[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED]
In a Columbia Journalism Review article, “My Life on the Race Beat,” Errin Haynes Whack writes about her career as a black Associated Press reporter and bureau chief. What I found most interesting — or rather, potentially most interesting — were two issues that were not discussed.
It is clear that the author considers herself not simply a journalist but “a black journalist, which I unapologetically consider myself to be.” One thus supposes that there must have been occasions when she felt a tension between objectively reporting on “her” community and seeing herself at least to a certain extent as a representative of it. This tension, of course, is not limited to black professionals. Partisan professionals of whatever party often find it difficult expose the warts on their own party. For example, in my discussion of EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., here, I mentioned several historians who opposed history being used in the defense of a corporation accused of sex discrimination, even if the history was accurate. “There is no way I would ever be a witness against the EEOC,” one stated unequivocally.
That tension was revealed, however, in a throwaway line in what must have been an unguarded moment. In brief reference to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Whack mentions that not all new black reporters were put on the race beat. “Many … started off working in largely white suburban neighborhoods; like other African Americans of the era, many were trying to stave off the stigma of affirmative action by proving that they could cover anything.”
That was the article’s only reference to affirmative action. It would have been more interesting if there had been more.
Obama, who graduated in 1985, says she sometimes wondered why she had been accepted into Princeton, a majority-white school, in the first place. “It was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action,” Obama writes. “You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, ‘I know why you’rehere.'” This was often “demoralizing,” Obama says, while acknowledging she “was just imagining some of it.”
“It planted a seed of doubt. Was I here merely as part of some social experiment?” she asks.
That depends on whether she would have been admitted if she were not black. Perhaps she would have; certainly many blacks at selective institutions would have been admitted even without racial preference. But since many would not, it is unfortunately reasonable for all to experience that “seed of doubt.”
Those seeds would never be planted if all applicants were evaluated without regard to race, which is what the civil rights laws required until they were twisted out of shape by the courts.