Black journalists know not to apply for `white guy jobs'

October 26, 1999|By Paul Delaney

A DECADE ago, a colleague excitedly approached me about a job opening at an important journalism organization that, finally, he said, wanted to seriously consider an African-American for the post of director.

Neither I nor any other nonwhite was interviewed or even contacted for that position. A few years later, the job opened up again; my friend called again, but this time with a little less enthusiasm in his voice.

He said I ought to apply for the post because, "We should at least force them to consider us." Needless to say, the result was the same.

With the passage of time, frustration and cynicism color the way many black journalists view our profession. There has been much progress, true, but the percentages of nonwhites in the field have been almost frozen in place for some time, with disappointed blacks leaving in droves, and many black youngsters see journalism as anathema to their ambitious career goals.

At the moment, there are several top positions at university-based journalism programs open. I don't expect to hear from my friend this time around, though, not even to lament the depressing situation. Sadly, we now find it is easier to curse the darkness: It is that kind of atmosphere.

Spate of resignations

Among the vacant positions are top spots at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford University and the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Directors at each program have announced their resignations in the past year.

In addition, journalism and communications programs at several universities are looking for leaders, including Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Maryland, College Park, where journalism dean Reese Cleghorn will retire in June. My friends are betting that none of the openings will be filled by blacks or other nonwhites. Among many black journalists, such positions are referred to as "white guy jobs."

But the sarcasm masks serious disappointment among black journalists as they watch the top positions at influential institutions pass from one white person to the next, as almost an inheritance that leaves non-family members perpetually outside the loop.

(Disclaimer and clarification: This complaint is not against the very able men who have held the top jobs. Some of them are also old friends and colleagues who have been most vocal about the need to integrate newsrooms, business departments and all areas of the profession.)

Therefore, my fire is aimed at those who are involved in selecting successors for this retiring generation of journalism leaders.

No Democracy in action

Nope, my friend won't be calling me or anybody else. So many of us -- too many, perhaps -- have given up for the time being, giving in to the harsh realities of modern American race relations.

As the 20th century winds down, it is a shame that such is the reality for veteran black journalists who have their career options curtailed by some whites' hard feelings about race, integration and affirmative action.

However, many of my friends and colleagues believe that the next generation of black journalists will have to decide the issues that will be their Bastille, for which they will storm the barricades.

Meanwhile, we'll just sit and wait and see who gets the "white guy jobs."

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

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