Inventing Jayson Blair: Reflections on White Privilege and Hypocrisy

Published as a ZNet Commentary, May 19, 2003

If Jayson Blair did not exist, white America would have to create him. The confirmed New York Times plagiarist and all-around journalistic con man, after all, is the perfect foil for those whites who have always needed to find a dark face capable of confirming pre-existing biases towards, suspicions of, and fears about black people. Indeed we have long invented proofs to fit our prejudices.

Racist beliefs about blacks and their propensity for savagery were confirmed (for racists at least) by slave rebellions. Racist beliefs about black intelligence are confirmed (for racists at least) by any black student who drops out of an elite college, no matter the reasons.

And now there is Blair, who confirms (for racists at least) that blacks are a little less honest, a little less truly talented, and taking jobs from more capable whites because of misguided racial preferences; preferences that allow them to get away with fraud or shoddy work in a way that whites presumably never would be allowed to do.

But really, who are these folks trying to kid? Whites have been doing our fair share of lying and cheating since long before this nation even became a nation. Indeed, without a sizeable dose of both it would have been difficult to become a nation at all. And when whites lie we are rarely pilloried the way Blair has been as of late, or as Janet Cooke — another black journalist who fabricated stories in the early 1980s — was. Indeed, in just the last several years, over a half-dozen white journalists have been busted for plagiarism or fabricating stories, some every bit as serious in scope as Jayson Blair; yet none provoked this kind of outrage. In fact, one of the guilty parties even has a new book from a major publisher, which provides a somewhat fictionalized but overall lighthearted account of the author’s deceptive exploits.

Of course, there’s nothing particularly unique about light-skinned liars managing to get by without too much damage to their reputations or the shelf lives of the tales they’ve told. The stock narrative of American history, created by whites to be sure, is nothing but a string of fabrications, after all.

Christopher Columbus discovered America and was the first to prove that the world was round. Wrong. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and ‘fessed up to his father because he couldn’t tell a lie, though historians had no such compunction. The nation was founded by people who, despite their persecution of those with religious beliefs different from their own, were seeking religious freedom. Strike three. One nation, with liberty and justice for all: by now you probably get the picture.

Truth be told, Jayson Blair is really quite the amateur trickster compared to the chroniclers of American propaganda and triumphalist pseudo-history. But this should come as no surprise, as the powerful by necessity must be more talented at bullshit than anyone else, if for no other reason than to maintain said power.

Ronald Reagan lied about a welfare cheat with dozens of names and Social Security numbers who collected over $100,000 fraudulently and drove around in a Cadillac. It was completely fabricated, an intentional con, but it certainly didn’t hurt — indeed one might say it helped — his career.

When he was a reporter in St. Louis, Pat Buchanan took internal FBI memos blasting Martin Luther King Jr. and passed them off as his own work: a form of plagiarism to be sure, but his career was hardly damaged by his lack of ethics.

George W. Bush lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — what with his claims of 30,000 gallons of this, and 50,000 gallons of that, and such and such tons of this other thing — and most people don’t seem to care. When white folks lie, even if those lies result in a war that kills thousands of Iraqi civilians according to news reports available in Europe but not here, the apostles of integrity and virtue have nothing to say. But let a black man perpetrate a fraud, especially if that fraud besmirches the reputations of white men, like the bosses at the New York Times, and all hell breaks loose.

And then that black man becomes a poster boy in the eyes of white reactionaries for why affirmative action and “diversity” efforts are misguided. That such insipid buffoonery can actually pass for wisdom, rather than being seen as the epitome of a racist double-standard is stunning; or rather it would be were it not so numbingly common, so cliche, so pedestrian.

After all, when white men ripped off the Savings and Loan industry, costing taxpayers a few hundred billion in bailout funds, no one suggested that we should be wary of hiring white men to run banks: even white men like Silverado’s Neil Bush, brother of W., who had no prior experience in the field.

When white men commit major corporate fraud (think Enron) no one suggests that we should eradicate the old boy’s networks that are so instrumental in getting white guys top executive jobs in the first place.

When a half-dozen white pilots in six months get pulled off planes because they’re either drunk or hungover, or when a couple of others strip down to their underwear in the cockpit just for shits and giggles, no one recommends that white pilots might be too unstable to serve the nation’s commercial fleet, or that whatever channels white men have exploited to receive the lion’s share of jobs as pilots should be shut down so as to preserve the integrity of the profession.

When a white man runs a business into the ground, after having deserted his military assignment during war, not only do whites as a group not bear the stigma of that one white man’s incompetence and duplicity, but the white man in question gets another shot as a chief executive: this time as President of the United States. The same job his daddy had; a man who lied about taxes and reading his lips.

Recent revelations of widespread cheating by affluent white suburbanites on the SAT, using any number of ingenious scams to con the college entrance exam, haven’t prompted calls for extra security at testing sites in Pleasantville, or greater scrutiny of white applicant’s scores.

Ultimately, if blacks screw up or do something objectionable they become exhibit A in the racist fantasies of the weak-minded, but if whites screw up, we get to remain individuals. This is the essence of white privilege: the privilege to rise or fall without implicating your group in the process or calling into question the mechanisms that brought you to your current station. People of color, on the other hand, constantly have to answer for the whole. So when Jesse Jackson was running for President, everyone wanted to know his views on black crime, out-of-wedlock childbirths in the black community, and whether or not he would distance himself from Louis Farrakhan. Yet I can’t recall a single white politician being asked his views on white serial killing, disproportionate child sexual molestation among whites, or being asked to distance himself from David Duke.

Even when blacks succeed there is no escaping the backhanded compliment that they are a “credit to their race,” itself a racist comment since it implies that the group as a whole is rather lacking in the shining star department. Needless to say, such a thing is never said to a successful white person, since we already have a rather unlimited credit line, so to speak.

The most pathetic thing about the Blair incident is that to an awful lot of whites — and certainly the zombified denizens of talk radio — this scandal proves that blacks are somehow getting opportunities they don’t deserve; that racial preference has turned the notion of merit selection upside down. Yet they fail to acknowledge the reality that whites continue to get far more jobs, irrespective of actual ability, than people of color do.

According to the National Center for Career Strategies, more than 85 percent of all jobs are filled by word-of-mouth as opposed to merit-based competition through open advertising. What’s more, nine in ten executives got their jobs through networking. So just who do we think are the folks in these networks, and who are those persons disproportionately left out? To ask the question is to answer it.

Studies for years have found that employers tend to prefer hiring people who remind them of themselves, and that too often they make judgments about merit and ability that are less about talent than their comfort level with the potential hire: a comfort level heavily influenced by race. Once again, just who do we think benefits from this form of subtle racism, and who is harmed? And once again, to ask the question is to answer it. And finally, a recent study found that when resumes of equally-qualified job applicants are sent to employers, those with white sounding names are fifty percent more likely to get called in for an interview than those with black-sounding names. So who’s getting preference?

At the end of the day, white America might delude itself into believing that Jayson Blair is the epitome of racial preference run amok, but until we clean out our own stables, filled as they are with liars, cheats, and a plethora of incompetents, we might want to avoid any and all mirrors for a while.

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