Ordinarily, abandoning a project that was supposed to be the capstone of one’s career and repaying a rather handsome advance to a publisher would be, at the very least, an occasion for regret. Yet I felt nothing but relief this spring when I decided to pull the plug on the book on black political leadership that I had been working on since I retired as a columnist for Time two years ago. After more than three decades of reporting and writing about race relations, I discovered that I had been rendered virtually speechless by a growing ambivalence about the only story I ever had really wanted to cover, the struggle of black Americans to liberate themselves from centuries of slavery and degradation. The debate has gotten so fractious I can’t hear myself think.
I hadn’t realized until I started the book how conflicted my view of racial issues such as affirmative action has become. When I joined Time in 1972, the racial issue was clear as a bell, the great civil rights victories of the 1960’s were still fresh in the nation’s collective memory despite the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the still smoldering fires of the long hot summers, and the backlash-inspired hostility of the Nixon administration to what remained of the black freedom movement. And I didn’t have much trouble figuring out where I stood. Like many other young African Americans who became reporters then, I felt a sense of calling toward the civil rights movement, a faith rooted in the Kerner Commission’s finding that the press could and must play a crucial role in the struggle for racial equality by exposing the true depth and horror of the second-class status white America had imposed on its black citizens. I saw myself, as one of a tiny handful of black journalists at Time, as a journalistic extension of the movement—loyal to its lofty goal of racial equality, but completely independent of the personalities who purported to lead it and thus able, even duty bound, to criticize them when necessary.
Discovering a Journalistic Mission
In this, I was following the example of the late Robert C. Maynard, who befriended me when I was a cub reporter at The Washington Post during the late 1960’s, and he was already one of the greatest black journalists of all time. Bob inspired me, and a generation of youthful black reporters who came under his spell, to believe that we were caught up in something much bigger than our individual careers, part of a continuum of journalistic freedom fighters that went back to Frederick Douglass, William Monroe Trotter, and Ida B. Wells. Heady stuff. My mission, as I came rather grandiosely to define it, was to pound away at the racial mindset of Time, which by the time I arrived had evolved from galling racial paternalism under Henry Luce to reflexive skepticism toward the movement’s increasingly militant leaders under Luce’s successors. I set out to create a journalistic space at Time in which a black journalist could write about black issues with unvarnished candor from a distinctly black point of view in a distinctly black voice that some whites and some blacks might find offensive.
It took 23 years, during which I worked my way up the ladder at Time, from junior writer to foreign and campaign correspondent to bureau chief and, ultimately, senior editor of the Nation section, which covers national affairs. In 1995, I started my column, “Dividing Line,” and promptly began pissing off people, black and white, by playing no favorites. Those who praised me for castigating Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an Uncle Tom who had enslaved himself to the Republican right wing howled with anger when I refused to endorse the Million Man March because of the lunatic opportunism and anti-Semitism of its leader, Louis Farrakhan. My editors gave me plenty of leeway, offering suggestions on topics and how I should approach them, but never imposing the magazine’s point of view. The response from readers was extraordinary, especially blacks who had never expected to encounter an unmistakably black, unapologetically militant voice like mine in the pages of an establishmentarian white publication like Time.
The only trouble was the story. The monumental clash between oppression and freedom that unfolded during the 1960’s had devolved, by the time I began columnizing, into an ethnic power struggle marked by venality and intellectual fraud. The movement, or what was left of it, had become less and less concerned with uplifting the most oppressed of African Americans, those trapped in impoverished inner cities and isolated rural backwaters, and more and more focused on exploiting their sorry plight as a rhetorical lever to pry loose concessions for those who claimed to speak in their name. There were no heroes among those who claimed to be leaders. Organizations from the NAACP (since reformed) to the National Baptist Convention that had once formed the vanguard in the struggle for equality had been turned into personal piggybanks by their leaders. Jesse Jackson fathered a child out of wedlock. Al Sharpton—well, what more need I say?
Distractions on the Racial Beat
But I’m less troubled by the personal corruption of black leadership than by its failure to address candidly the biggest challenge facing black America: the yawning academic achievement gap between African Americans and every other ethnic group in the nation. The tendency among so-called black leaders is to wish away the embarrassing fact that despite the enormous growth and unprecedented opportunities enjoyed by the African-American middle class, blacks’ SAT scores are still, by far, the lowest of any ethnic group, or blame it on alleged racial bias. There is almost no acknowledgement, by liberal black leaders, that it’s this substandard performance on standardized tests and grade point averages that makes dubious race-base admissions policies necessary at selective colleges and universities. Nor is there much recognition that conservative critics of racial preferences have a point when they claim that black students, in too many cases, are being held to a lower standard for admission than their counterparts from other ethnic groups.
There is obviously a need for new approaches and bold experimentation to improve black academic performance, yet far more intellectual energy is being wasted on the futile crusade to win reparations for slavery. Black liberal leaders are virtually unanimous in their opposition to vouchers, often phrased in sanctimonious rhetoric about preserving the public school system from people like Jackson whose children attended elitist prep schools. They seem to be more concerned with preserving their links to teacher unions and patronage-minded local school administrations than they are with repairing what goes wrong in the classroom. Trouble is that their opponents are equally hypocritical. Their alleged compassion for downtrodden black youngsters masks their real agenda of diverting tax dollars from public schools to predominantly white private academies linked to the Christian right. Meanwhile, the plight of ghetto school kids keeps getting worse.
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, this is not what I signed on for when I decided to become a journalist. And perhaps I made a mistake by becoming too personally invested in my specialty. I wanted to write about the quest for justice, not a sterile shouting match between the bankrupt remains of the civil rights movement and its equally unprincipled and grasping opponents. I’m so angry about the way the debate about race has degenerated that I can only write about it with disgust, not the dispassion that we need for a productive conversation about such a touchy subject. Race is a subject that needs lowered voices or even some benign neglect. So for now I’m keeping quiet. There’s no reason to add to the din.
Jack White, a 1977 Nieman Fellow, wrote the “Dividing Line” column for Time until he retired in 2001. He currently serves as writer-in-residence at the School of Communications at Howard University.