President Obama is expected to receive upwards of 90 percent of the African American vote in Tuesday’s election, despite a phenomenon not unknown to other people of color in executive positions, even in the news business: muted disappointment by some that he has not done enough for his own.
The latest writer to make this point is Gary Younge, the black British U.S. correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, who in analyzing “Barack Obama and the paradox behind his black support base,” included this line Saturday: “. . . the ascent of America’s first black president has coincided with the one of the steepest descents of the economic fortunes of black Americans since the second world war both in real terms and relative to whites.”
Becoming the first person of color in an executive position in a mainstream institution brings expectations — and fears — that the new executive will be more sensitive to one’s own ethnic group, the way others have been to theirs. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes not. Some African Americans complain that their African American bosses have gone out of their way to “be mean” to them, as one journalist said. But as the late Gerald R. Boyd, the first African American managing editor of the New York Times, discovered, the stance taken is no protection from charges of favoritism.
After the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal of 2003, Boyd told the in-house Siegal Committee investigating the Blair scandal: “. . . I incurred some criticism from journalists of color who felt I was not looking out for them. My view was that it was competitive and a matter of merit.” Yet Boyd was portrayed in the news media as Blair’s protector and mentor. Both were black.
As with the president, community members also have expectations. Their efforts resulted in the desegregation of newsrooms.
Six people of color with ties to the news business responded by email Monday to a request to discuss these aspects of leadership. Most were members of the now-defunct National Association of Minority Media Executives (NAMME), later National Association of Multicultural Media Executives.
Ronald B. Brown, president, Banks Brown, consultant to journalist of color organizations:
. . . As more black people ascend to CEO and heads of major institutions, their priorities dramatically expand. They are compelled to focus on the broader health of the enterprise. Most of these people have been able to place trusted surrogates in valued positions and address specific black issues within the context of overall goals, i.e. lifting the middle class (very important to the African American community and its institutions. ref: Eugene Robinson’s book [“Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America“]). Many blacks, without an understanding of the realities and limits of power, can become frustrated with this shift in focus.
The truth is that African Americans, throughout the first four years [of the Obama administration], have not asked for anything specific. Other groups, particularly the gay and lesbian community, have pressed their concerns, DADT [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”], the Defense of Marriage Act, marriage, etc. On the whole, many African Americans seem content to bask in the glory of a Black President and defend him against vulnerability. On the other hand, there are some people who are willing to spend their efforts to judge, carp or criticize.