How Old Media Got Rolling Paper’s triumph over other media in China was secured by an explosion of Buddhist teaching.

Mr. Monro gives a generous account of the startling intellectual achievements made during this era of Islamic preeminence, from astronomy and mathematics to geography and medicine, all possible because of paper. The rich scholastic environment in the Islamic world, which often drew strength from Greek classics and Hindu sources, is even more impressive when compared with the contemporaneous stagnation of Europe. As late as the 14th century, the Vatican Library held only 2,000 volumes (private book ownership in Europe was banned). Meantime, libraries with tens of thousands of volumes were common in major Islamic capitals, and a Fatimid Dynasty library in Cairo contained 1.6 million books.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

The trick of the book about a single commodity is to go from the narrow focus on the nominal topic at hand to a sweeping portrait of how it transformed an era, or—even better—how it exercised an unsuspected influence on the deeply hidden machinery of society or global culture. This feat has been pulled off to varying degrees of success in books about sugar, salt, cotton, coffee and, a bit less obviously, cod—so much so that the genre itself has come to feel a bit like a cliché.

Fortunately, that didn’t stop Alexander Monro from undertaking the latest installment in this unofficial series with “The Paper Trail.” In it, he traces the history of paper from its dim origins in China roughly 2,200 years ago through its gradual emergence as the most indispensable global medium of communication for the last half millennium. Paper is still kicking, but its position has suddenly become precarious, thanks to another revolutionary medium, this one digital.

THE PAPER TRAIL

By Alexander Monro

Knopf, 362 pages, $30

Mr. Monro, to his credit, doesn’t come by his arguments crudely. By the end of his book there can be little doubt that he believes that of the items that have transformed civilization, paper and its offspring, bound books, sit near the top of the pile of humanity’s greatest inventions.

He begins his account with the early history of writing in China. True to his roots as a Sinologist, one gets more than passing depth on the country’s early political culture, the rise of China’s competing indigenous religious doctrines, Confucianism and Daoism, and episodes of military and political history, such as the famous burning of libraries by the tyrannical third-century-B.C. Qin Dynasty emperor.

Mr. Monro tells us that the first known reference to paper dates to 217 B.C., when it appears to have been used in a folk cure. “If a man’s hair without reason stands erect like worms, whiskers or eyebrows, he will have encountered a bad spirit. To resolve this, boil a hemp shoe with paper, and the evil will be dismissed,” reads the reference, written on bamboo and excavated from a cave in 1975 in central China.

The substance was popularized by the Hexi Empress, Deng Sui, a formidable woman who ruled during the Han Dynasty for a decade and a half, during the second century A.D., when China introduced the use of paper in the workings of government for the first time anywhere.

But this was a tentative breakthrough, because prestigious texts like Confucian classics were still written on bamboo, giving that medium an elite aura. The fascinating argument that Mr. Monro develops slowly and methodically is that paper’s rise was driven not by the state but by religion, particularly Buddhism. Paper’s definitive triumph over earlier media in China, which included turtle shells, stones, wood, bamboo strips, silk and something called talipat leaves (and in other parts of the world things like papyrus, vellum and parchment), was secured in a kind of symbiosis with the explosion of Buddhist teaching early in the first centuries of the Christian era.

Buddhism eschewed elitism and aimed straight for the masses, many of whom were illiterate and adopted sutras copied out on paper as talismans. During the second and third centuries, a Buddhist clergy began to flourish in China and monks busied themselves frantically translating and publishing scripture on paper, which was cheaper, easier to write on and less bulky than bamboo.

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By the sixth century, private collections of Buddhist writings dwarfed collections of the Confucian classics. “What this foreign religion might have never achieved in China on bamboo, wood or stone alone—namely, a broad market of reader-buyers—had, thanks to the rise of paper, been delivered.”

To see the entire article, please click here.

‘Bombard the Headquarters’ The twin pillars of Mao’s campaign were uprooting supposed reactionaries and the promotion of sycophancy.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.

Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as “Xi Dada,” or “grandpa Xi,” while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the country’s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of China’s Joint Battle Command Center.

Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.

But to read Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976” is to understand how far Mr. Xi’s China—however worrisome recent trends—is from Mao’s radical, despotic regime.

Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the university’s leadership as “Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” Mao responded by urging the young radicals to “bombard the headquarters” of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Dikötter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate China’s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Mao’s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

By Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32

According to Mr. Dikötter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairman’s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.” Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Mao’s thoughts, which became known as the “Little Red Book,” was only getting started.

As Mr. Dikötter’s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Mao’s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairman’s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.

To see the full article, please click here.

Will there be war?

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Copyright The London Review of Books

A review of the following titles:

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • BUYChina’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities byRoger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • BUYChina’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.


Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

To view the entire article, please see the LRB website.

China’s Twilight Years: The country’s population is aging and shrinking. That means big consequences for its economy—and America’s global standing.

“It really doesn’t matter what happens now with the fertility rate,” a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told me. “The old people of tomorrow are already here.” She predicted that in another decade or two, the social and fiscal pressures created by aging in China will force what many Chinese find inconceivable for the world’s most populous nation: a mounting need to attract immigrants. “When China is old, though, all the countries we could import workers from will also be old,” she said. “Where are we to get them from? Africa would be the only place, and I can’t imagine that.”

Copyright The Atlantic – June 2016

On opposite sides of the globe, two debates that will profoundly affect the future of the United States, and indeed the world, are raging. One of them has become shrilly public, while the other remains almost secret. On the surface they might seem to have little to do with each other, but at bottom, they are inextricably linked.

The first debate, which is unfolding in America, concerns immigration. Republicans like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have staked out some of the more radical positions in this debate, such as urging that the U.S. build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and that it deport the millions who are already here. The other debate, which is playing out in Beijing, is about how big a navy China should build, and how much it should contest America’s primacy in the world’s oceans.

To a degree scarcely suspected by most people, both debates—and more generally, America’s chances of maintaining its standing in the world—are bound up in the two countries’ sharply contrasting population dynamics.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has until very recently appeared to be a global juggernaut—hugely expanding its economic and political relations with Africa; building artificial islands in the South China Sea, an immense body of water that it now proclaims almost entirely its own; launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with ambitions to rival the World Bank. The new bank is expected to support a Chinese initiative called One Belt, One Road, a collection of rail, road, and port projects designed to lash China to the rest of Asia and even Europe. Projects like these aim not only to boost China’s already formidable commercial power but also to restore the global centrality that Chinese consider their birthright.

As if this were not enough to worry the U.S., China has also showed interest in moving into America’s backyard. Easily the most dramatic symbol of this appetite is a Chinese billionaire’s plan to build across Nicaragua a canal that would dwarf the American-built Panama Canal. But this project is stalled, an apparent victim of recent stock-market crashes in China.

Many economists believe that these market plunges are early manifestations of a historic slowdown in the Chinese economy, one that is bringing the country’s soaring growth rates down to earth after three decades of expansion. But the current slowdown pales in comparison with a looming societal crisis: In the years ahead, as China’s Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the country will transition from having a relatively youthful population, and an abundant workforce, to a population with far fewer people in their productive prime.

The frightening scope of this decline is best expressed in numbers. China today boasts roughly five workers for every retiree. By 2040, this highly desirable ratio will have collapsed to about 1.6 to 1. From the start of this century to its midway point, the median age in China will go from under 30 to about 46, making China one of the older societies in the world. At the same time, the number of Chinese older than 65 is expected to rise from roughly 100 million in 2005 to more than 329 million in 2050—more than the combined populations of Germany, Japan, France, and Britain.

The consequences for China’s finances are profound. With more people now exiting the workforce than entering it, many Chinese economists say that demographics are already becoming a drag on growth. More immediately alarming are the fiscal costs of having far more elderly people and far fewer young people, starting with the expense of creating the country’s first modern national pension system.

Unlike residents of China’s prosperous eastern cities, hundreds of millions of peasants and migrant laborers have scant personal savings and rudimentary retirement coverage, if any. “One goal is to extend pension coverage to everyone,” says an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. “But that will be very expensive, because most people haven’t paid anything into the system at all. Basically, what this means is a wealth transfer.” Providing health care to these same disadvantaged classes will also be vastly expensive.Mark L. Haas, a Duquesne University political scientist, has for some time warned of a looming contest between guns and canes—a variant on the old idea of guns versus butter—as the world’s major countries grapple with demographic change. “China’s political leaders beginning in roughly 2020 will be faced with a difficult choice: allow growing levels of poverty within an exploding elderly population, or provide the resources necessary to avoid this situation,” Haas writes in Political Demography. If China’s government decides in favor of the latter option, Haas argues, American power will benefit. More broadly, he foresees a coming “geriatric peace,” as nations around the world find themselves too burdened to challenge America’s military preeminence.

To see the entire article, please click here.

The Enduring Whiteness of the American Media: What Three Decades of Journalism has Taught me about the Persistence of Race in the US

The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air.

All signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign that will be a severe test for US journalism
But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.

(The Guardian) May 25, 2016

Over the course of 2014, America seemed to reawaken to one of its oldest preoccupations: the reality of how race is lived in the United States, and in particular the many stark disparities that persist between black and white people.

The continued existence of racial inequality in the United States was not exactly news – but the shocking deaths of a series of unarmed black men at the hands of the police made the issue impossible to ignore. The killing of Eric Garner, who was wrestled to the ground and choked to death by police on a New York City sidewalk in July 2014, confronted the public with a disturbing question: how was it possible that a black man could be killed for the trifling infraction of selling loose cigarettes? Garner’s dying words – “I can’t breathe” – captured on video, would soon become the rallying cry of a nascent movement, Black Lives Matter.

When Michael Brown was killed by a policeman the following month, enormous protests erupted, and the attention of the entire country – and much of the world – turned to Ferguson, Missouri. Television news was filled with scenes of mostly black protesters surrounded by heavily armoured riot police, evoking images from an era that American liberals liked to believe was long in the past.

Brown’s death, in the heat of the summer, produced a huge swell of anger and a fierce debate, but a tentative conclusion soon emerged: though his death had first seemed disturbing, many came to see him as a flawed victim. Brown had not led an unblemished life: he had shoplifted minutes before his demise, he had smoked pot, and investigators insisted that he had resisted arrest, tussling with the policeman who shot him. He was “no angel”, in the uncharitable words of a New York Times story published two weeks after his death. This tone could be heard in much of the coverage of Brown’s killing and the ensuing protests in Ferguson – and not just at that newspaper. What this tone suggested was that a black person who died at the hands of police needed to have been perfect, and utterly blameless, to justify outrage at their death and national attention to the problem.

But such a case came along soon enough, when police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, encountered Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun on a deserted playground. What ensued was captured on video, otherwise many would have dismissed an objective account of the incident as the product of fevered black imagination. A white officer is seen jumping out of his car and without pausing even to exchange words, immediately opening fire, leaving the child dead. Here, for all those who had demanded it, was the immaculate victim. A grave problem, it seemed, could no longer be denied.

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Tamir Rice: police release video of 12-year-old’s fatal shooting

By late 2014, newspapers and TV networks had begun to dedicate substantial time to the subject of excessive force routinely used by police against black people, and to the protest movement that grew in the wake of these incidents. Television news channels – even the very conservative Fox News – devoted hours of their nightly broadcasts to discussions of this problem, often heated, and to a consideration of its roots. Not coincidentally, minority voices suddenly proliferated on the air.

Having rediscovered the crisis of American race relations, there were reasons to hope that the media might make the colour line, as the eminent early-20th-century black American intellectual WEB Dubois famously called it, the focus of even deeper and more serious ongoing attention. But the attention of US journalism – and along with it, the attention of the nation – soon drifted away. What happened?

The easy part of the answer is that 2015 marked the start of a seemingly endless season of obsessive American political coverage, in the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Journalists descended on Baltimore to cover the protests over the death of Freddie Gray in April, but in the months that followed, reporters started to turn their focus to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where Republican candidates were already visiting county fairs and meeting voters in greasy spoons.

But what was less predictable, and much more striking, was the brazen way that the Republican candidates competed in pandering to white voters using racial themes. Perhaps they sensed that, after two terms under Barack Obama, many Republican primary voters were incensed by the appearance of cracks in what might be called the hegemony of whiteness. Donald Trump led the way, and provided the most famous examples – describing immigrants from Mexico as criminals and rapists, proposing to ban Muslims from entering the country – but he was far from alone.

Only months after the country had begun a tentative interrogation of its history of racism, that had all been forgotten. Early on, Trump was criticised for the unusual crudeness of his racial appeals, but by the time the candidate had eliminated the last of his Republican rivals, in early May, the media seemed inured to Trump’s rhetoric. But even as the US media has devoted vast time and resources to covering every twist and turn of the primary campaigns, almost none of this journalism has posed deeper questions about the social pathology of racism that makes nativist demagoguery so appealing to white voters. Instead, this fact is simply taken for granted – much like the persistent disparity in rates of unemployment and incarceration between black and white people, or the staggering gap in household wealth between the races. One could say much the same about the crude contempt for Barack Obama that has become a powerful undercurrent in Republican politics over the last seven years.

With Trump all but certain to be the Republican nominee, all signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign – and one that will pose a severe test for American journalism, which has been as beset by the crisis of race as the society it claims to rigorously examine.

The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air.

But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.



These problems are not new, and they are not unknown: they have been confirmed by survey after survey measuring diversity in the country’s newsrooms and on its airwaves, but this is not how I discovered them. The lessons I received in the matter all came through direct experience, inside what many consider America’s foremost news organisation.

When I first arrived at the New York Times in 1986, fresh from freelancing in West Africa, I was as eager as anyone can possibly imagine – but more than a little bit nervous about trying to break into the big time of American journalism at the age of 27, as a new father working in a city I had never lived in before. I had never worked in a newsroom; I had never even worked under the close supervision of editors. So there was much to learn. I would have been lying if I had said I was looking forward to covering what seemed to me mundane things such as cops and courts – but, looking back, there is no doubt that my three years in New York gave me an education in journalism I could not have received anywhere else.

This was not the only invaluable education I received in New York – far from it. As an idealistic young black man there was a whole universe of knowledge to be acquired about how this industry handles the question of race in America, and this was vital to one’s survival. One quickly learned that the newsroom was a place rife with powerful networks, which nurtured and anointed a few golden boys – and occasionally, although much less frequently back then, golden girls. These networks took shape along lines of educational pedigree, social status and religion – all categories that helped make it appear that race was not relevant. Indeed, to the casual onlooker it all passed for merit.

Some of my first lessons came while paying my dues, working weekends in the nearly-empty newsroom, where I was asked to monitor the police blotter for noteworthy crimes. Early on, I was bluntly reproached by an editor for bringing the uptown murder of a black person by another black person to his attention, as if I didn’t know that these were “penny crimes”, in his words, meaning things that could never rise to the level of interest of New York Times readers on a Sunday. If a black man had killed a white man, or if there was white-on-white murder, he explained, this, of course, would be a different matter.

This was not the only kind of race logic common in the business, as I was just discovering at a place that was regarded – and regarded itself – as a bastion of liberalism. I had watched in surprise one winter evening, when a power outage in the Bronx sent editors casting about the cavernous old newsroom for black reporters, something that immediately made painfully clear how few of us there were. In a cast of hundreds, it seemed that it would not take much more than two hands to count us on. It was freely said that white reporters were uncomfortable venturing to that part of the city in the dark – the first of many times I would hear such thinking in my career. These were the high-crime, crack cocaine years, and so off black reporters were sent, based on the theory that even dressed in business suits and ties, as nearly all the staff were in that era, we would be safer and more comfortable in the dark of a ghetto.

Around that same time, I was sent to cover the aftermath of a huge shootout in the Bronx between a notorious drug dealer, Larry Davis, and the police, in which the suspect briefly escaped. My reward, after Davis was captured, was being assigned to cover one of his trials, which an editor advised me not to take too seriously, regarding it as a foregone conclusion – despite Davis hiring a famous civil rights attorney, William Kunstler, who tied the prosecution up in knots by emphasising what most black people intuitively knew or suspected: a rich history of police abuse and procedural irregularities. After this, I was briefly assigned something called “the race beat”, which was basically intended to mean covering black civil rights complaints against the city in that highly polarised era. This was in keeping with perhaps the oldest tradition in the business, since its integration began tentatively in the 1960s: let black people cover black topics, which were perceived as impenetrable, if not outright dangerous.

In those days, a tiny coterie of black reporters often huddled together to fume over coverage of the 1988 presidential race by an all-white political staff, whose dismissive treatment of Jesse Jackson, the sole black candidate, often bordered on insulting – repeatedly describing him with code words such as “street smart”. Early one morning, a pair of black colleagues successfully goaded me into challenging the brilliant and deadly serious managing editor, Joseph Lelyveld – then the second-most-powerful person in the newsroom – over one story’s description of Jackson as “flamboyant”, which seemed to us gratuitously pejorative. Approaching Lelyveld to challenge him was as forbidding as seeking an audience with the Wizard of Oz. My friends stood in the wings, watching as the two of us, side by side, looked at the definition of “flamboyant” in a giant tabletop dictionary, which led Lelyveld to admit our complaint was correct.

My big break came when I was sent on a series of short-term deployments to cover a series of military coups and popular uprisings in Haiti – on the same logic that had seen black reporters dispatched to cover the Bronx. There was a white correspondent covering Haiti at the time, who was very good at gaining access to diplomats and political sources, but seemed to shun the frequently chaotic events in the streets, which were filled with angry and presumably dangerous black protesters.

I had been lobbying my editors for nearly three years for a full-time foreign assignment of my own, enrolling in Spanish classes, reading histories of India, and visiting Mexico. When the call came to tell me I had finally been named as the fourth black foreign correspondent in the long history of the newspaper, it was to inform me that I was being sent to cover the Caribbean. This was neither what I had hoped for nor imagined, but it was an innovation of sorts; the traditional move had been to send people like us to Africa.

Black colleagues on the staff were proud of me nonetheless, so much so that a fistfight nearly broke out when one of them, a friend named Don Terry, overheard a white reporter who was roughly our age grumbling openly that I had unjustly benefited from affirmative action. This was a standard complaint, a claim that filled the air with every word of our advancement: never mind that I had performed well enough in Haiti to repeatedly win in-house prizes at the paper, or that I spoke excellent French and was already becoming passably fluent in Creole. By this time, I was far enough along in my apprenticeship so as not be surprised by such sentiments.

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