May 30, 2003
White privelege and Jayson Blair

John Leo wrote a column last week which linked Jayson Blair's journalistic transgressions with diversity programs, and opined that individual merit and common standards should be the basis of hiring or acceptance. Predictably, Seattle's liberals rushed to pile on to Leo, accusing him of racism and bias. One of the letters, however, caught my eye, and prompted me to write a bit more about the issue.

After going through a swipe against the corrupt white CEO's in the news, followed by the de rigeur "Jayson Blair is a fine writer" blather (which is true, but totally misses the point of Leo's column), the letter writer states that whites have privileges which benefit them in our culture: eight times the equity, control of most of the capital, centuries of clubs, fraternities, educated families, and the "white" way in which this society functions. This is where he is off-base. *Some* whites have lots of equity, *some* whites control most of the capital, *some* whites have ancestors who belonged to powerful and influential organizations. These alleged benefits have no impact on those who do not share these attributes. The last enumerated benefit (the "white" way in which this society functions) is baffling, and strikes me as racist. It needs to be explained, because it is simultaneously condescending towards minorities and exceptionally insulting towards whites.

The writer appears to believe that circumstances at birth are the strongest influence on one's future life. If that is the case, how is it that 63 percent of the 2001 Forbes 400 (their annual ranking of the richest Americans) are described as "self-made"? Oh, to be sure, there are those who have inherited their wealth (Sam Walton's wife and children, the DuPont family, the Rockefellers and the Johnson & Johnson heirs for example), but American society isn't a stratified society as in India; we don't have the rigid caste system where one's birth station defines their existence. If it were so, sharecropper's daughter Oprah Winfrey would not be one of the 400 wealthiest people in America, and greeting card salesman H. Ross Perot would not be number 47. Dirt poor Marcus Bernard and Arthur Blank would not have founded Home Depot, and they would not be the 60th and the 136th richest Americans. Univeristy of Texas dropout Michael Dell certainly would not be the 11th wealthiest American, with a personal fortune in excess of $11 billion.

In relation to Jayson Blair, the whites against which he was competing were not the products of wealth and privelege. Reporters are generally *not* from wealthy families; columnists and publishers are often a different story, but Blair was a reporter. The white co-workers who were passed over in order to promote Blair were simply victims of discrimination; they accrued none of the alleged benefits of being white, but also failed to accrue points for being a member of a racial minority. Where is the benefit to anyone other than to Jayson Blair?

As the writer pointed out, Jayson Blair was a skilled writer. That is beside the point. It is not why he was promoted rapidly, and it is not why the management ignored his past bouts of falsified reporting (dating back to his days as a college reporter). When similar misdeeds are committed by white reporters, they are swiftly canned. Mike Bragg is a case in point. Does anyone seriously think that if Jayson Blair had been white, he would have survived as long as he did in the politicized environment of the Times newsroom?

posted on May 30, 2003 10:33 AM


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