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A No-Win Game of Wannabe

Until they mess up, people like Jayson Blair aren't even seen as 'black.'

May 30, 2003|Leon E. Wynter | Leon E. Wynter is author of "American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business & The End of White America" (Crown, 2002).

Let's skip saying that Jayson Blair doesn't represent me or any other African American working journalist any more than, say, disgraced stock analyst Jack Grubman represents the truth about all white men on Wall Street.

Blair's mug shot now hangs with former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's in the Black Professionals Hall of Shame, journalism division, but they are not professional black America. They just played black professionals on a vicious episodic reality TV show, "I Wannabe a Fair-Haired Boy."

I don't believe in the concept of racial authenticity, but in one important sense the Wannabes aren't even seen as "black" until they mess up. Yes, they're black, and probably proud of it. And, to an extent, they arrived in a position to deceive courtesy of affirmative action. Although it's some courtesy, by the way: I had a bachelor's from Yale, a New York University MBA, a New York Times-published essay, elite professional experience (New York commercial bank officer) and a demonstrated flair for writing when I landed an internship at the Washington Post in 1980. But because the Post internship program tries to "reflect diversity," my hiring was seen differently. It was not seen as something that came from an application listing my credentials; it came from the color of my skin.

Most black professionals learn to accept this jaundiced spotlight without career-killing bitterness, until we can find ways for our own individual personalities and talents to emerge. Wannabes, however, have elected to live outside (or ignore) the spotlight. It is not that they want to be white; they just want what everyone born white and male takes as a birthright: to be a star without limitation. Nothing wrong with that. Adoring black elders led me on to think I could grow up to be the first black president of the United States, and I'm not sure I still don't believe it. But I never thought to lie about having relatives on the Mayflower. Perhaps I should have.

I understand the Wannabes' drive to change the game.

Despite my credentials, I couldn't get promoted to the Post's mediocre business page, but the Wall Street Journal hired me to cover a national banking beat. Then again, the Journal too had a "commitment to diversity." I didn't escape the trap of affirmative action. I just received a greater benefit of doubt.

In trying to gain their own advantage, I just wish the Wannabes would avoid drinking their own Kool-Aid. That's the only explanation for believing you can get away with skipping the journalism and going straight to fiction while still in the newsroom.

I knew Janet Cooke and witnessed her tragic farce from a front-row seat at the Post. I don't know Jayson Blair, but from what I've read, as black folks they have one thing in common: a laser focus on where the power is. Cooke was the darling of the top white-men-in-charge and their favored white-boys-on-the-way-up. Blair, according to reports, was obsessed with being hip-deep in the white social networks that seem to determine success in the Times newsroom. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that either.

Affirmative action sweeps more- and less-talented and credentialed African Americans in the newsroom door, and many, despite hard and high-quality work, are never able to break its grip. We need white mentors and friends to validate our worth and our place in the newsroom family.

Journalism is a pyramid that's narrow at the top; my black friends who have made it are both masters of their craft and crafters of their masters. Just like anybody else who makes it. But, unlike Blair -- and Cooke before him -- they do it by being themselves. Not anybody's idea of "authentic" black selves, but their unique, God-given individual selves that also happen to be black.

Wannabes of any race lack the courage to trust the truth about themselves. I don't know who or what to blame for their hollowness, but rampant affirmative action is not responsible for the outcome.

As Ellis Cose wrote in Newsweek, "If race could explain Blair's rise, the Times' ranks would be filled with up-and-coming black stars."

Blair rose by the brown of his nose, not his skin. That's one time-tested way to dim that jaundiced spotlight. But every time a Wannabe stumbles into infamy it just shines brighter on the rest of us. We need to smash that spotlight and be done with it.

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