A young Prince George's County reader has reopened an old and difficult journalism issue: Should visible columnists such as Levey go out of their way to publish positive news about black people, and should they label black news as such? I say heavens, no. My reader says high time, yes.
Bianca Bennett, of Clinton, is my correspondent. She describes herself as a "19-year-old Afro-American female" who attends Princeton University. She says she has "never been pregnant, never touched drugs, have stayed clean and crime-free my whole life and done nothing but tried to have fun and stay out of trouble." Yet she says she never reads about people like herself, in newspapers generally or this column specifically.
"I resent the fact that although you are a columnist in a predominantly Afro-American town, few of your columns address issues of concern to us," Bianca writes.
"True, area issues can apply to any of us in the area, white, yellow, red or black. But it is time that we hear about more successful positive black people." She says the need is especially pressing "in light of the Mayor Barry scandals that the media hasn't hesitated to publicize."
Bianca closes by calling me "enlightened enough to be able to respond well to constructive criticism." I don't know how well I can respond, but I do know how fully. Here comes a Levey reply that might be long enough to blot out three or four comic strips if I'm not careful.
For starters, I concede Bianca's main point, without any excuses. I do not go out of my way to carry "good news" about black people in my column. That doesn't mean I never carry any, because I often have and often will. However, it does mean that I don't deliberately seek "positive black news" or label it as "black" when I do use it.
The reason is that I write for all kinds of readers -- not just for blacks in the predominantly black District of Columbia. If you overheard my phone calls for half a day, you'd see what I mean.
As I write this, it's 11 o'clock on a Friday morning. I have logged 14 phone calls since coming to work. Seven were from women, seven from men. Six callers were from Maryland, four from Virginia, four from the District. Two callers were black (they told me so, in the course of our discussions), two had Hispanic surnames. I didn't ask the race of the other 10, but my best guess is the majority were white.
I'd say, though I can't prove it because I'm not a professional pollster, that this is a pretty good approximation of who my readers are. I wouldn't write positive news about the Virginians who called me simply because they're Virginians. I wouldn't write positively about my male callers simply because they're male. So why would I write positively about my black callers -- or any blacks -- simply because they're black?
Bianca suggests a reason in her letter: the recent tidal wave of negative publicity about Marion Barry, black drug dealers and mostly black D.C. public schools. Bianca implies that columnists such as Levey have a responsibility to counterbalance all that foul ink with
. . . well, with what?
Let's say Levey inaugurated a "D.C. good student of the month" feature. Let's also say that Levey went out of his way to choose a black student to profile each time. Who would gain from that decision? The kid being profiled might gain a clipping for his scrapbook. But it would be utterly irresponsible to profile a black student simply because he or she is black. Nor would black-kid-of-the-month counterbalance 5,000 Marion Barrys. It would be a simpering feature, a patronizing feature, a ghettoizing feature. It would do just the opposite of what Bianca Bennett hopes.
The danger is in any label that suggests special treatment for thousands of Washingtonians, but not for others. To plaster the word "black" across a column, or across a "good news" item, would be to suggest that blacks are all of one mind, or all of one personality type, or all in need of an image boost. Nothing could be less fair, or less accurate.
Besides, what is a "black issue?" Poverty? Traffic? Intermarriage? Quality of schools? Crime? Underemployment? All would probably make Bianca Bennett's list. All have been discussed in this column. But I've never trotted out the "black issue" label because none of these concerns is plainly or exclusively black.
Out of curiosity, I've just gone back through my columns of the last six months, to see how many times I've quoted black readers or written about black people. But I couldn't come up with an accurate total, because I don't always know who's black and who isn't.
You may be dismayed by that outcome, Bianca. I'm delighted by it. It proves, to me at least, that there has been no obvious tilt in the column, either toward blacks or away from them. That's just the kind of column I've always wanted to produce.
Black readers, and black citizens, don't need me to do them any favors. They need to be treated in this column like everyone else, for the best of reasons: They are like everyone else.