When diversity is only skin-deep
GEORGE W. Bush was scourged for giving a speech in 2000 at Bob Jones University, an institution that used to ban interracial dating. Trent Lott was compelled to resign as Senate majority leader in 2002 after he toasted Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 campaign for president.
Given that recent history, no presidential candidate would even think of appearing before any association organized on the basis of race, right? Republican and Democrat alike would shun any group whose members demanded preferential treatment for those of their own skin color, right? If a candidate did agree to address such an audience, it would only be for purposes of effecting a "Sister Souljah moment" -- i.e., of making it clear that he emphatically rejected their racialist mindset. Right?
Last week, both Bush and John Kerry appeared before the "Unity: Journalists of Color" convention in Washington, D.C. Unity is an amalgam of four racial/ethnic organizations -- the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian-American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists -- and it exists primarily to bleat about the lack of "diversity" in the media.
The overriding theme at Unity conventions is always the same: White people have too many jobs, especially the best jobs, in journalism. On the eve of last week's conference, it trotted out a study showing that "only" 10.5 percent of reporters, editors, and columnists in the Washington press corps are nonwhite. This it denounced as an "absymal lack of diversity," intolerable in a nation with a nonwhite population of 30 percent.
A media outlet with no minorities in its D.C. bureau is guilty of "dishonest journalism," fumed Unity's president, Ernest Sotomayor, "because it . . . means the media company is satisfied with providing its readers or audience a skewed view of the news."
But the argument is entirely illogical. Why should the Washington press corps, or any other occupational subgroup, be expected to exactly match the racial composition of the nation? Surely the relevant comparison is not to the percentage of nonwhites in America, but to the percentage of nonwhites in journalism. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minorities account for 12.5 percent of journalists working for daily newspapers. So why is it "abysmal" that a comparable proportion of journalists in those papers' Washington bureaus are minorities as well?
And just how does the race of reporters and editors determine whether they produce "a skewed view of the news?"
Unity claims that "journalists of color bring different and necessary perspectives to their work." Where is the evidence to prove it? Would two graduates of journalism school, both of them the product of (say) a suburban, middle-class upbringing, report a Senate hearing or a presidential press conference differently just because one of them is Scandinavian-American and the other is Japanese-American? The notion that race is a proxy for thought and belief is as odious as the Nuremberg Laws and South Africa's former Racial Classification Law and has no more business in American journalism than they do.
It would be nice to report that Bush and Kerry used their time at the Unity podium to condemn the organization's obsession with skin color, and to remind the journalists in the room that true diversity, the only diversity worth fighting for, is intellectual diversity: the diversity of minds.
But there was no "Sister Souljah moment" last week. Instead, Bush and Kerry pandered shamelessly, telling Unity's racialists exactly what they wanted to hear.
"I will do my part to bring more diversity into the media," Kerry assured them. "As president, I will expand opportunities for people of color in the media by appointing FCC commissioners committed to enforcing equal employment and ensuring that small minority-owned broadcasters are not consolidated into extinction."
Bush spoke the next day. "You believe that there ought to be diversity in the newsroom," he said. "I understand that. You believe that there ought to be diversity on the editorial pages of America. I agree. You believe that there ought to be diversity behind that managing editor's desk. I agree with that too."
Neither candidate rose to the occasion. What the convention should have been told is that it is neither moral nor progressive to view the world through a racial prism. Unity's "journalists of color" should have heard the blunt message that journalism does not need more reporters and editors of color. It doesn't need more white journalists, either. What it needs are men and women of talent and integrity -- adults who have no interest in a "diversity" that is merely skin-deep. Bob Jones University has abandoned its benighted fixation with color. It's time American journalism followed suit.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.