. Race is a particularly explosive subject: It has to do, after all, with America's original sin, an indelible stain on the history of a country dedicated to the ideals of freedom and equality.

In recent days, issues of race have become the focus of heated debate in the sorry saga of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter exposed as a serial plagiarizer and fabricator. The revelation that repeated complaints about Blair's shoddy work went unheeded by senior editors led to questions about whether this scandal is the product of diversity run amok—of favoritism toward a promising young reporter who happened to be black. While the Times initially insisted that diversity had nothing to do with it, executive editor Howell Raines later conceded that his belief in "aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities" had probably led him to give Blair "one chance too many."

To critics of racial preferences—including black commentators such as John McWhorter, author of the controversial 2000 book, Losing the Race, and the recently published collection of essays, Authentically Black—the Blair affair is a vindication. It's a "slam-dunk case," McWhorter says: "The Times values black writers more for their contribution to a headcount than for whether they are truly top-quality reporters, and for all of Raines' good intentions, the result is as dehumanizing as good old-fashioned racism was."

Defenders of affirmative action policies bristle at the charge, pointing to white journalistic frauds such as The New Republic's Stephen Glass. But that misses the point: No one says that Blair lied and plagiarized because he is black, only that an obsession with diversity may have helped him get away with it. Glass was promptly investigated and fired after the first alarm signals; Blair got promoted despite an editor's memo urging his dismissal.

Yet some go so far as to suggest that even to discuss the race factor in this fiasco is racist. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert refers to those who have raised this issue as "the folks who delight in attacking anything black, or anything designed to help blacks." Ominously, he adds, "While these agitators won't admit it, the nasty subtext to their attack is that there is something inherently wrong with blacks."

This kind of inflammatory rhetoric is harmful in several ways. Often, it shuts down frank discussion of race-related issues, just as cries of sexism and misogyny have often shut down debate of gender issues; it's difficult, after all, to defend oneself against charges of hidden bigotry. Is anyone really helped when such discussion is suppressed? It's tragic that right now, many minority journalists of impeccable professionalism feel they've been put on the spot by the focus on the racial angle in the Blair story.

But even if no one had openly raised this issue, it would have remained a "subtext" in the discussion—an elephant in the newsroom, so to speak, perhaps looming even larger than it does now. Many black reporters would have still found themselves wondering if they were perceived as somehow tarnished by Blair's sins, as having received extra breaks due to race. When the conversation is brought out into the open, allegations of racial favoritism can be evaluated and weighed against nonracial factors such as office politics. The rhetoric of victimhood also allows unscrupulous individuals to play the race card as a cover for their misdeeds. Blair, apparently, has joined these ranks: In an interview in the New York Observer mocking the editors he deceived, he portrays himself as a victim of racism.

Racism has a terrible history in American culture, and few would deny that it still exists in many strata of society. As a result, there is a widespread attitude that to challenge or dismiss specific claims of racism is insensitive if not downright dangerous. Even blacks who stray from the party line are often accused of either unwittingly playing into the hands of racists or consciously trying to please their white "masters." Issues such as affirmative action have many complicated layers, and both sides have valid arguments. But we should be able to discuss these issues without being browbeaten by charges of bigotry. The best way to overcome racial antagonism is to lay all the cards on the table.