The introduction to the interview in The Nation gives some scary numbers.
The New York Times published an opinion piece that illustrated an uncomfortable fact: The vast majority of American authors published after World War II have been white. This should not be a surprise to most people who pay any attention to contemporary literature, but the voluminous data included in the piece proved shocking even to the worst of pessimists.
Between the years 1950 and 2018, the authors found, 95 percent of books published with major firms like Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster were written by white people. That gap hadn’t narrowed at all in 2018—white people wrote 89 percent of books published that year. And in 2020, only 10 percent of the New York Times best-seller list were written by people of color. The New York Times piece promptly went viral.
Something certainly seems wrong here, and as the headline makes clear, The Nation knows what it is.
The History of Publishing Is a History of Racial Inequality
That’s awful, if true. But is it? And if it is, then why? It’s unsurprising when blacks are 13% of the population that there would be more white authors than black, but why aren’t 13% of the books published written by black authors? Sure, every black writer isn’t James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates, but then, every white author isn’t Ernest Hemingway either.
What book deserves to be published isn’t the same sort of question as who gets admitted to law school. What makes a book publication-worthy is more art than science, and the race of the writer doesn’t have much to do with the content of the book. But then, when the question is more a matter of personal preference, as good or bad writing isn’t a math equation, then it’s ripe for racism, whether due to access to publishers, subject matter or writing style. But that doesn’t mean it is racism.
Fortunately, John McWhorter coincidentally provides some background that may well offer insight to the “why” question The Nation skips over.
Black kids tend not to do as well in school as white kids, statistically. But just what is the “racism” that causes this particular disparity?
It isn’t something as plain and simple as the idea that all Black kids go to underfunded schools — it’s a little 1980s to think that’s all we’re faced with. School funding is hugely oversold as a reason for schools’ underperformance, and the achievement disparity persists even among middle-class Black kids.
And middle-class Black kids are not just a mere sliver: Only about a third of Black students are poor. Yet the number of Black students admitted to top-level universities, for example, is small — so small that policies changing admissions standards are necessary for such schools to have a representative number of them on campus. This is fact, shown at countless institutions over the past 30 years such as the University of Michigan and recently Harvard. The key question is what justifies the policies.
McWhorter goes on to explain that young black people have a cultural constraint about associating education with being “white,” and even though they may be smart, come from a good family and go to a good school, they do not value education and consequently do not achieve. This, McWhorter contends, is the legacy of school segregation, and so it is a manifestation of white racism.
But if black students, despite having full opportunity, choose not to avail themselves of it, not to study, not to work hard to get into good colleges, not to achieve, is it any wonder that the number of published black authors is diminished? While the percentage of black people in the general population may be 13%, what is the percentage of black students matriculating at good colleges? How many graduate? If the number going in is “small — so small,” then the number coming out is even smaller. And of that number, the number capable of writing a publishable book must be even smaller, it taking more than education, but an exceptional amount of talent, to write a book that anyone wants to publish or read.
Is this a by-product of legacy racism? Probably. It’s a fair argument, even if its actual cause and effect is hard to prove. Then again, the effort to instill bourgeois values such as education into communities that value other things more is also the target of disdain. And then there’s a piece that is likely very unpopular these days, that the claim of black students going to underfunded and inadequate schools is belied by the two-thirds who attend well-funded and more than adequate schools but still fail to achieve. Not because they can’t, but because they choose not to. At some point, is there some responsibility to do better when all the tools are there to be used? How long can past discrimination provide an excuse when it’s no longer an excuse?
McWhorter’s explanation of what really happens in school goes to show how the Kendi slogan, “when I see racial disparities, I see racism,” is neither helpful nor true. It may well give rise to ask the critical question “why?”, but answers no question in itself. And yet, even McWhorter opens his deconstruction of this simplistic fallacy with another, “systemic racism exists.”
Even fully understanding that systemic racism exists and why it is important — persistent disparities between Black people and others in access to resources — one may have some questions. Real ones.
For me, the biggest question is not whether systemic racism exists but what to do about it.
When some kid who might have become the next James Baldwin chooses not to study lest his friends think him unhip, does that make publishers racist? It may well be that there is racism in publishing, and it may well be that the cultural pathology that devalues education limits the universe of great black writers. And it may well be many other factors are also implicated. But as long as people latch onto pointless vagaries that illuminate nothing, like “systemic racism is real” or “when I see racial disparities, I see racism,” no problem is fixed and no one is saved. As handy as excuses may be for failure, it’s still failure. If you really want to end racial disparities, why not do better?