My colleague Jack Shafer did a fine job yesterday describing the absurd ruckus Goldberg caused at the Washington Post merely by asserting to Harry Jaffe in Washingtonian magazine that, some years ago, an editor at the Post told him he’d been turned down for a job because the slot was reserved for a Hispanic. Goldberg did not gripe about this outcome; he is now the New Yorker’s bureau chief in Washington, so it would be most unattractive for him to do so. But Goldberg’s observation was misread as griping by David Nakamura, a Post staffer, and then by the two top editors at the Post, who rushed to denounce Goldberg before they read the Washingtonian piece. They mostly backed off when the facts of the case were presented to them, but Executive Editor Len Downie continued to insist, “We do not designate slots for minorities.”
Well, I don’t know what they do at the Washington Post. But I had almost exactly the same experience Goldberg described in the late 1980s when I applied for a job at the New York Times. Like Goldberg, I’d worked at the Times before, and was therefore a known quantity. Like Goldberg, I was told that I wouldn’t get a job—not right away, anyway—because the paper was bent on hiring some minority candidates before it hired the next white male. Like Goldberg, I am not inclined to gripe about this, because I ended up following another route and today enjoy success in my chosen field. And, like Goldberg, I have no reason to believe that the newspaper that chose not to hire me ended up sacrificing quality on the altar of racial balance. For all I know, the minority reporter the Times hired in my stead (if they did hire a minority) was infinitely more gifted than I. (A low bar, many of my readers will surely rush to observe in the Fray.)
I suppose it’s conceivable that a white male who’d approached the Times without my Harvard College degree, or with less talent, or less confidence, or a less-privileged background in general, would have been more inclined to take this rejection to heart and become a coal miner instead. But life doesn’t usually work that way. Our fortunes tend not to hinge on one single failure; they hinge on a series of tests, many requiring luck, many requiring cunning, and some actually requiring merit. We may not get the fate we deserve, but who’s to say? This can be misread as an argument against affirmative action itself, of course. If the damage is so slight for a white male, isn’t it slight for a black male who faces the more traditional style of job discrimination? Well, no. The difference is that white males swim in a fishbowl where success is a more reasonable expectation for white males than it is for black males. It’s easier to discourage somebody who sees evidence all around that the odds are heavily against him—as remains the case today. Racial bias isn’t as severe as it used to be, but only a fool would declare it extinct.
Len Downie says, “We do not designate slots for minorities.” I don’t believe him. Maybe he has some extremely subtle and ultimately meaningless distinction in mind between reserving “slots for minorities” and being aggressive in hiring minorities. Another possible explanation is that he’s been advised that if the Post admits to anything that might be construed as racial quotas the paper might be vulnerable to reverse-discrimination lawsuits. Or perhaps he fears that any acknowledgment that quotas existed (or perhaps still exist) would signal to minority employees that they’re underqualified, and to conservatives that the Post is the Bolshie rag they’ve always claimed it to be. Neither conclusion would be fair or true.
An alternative interpretation of Goldberg’s experience, and mine, is that our prospective bosses didn’t want to hire us, but they also didn’t want to hurt our feelings, so they fibbed. To be told you’ve been turned down for a job because you’re white is to be told it isn’t really your fault. I wouldn’t recommend it as a dodge, because it’s always a bad idea to bring race into sensitive matters when race isn’t really relevant. But maybe the dodge was employed nonetheless.
What I do know is that the Times, unlike the Post, is on record saying it had racial quotas during the very period when I applied for a job there. Three or four years after the Times turned me down, the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta quoted Max Frankel, then the Times executive editor, as saying that when he assumed that position in 1986, “one of the first things I did was stop the hiring of non-blacks and set up an unofficial little quota system.” When I read these words, I was impressed by Frankel’s candor. I felt no resentment. I had a good job at the Wall Street Journal, and I believed—and still believe—that workplace diversity benefits everybody. I just wish we could all feel freer to discuss how it’s achieved.