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When I walked into the newsroom of The Houston Post on August 16,
1972, there were only three other African Americans working at this
major daily as full-time journalists. I was twenty-three years old,
just two months out of school, armed with a master’s degree from the
University of Illinois and the memories of growing up in segregated
North Louisiana.

There were very few Blacks working at what we referred to then as a
“White newspaper,” and there were even fewer of us in television. A
decade before, the only way Blacks would get on the front page of most
newspapers was if we were accused of a crime or accomplished some
super-Herculean feat like winning a medal in the Olympics. And here I
was getting front page bylines. “Look how far we have come!” I thought.

Back then, we were like heroes to people in our Communities. More
often, though, we were lonely Black faces in mostly White crowds.

We resented being called tokens or being accused of getting where
we were because we were Black. And although we were qualified, some
will admit now — a generation later — that in most cases, we were
there because we were Black. Although we had this naive optimism that
we would get to the “Promised Land” of the American Dream, we also
realized we carried the burden of a whole race on our shoulders.

Well, we still haven’t gotten to the “Promised Land,” and too many
of us have forgotten about the burden. In 1968, the Kerner Commission
concluded news coverage was biased against Blacks and the media were
partially responsible for the “[B]lack-[W]hite schism.” Thirty years
later, things in the newsroom and society are not that much better.

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the American Society of
Newspaper Editors’ (ASNE) declaration of the goal to ensure the number
of non-Whites working at daily newspapers reflect their percentage in
society by the year 2000. When the goal was set in 1978, only 3.95
percent of the daily newspaper workforce was non-White compared to
11.46 percent in 1998. Currently, Blacks account for only 5.38 percent
of those working at daily newspapers, according to the ASNE survey.
With less than two years to go, ASNE has essentially abandoned its
original 1978 goal.

“As a benchmark, the representation of journalists of color should
reach at least 20 percent industry wide by 2010,” said the ASNE board
in a statement released in April. ASNE not only has extended the
deadline, but also has lowered the goal. This is a call for us to get
back to our roots before we get too comfortable with where we are and
how far we have come.

Non-White faces in the field of journalism are still a novelty.
With all this talk about diversity, for the most part, there are very
few Blacks making decisions about what issues we discuss in the news.
As we approach the new century, a major goal — for both practicing
journalists and journalism academics — should be getting more people
of color into newsrooms.

The “White media” and educational institutions have gone on record.
They say they are seeking more people of color for their newsrooms and
classrooms. If what they say is true, then the real bottom line for us
is providing enough qualified people of color to fill all the spaces
the industry and the schools say they want filled.

The fact that there are too few of us studying journalism is real.
If we are going to be successful in getting more people of color into
the field, we have got to go where the people of colorare. This means
building stronger partnerships — with the Black press, Black
universities, Black churches, and other Black social groups.

Some effort has been made, but it is not enough. A large pool of
potential Black journalists is at historically Black colleges and
universities, and many of the nation’s Black journalists work in the
Black press. We should remember that most of the early Black pioneers
in “White media” were educated at a Black university and got their
first job at a Black newspaper. This path to journalism’s “Promised
Land” is a path that needs to be traveled more frequently.

There is also the development of people who recognize the need to
look at issues from a minority perspective. As the National Association
of Black Journalists convention convened last week in Washington, D.C.,
I was reminded of the group’s first national meeting — held in Houston
and hosted by Texas Southern University — and the issues it raised.
One popular question among African Americans who worked in the “White
media” then was, “Am I a journalist who happens to be Black, or am I a
Black who happens to be a journalist?” That question is still relevant
today because the issues that prompted it remain.

We talk so much about a free press and free speech, but free speech
is a hollow concept if everybody cannot participate. Speech isn’t tree
it you can’t speak, it you don’t nave access to the means of
communications, or if you don’t understand or know how to use the
language and the media.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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