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Thursday, February 16, 2006

10 reasons why blacks avoid journalism

Following up on our recent posts about blacks in journalism at Columbia University and beyond:

There are many reasons I can think of why black students might be underrepresented in the managing boards of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Here is a list of possible causes, meant to be exhaustive rather than accurate.

  1. The porportion of blacks within ivy league colleges who are very smart is lower than the porportion of whites who are very smart, whether because of nature or nurture. (I'm not sure if this is true, but it is often assumed.) For instance, a higher porportion of black students are in the remedial Logic & Rhetoric class (Columbia's freshman-year writing course) than white students. Black students benefit from affirmative action and just aren't as likely to be good writers, or to be confident in their writing abilities.
  2. Black students are disporportionately likely to be athletic recruits, and on average athletes in colleges perform below average academically. (Though on the other hand, white students are disporportionately likely to be legacies, who also perform below average.)
  3. No.s 1 and 2 both lead to the same conclusion: the objectively best writers on campus are white (and Asian), and so there's really no way except for explicit affirmative action that blacks would make up a representative porportion of members of managing boards of campus newspapers.
  4. Black students are not culturally drawn to journalism because there is no prominent black myth of the crusading journalist with rolled-up sleeves sending in his latest missive that will shake the thinking world. Without that vision, who wants to work their ass off for little money like most journalists do?
  5. Black students are not culturally drawn to journalism because there are just other things blacks like to work on more. You don't see hand-wringing about the lack of white representation in the hip-hop club, or in ethnic studies activism.
  6. Black students, for cultural and economic reasons, tend to view school more as preparation for a career than white students do, and less as a time for intellectual exploration. The last time I saw numbers on Columbia's departments (around 1998), black students were overrepresented in high income-generating majors like economics, computer science and biology/pre-medicine, and underrepresented in English, philosophy, classics and sociology.
  7. Most people aren't interested in spending lots of time in a place where there aren't already people who they know, or at least people of a type they are already frequently friends with. It's not that a black writer would loathe being "the black guy at the Spectator", but that becoming "the black guy at the Spectator" requires a more willful decision on his part than a white counterpart must make, because of the likelihood of being lonely, attracting attention and having the burden of representing others.

    (This kind of claim is made often and is hard for me to truly understand. But living in the nation of Georgia now and working in a building where there are 400 Georgians and perhaps 4 Americans and Brits, I can see how unlikely I would be to try to work here if I hadn't been specifically invited.)

  8. Culturally, white students, and particularly white male students, are encouraged to think that they can speak with authority on various topics, in a way that black students, and white female students, are not, especially at the young age of high school and college. White men are also encouraged to relish aggressive debate in a way that blacks and white women are both not, though of course there are differences there as well.
  9. Black students considering journalism might be asked to focus, or feel they would need to focus, on topics of race, poverty, and local government, which become tedious quickly.
  10. Perhaps the case is not that black students are not represented in the Spectator's managing boards, so much as that a certain segment of white intellectuals, many (like me) Jewish, are. White students are a heterogeneous group, and there are many white students who are interested in student government, or involved in various clubs, or not really involved in any official extracurriculars, but who are simply not interested in journalism and wouldn't be good at it. These white students are also poorly represented, but is that a problem?
With all that said, I can sympathize with former Spectator Editor-in-Chief Mike Mirer, who says there just weren't many black writers interested in journalism. The fact that an institution like the Spectator is more or less a meritocracy--and certainly, I assume, any outstanding editor can make it to the managing board--is what makes the absence of blacks in leadership positions interesting. It's a stand-in for our opinions about the nation itself as a meritocracy, where anyone can succeed with lots of drive and competence, but the system doesn't succeed in evening things out for those in the middle.

(Also in Spectator-related news, the requisite annual article about "Miss Dee", Columbia's eccentric essay-helping fixture, is in the current issue.)


Blogger mifaha on Thu Feb 16, 11:37:00 AM:
Ben, I think the implication in your third point that only the best writers at Columbia (and Barnard) work at and become editors at the Spectator is false. I don't think that was true when I was a Managing Editor at the Spec, and now as a professional journalist, I don't think that is true at most newspapers.
Journalism does not necessarily attract people who love and excel at writing -- on the contrary, the time and form constraints of journalism discourage many excellent writers.
Blogger Alice on Thu Feb 16, 10:06:00 PM:
It's worth noting that writing isn't the only way to contribute to Spectator. The current editor-in-chief was the production editor last year.

I had forgotten about this 2004 staff editorial re: race relations at Columbia, but wow:

"But in their efforts to achieve a more racially whole university, this week's protesters should consider that Columbia is probably among the least racist campuses in America. … We're glad students' racism sensors are on a hair trigger—-this country's racial past is abominable, and we want to explode slavery's legacy with all speed. But in students' zeal for a more perfect university, they should remember that Columbia is more perfect than most."
Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 17, 06:21:00 AM:
Miriam, I think you're right.

And let me distance myself from my own writing by saying that I don't think the reasons I listed are true, just that they are possible explanations people might think.