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Beyond P.C.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

The following commentary by Times columnist Mary Jo Melone first appeared in the November-December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review:

Even though I'm a columnist, and I take on big issues head on for a living, I'm almost afraid to write this.

I know the cheap words that might be hurled my way. White racist. Bigot.

In its last issue, CJR published a piece by Pamela T. Newkirk on black reporters quitting the business. They were tired of having the stories born of their unique experiences rejected. They were unwilling to be forced into a mind-set, a way of seeing, that wasn't theirs. One of the best and the brightest, Pulitzer Prize-winner Angelo Henderson of the Wall Street Journal, said, "You can't make me be like everyone else."

I've got some news for him. His story is my story.

Some years ago, I was invited to a lunch given by some of the journalists teaching at the Poynter Institute, the non-profit center for reporters that owns the St. Petersburg Times. The faculty gave cheerful reports about conferences they'd just attended -- conferences of black journalists, Asian-American journalists, Hispanic journalists, gay and lesbian journalists. They spoke of the story ideas they'd come away with and how impressed they were with the people they'd met.

Then I was asked to speak.

I waved a syndicated op-ed piece I'd cut out of the Times about the widening income gap between rich and poor. Why weren't they talking about that, I asked. Why did we have to be constantly carved up by race and ethnic group (as well as by sex)? Wasn't the world bigger than that, and weren't the issues broader?

Silence fell. Stares followed. Maybe I had chosen the wrong moment to raise my concerns. But I didn't see these people often. I grabbed the chance I had.

Later, the black woman who had invited me took me aside and told me I had sounded angry. I was. I was in the same shoes as the Angelo Hendersons of the journalism business. I, too, was gripped by frustrations, although they aren't the same as his.

I want my work to prompt discussion, not name-calling. I want to write about race without my knees knocking over what my colleagues will think. I want to find new ways to talk about race, ways that are deeper and more accurate than the blacks-as-victims, whites-as-perpetrators mind-set cast in cement since the '60s. I want to be able to write about race without being dragged through the mill.

There was the column about the white Tampa man whose son had just had his bike stolen by a black child, how angry the father was, how ashamed of the prejudice he felt rising in his throat. The piece was held for 48 hours. The racial identifications of the people involved were moved from the lead to almost the bottom.

There were the columns I've written about St. Petersburg's police chief, who is black. In a city with a shameful history of race relations, he operates, in my opinion, with as much contempt for some white officers as some of his white predecessors had for blacks. This is not what I would call progress, and I have said so in print. And paid for it, in small, telling ways, including strained relations with other colleagues, black and white, who suspect my motives.

When I hear the chill in their voices, I have to fight the impulse to label them, as I suspect they have labeled me. I think of a colleague who said I knew as much about race as Archie Bunker. Or the colleague who proposed a staff meeting about my columns, because black readers he knew didn't like them, and I needed to fix what I was saying.

It's hard not to take this personally. The struggle in newsrooms over race is no different than the struggle that takes place in neighborhoods and workplaces the country over. I had a black friend at the paper, gone now, who defended me to her friends. As a joke, she used to call me H.B. The initials stood for Head Bigot.

When I write about race, searching for new ways to talk about it and deeper understanding, sometimes I write well, sometimes not so well. I am subject to the same vagaries as anybody else. For my efforts, I have been accused of not being a decent, honorable human being.

And they call this diversity?

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