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A Closed Book : The publishing industry may talk a good multicultural game, but it still doesn't hire people of color

May 29, 1994|WALTER MOSLEY | Walter Mosley's most recent novel, "Black Betty," will be published in June. He is chairman of PEN's Open Book committee, which is seeking to create a multicultural mainstream press

For most liberal thinking people racism is easy to identify; it is negative prejudice against groups and individuals, that prejudice being based on appearances--appearances and lies.

Racists are just as easily identified from this point of view. They are often unkempt, anti-social, epithet-wielding oafs who--due to poverty, conservatism, or psychosis--hate without reason. They are shaved-skulled, swastika-bearing, red-necked . . . well, you get the picture.

Racism and racists are other in the liberal's world. They are southern or rural or, maybe, corporate. They represent the old guard, our parents' deluded generation. They read Rush Limbaugh if they read at all.

An intelligent and liberal-minded American would tell you, sadly, that racism is alive and well in this country, that the police, the conservative politicians, and the economically hard hit working classes are rife with irrational hatreds. And it isn't only the African Americans that suffer under these prejudices. Latinos, Gays, Asians, women of all races, and Native Americans are also victims.

It's a bad scene out there.

That's why we find so many of our intelligent people attracted to education and the arts, where a powerful liberal base tolerates, even promotes, difference.

All kinds and races are welcomed into the college community. Art's subject is all the world and not just the white man and his property. And literature . . . literature delves into every experience and background. Nothing is taboo in books. Writers from all backgrounds are welcomed to contribute their words, their stories.

At least in the higher world of art and education we have made strides against racism.

At least that's what everybody would like to believe. That's what I would like to believe.

But I know that it isn't true.

I know the subtle racism of colleges and schools. I know the painfully white makeup of the art world. But most of all I know how exclusively white the mainstream publishing world is.

I know that American publishing, the very bastion of liberalism, the benefactor of the First Amendment, has kept any hint of color from its halls.

This fact struck home for me a few months ago when I was honored with the task of being the keynote speaker at the Assn. of American Publishers' annual meeting in Puerto Rico. I gave my speech and stayed a few days in the luxury of the resort hotel. I came down to talk about the Information Highway and then to relax on the beach. But I also wanted to see what the CEOs of mainstream American publishing were thinking, so I attended a few seminars.

One of these seminars was presented by a demographics expert who explained that the only American growth populations at the beginning of the 21st Century will be nonwhite peoples (mainly Asian and Latino). When he said that I looked back at the crowd of some 200 publishers. These publishers ranged from mighty Random House to small college presses.

All I saw were white faces. There was only one black publisher present. There were no Latino or Asian publishers that I saw. The future of American culture was on the screen behind me but the power of that culture was tightly in the grip of Caucasian hands.

That evoked thoughts of all the white publishers I'd seen and talked to over the past five years. All the white editors and publicists and rights specialists. Almost all positions of power are held by white people in American publishing, not one of them sporting a swastika. Many publishing houses have no editors other than white ones.

Some, it is true, have their tokens. These tokens are almost always African Americans who stand out at company parties because they're the only one there (at least the only one outside of the mail room and the secretarial pool).

When I talk to publishers and editors about this problem they smile apologetically and say: "But you know, Walter, entry level positions are lowly paid and any minority who is good enough for this job can find better money elsewhere."

I try to mention that there are black, Latino and Asian publishing houses (not in the mainstream) that have advanced editors who might be persuaded to try their hand in one of the major houses. I say that there is a long tradition for American publishing houses to take potential editors (and publishers) from business and universities. I say that there are nonwhite people in America who don't have money as a bottom line and would take a lower salary to be involved with the all-important publishing industry.

They always listen to me. They always nod and open their eyes a little as if I were opening new vistas. Then they say: "We have to discuss these ideas more."

But we never do. We never do because of a passive kind of liberal racism. The kind of racism where you stick to your own kind without hating those who are different. Why hate them? You don't have to work with them. They don't have any power.

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