Though less craven, the gravity of white adulation distorts Howard French’s case all the same. Implicit in French’s focus on what is “permitted,” is a framing, a point of reference, an origin story that privileges the whims of presumably white gate-keepers above all others. Covering the force of racism in America is not something that a black writer can, of his own volition, believe to be interesting and essential. “The Race Beat” is a ghetto which white people tolerate in order to preserve those arenas that truly matter (business, technology, culture etc.) French tells the story of a black colleague who hoped to garner “some recognition” by covering “subjects that he knew white peers would find unattractive.” Those subjects were black. And the great tragedy of this colleague’s career, according to French, was that his attempts to move beyond his own people were repeatedly frustrated.
French believes that it is imperative that black writers cross “the river,” as he did, and escape the presumably provincial confines of covering race. In this, he echoes the white critics who so often say to those of us interested in black America, “Can’t you write about something other than racism?” without realizing that racism is the font of their very question, their very identity, their very world. Now, no writer—black, white or whatever—should spend time covering subjects which don’t interest them. It’s not fair to the writer and, more importantly, it’s not fair to the people being covered. But there is a segment of black writers who cover their own communities, not in hopes of garnering “recognition” from their white peers, but because they believe Harlem has as much to say to the world as Dakar, Silicon Valley, or Tokyo. The possibility of this sentiment is absent in French’s piece, and that absence puts French, unwittingly, on common ground with the very institutions he attacks. The outcomes are similar—the vanishing of black writers.
Reading his piece, you would never know that the same year The Atlantic published “The Case For Reparations,” it also published Nikole Hannah-Jones’s disturbing portrayal of the return of school segregation. You’d never know that both pieces were nominated for a National Magazine Awards. You’d never guess that Hannah-Jones went on, the next year, to be named NABJ’s Journalist Of The Year, and then win both the Peabody and the Polk awards.
Hannah-Jones does not stand alone. The most important work of American long-form journalism, in the past decade, was executed by Isabel Wilkerson—The Warmth Of Other Suns. Wilkerson, a 1994 Pulitzer prize winner, produced a book that was both a commercial triumph (New York Times best-seller) and a critical success (National Book Critics Circle Award winner.) The omission of Wilkerson and Hannah-Jones is characteristic of French’s piece. There are no Jelani Cobbs in his essay, no Alexis Okeowos, no Jamelle Bouies, no Yamiche Alcindors, no Rembert Brownes, no Trymaine Lees, no Malcolm Gladwells, no Joel Andersons, no Kelefa Sannehs, no Kara Browns, no Brentin Mocks, no Jenna Worthams, no Wesley Morrises. You would never guess that there are black journalists, here at The Atlantic, covering business and politics, editing its website, and designing its pages.