June 11, 2012

Last week, The Rumpus published a piece by Roxane Gay titled “Where Things Stand,” in which Gay reported that nearly 90 percent of books reviewed in The New York Times are written by whites. Gay researched the racial background of every author critiqued by the paper in 2011. She yielded predictably striking results: 31 black authors, 655 white ones. Eighty-one reviewed books in all by writers of color. “I don’t know how to solve this problem or what to do with this information,” wrote Gay, who is black. Still. “I like knowing where things stand.”

Two days after Gay’s count hit, a writer at Poynter called me, looking to commission a piece on the subject. We are both white. We first worked together several years ago, at a newspaper edited by a white man, then again at a website edited by the same white man. When we left, we both recommended each other to different white female editors, who would later hire us in newsrooms staffed with mostly white writers and editors. This is the grim reality of the mainstream journalism network. But as I navigated a series of publications helmed by white men stacked all the way to the top, the success of a white female writer like me seemed like some kind of demographic victory.

Roxane Gay: “It’s an easy out—oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing.”

Gay’s count comes on the heels of widespread media concern over the lack of representation of women in literary journalism. VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, has assessed the gender breakdown of major literary publications for two years running. In March, GOOD Magazine, where I worked until recently, published my own gender count of the bylines at publications targeting young readers. When white author Jonathan Franzen published his novel “Freedom” to fawning reviews in 2010, white author Jodi Picoult questioned the media’s outsized veneration of male writers. On NPR, white author Jennifer Weiner debated the issue with The New York Times Book Review’s white editor Sam Tanenhaus.

A similar conversation has not emerged over literary journalism’s extreme whiteness. “Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later,” Gay wrote in her post. (And in fact I never got around to executing a byline count by race at GOOD.)

This is partly a matter of logistics. Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse. The 50-50 gender ratio is easy to quantify, but the racial breakdown of the U.S. population is complex. It took Gay, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, 14 weeks to complete her research, employing a student for 16 hours a week to mine authors’ ethnic backgrounds. They couldn’t confirm the race of six authors. Gay plans to execute a similar count for the bylines of The Times’ book reviewers, when she gets the time. And that’s just one publication.

Gay’s numbers are more difficult to process in a much larger sense. While racial inequality in the United States runs deep throughout a writer’s development, from preschooler to New York Times book editor, the same can not be said for women, who make up 73 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates and likely a healthy proportion of MFA holders, too.

The whiteness of The New York Times Book Review represents the structural inequality of elite journalism stacked on the structural inequality of elite publishing stacked on the structural inequality of income and education in this country. But for women, the system is breaking down at an advanced stage of the game. When female graduates don’t end up in newsrooms, female MFA program stars don’t get book deals, or female editors are not promoted up the chain, publications can be held accountable for that problem. When writers of color are disenfranchised at every stage of the process, everyone is to blame, so no one is.

“It’s an easy out — oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing,” Gay told me over the phone. “People will always say, ‘It’s not a situational problem, it’s a historical problem.’ ” Yes, journalism’s race problem is the product of historical injustice. But it’s also the product of a busy editor’s mental pathway, which must flip quickly through its virtual Rolodex to find the first acceptable writer to turn a piece around by deadline. When that Rolodex is stocked with whites — and most of the time, it is — the byline count perpetuates itself.

White editors grow comfortable in their relationships with white writers. They read books written by white people. Writers of color look elsewhere. “I’ve heard of writers of color who do stop pitching certain organizations,” Gay says. “You start to think, ‘Why should I bother?’ ”

Gay says that her own “Benetton-like” network was formed over “a series of small steps that’s taken years.” Last year, Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus’ white editor, reached out to Gay to commission a piece on white author Blake Butler. Gay turned around and pitched an essay critiquing the way The New York Times covered the sexual assault of a young girl. She’s since written 20 more pieces for the publication. “[T]he topics [Gay] covers are ones in which The Rumpus has vast room for improvement,” an editor’s note appended to Gay’s piece last week reads. “We strive to better ourselves every day.”

Correction: This post originally said the victim of a sexual assault was black; while a New York Times report identified her as someone “whose parents are immigrants from Mexico” it offered no identification of her race.

Related: Why women don’t contribute to opinion pages as often as men & what we can do about it | National Magazine Awards to honor men this year

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