"What do you do?" asked a young woman who is one of a half-dozen blacks on a Mississippi newspaper, "when a white reporter brings in a white friend and introduces her to everybody but the blacks? What do you do when your white colleagues hate having you there?"
There had been an air of festivity and warmth at being together before the woman and others like her spoke. In a room so crowded that even the floor was confiscated for seating space, people said half-jokingly that they had come for a cheap therapy session.
It was the recent convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Atlanta. And when the subject of "Coping in the Newsroom" started, the atmosphere turned serious with intense concerns and challenges, and frustration -- at times interlaced with pain -- emerged.
This national network of black journalists has gathered annually for nine years. Between 600 and 800 attended this year, compared to just 400 in 1983. Many were young reporters in their first jobs; some were the only blacks on their papers. And feelings of isolation and hunger for nurturing were strong.
"How do you advance your career and move up into a higher position when you're one of only a handful of minorities?" asked one woman. "I'm a sports writer," said an Alabama woman of 24, providing comic relief, "and I haven't had any trouble, but do I have to drink with the good ol' boys?"
I was attending my first NABJ convention and had gone on its final day to speak on this panel. While, on the surface, it evoked feelings of a family reunion, this was no monolithic group. It was a patchwork quilt of multifaceted people with complex lives and generational, geographical and ideological differences.
Some neophytes reported hostile encounters with editors and were pessimistic about their chances of moving up. Others expressed frustration and surprise that race was of such continuing significance in their success and degree of opportunity. As a result, some were afraid to approach editors to ask for promotions. But they were advised to speak up for themselves and ask for training, exposure and development.
Veteran reporters worried about how to balance professional concerns such as fairness and excellence, which they share with their white colleagues, with their unique problems as black professionals. Some felt proud to report on and interpret the black experience, to build cultural bridges that increase understanding between minorities and nonminorities. But others fled this responsibility because they felt it "stereotyped" them.
One promotion-intent young man was afraid of identifying with blacks and scared of being called an Uncle Tom. Warned of getting into a position where neither blacks nor whites trusted him, he was advised not merely to try to "assimilate" but to respect the positive aspects of his culture and history.
He might have turned only to the pages of recent history -- for virtually all but a handful of black journalists owe their jobs to the riots of the 1960s. When black residents turned on white reporters who went to their burning neighborhoods, editors knew they were in trouble. Urban newspapers began hiring black reporters in more significant numbers.
In the years afterward, the most enlightened of these newspapers discovered the value of a racially mixed news staff -- spurred in part by national advocacy organizations like the Institute for Journalism Education, which has trained nearly 200 minority reporters and editors.
But now commitment of many newspapers has lessened and blacks are neither being as vigorously hired nor promoted to more responsible decision-making jobs. One effect of this is that there are not enough role models to enable young blacks to find and keep their identity while they grow and develop as reporters.
Although the American Society of Newspaper Editors has set a goal of having 20 percent minority newsroom professionals by the year 2000, only 5 percent of professionals are now nonwhite, and these are concentrated on only 40 percent of America's 1,700 daily newspapers.
When in 1968 a black man applied to a Texas paper, he was told they didn't have any porter jobs open. "Not porter," he explained, "RE-porter!" That was almost 20 years ago. The presence of hundreds of professionals in Atlanta meant many things had changed for the better. But the pain and frustration I heard from these young journalists in that crowded room showed me that much more change was needed still.