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‘A Conflicted Cultural Force’: What It’s Like to Be Black in Publishing

There is, in a curious way, a greater openness to books by and about Black people, but that has not necessarily changed the structure of the industry. Every major publisher now is singing the “diversity of voices” blues. They want to increase diversity of voices, but diversity of voices doesn’t have anything to do with anti-Black racism in publishing.

Many a publisher is issuing lists of books that mostly white people should read to inform themselves about the issue. It almost seems as if these books are being bought and read as if they were a genre of self-help book. The scandal for me is that, as a result of reading these self-help books, will there be self-improvement? As with most self-help books, the answer might be no. After all of this hoopla, after all of this self-education, I worry that we’re going to wake up and be exactly where we were before any of this happened. I don’t think that as a result of white people reading certain books, we’re going to be living in a postracial America.

The industry is predominantly a white industry. The number of Black editors in New York City is shockingly de minimis. I work for the largest American book publisher, and I cannot name more than a handful of Black editors there. That is not particular to Penguin Random House, that is endemic to the industry. And I think unless you have systemic change from top to bottom, publishing will remain a conflicted cultural force, that preaches something but doesn’t practice it.

Race has affected my career both positively and negatively. Black editors are subject to a certain kind of racial profiling that white editors are not subject to. I’ve had to, to one degree or another, fight against that — fight against presumptions of what kinds of books I should be interested in or publishing.

Positively because it’s allowed me to spread my wings, publish all kinds of things against imagined stereotypes. Several years ago, in the wake of outrage at police violence, I was able to simply go out and commission a book called “Policing the Black Man.” It was simply assumed that I would do such a book, so it facilitated things in a certain way. But I have interests that extend far and wide. There have been occasions where the very fact that I was proposing something seemed especially fascinating because it was coming from an unexpected source.

My condition as a Black man in racist America and, by extension, in the publishing industry, which is informed by systemic racism, has not changed in 40-plus years. What has changed are responses to that condition. It’s a far better place to be at a publishing company nowadays than it was, say, 40 years ago, when people would say overtly racist things. Now that is not that case, but that doesn’t mean that the plague has disappeared. It is there and one has to deal with it in one way or another every single day. But the industry claims to be open to change, and that is a huge difference. Publishers 40 years ago were not talking about these issues. These issues just simply didn’t exist.

You shouldn’t be able to walk into a publishing company and imagine apartheid. And by that I mean there should be integration from the lowest positions on up to the highest positions. Every aspect of the publishing chain, from marketing to sales to publicity, should contain a rainbow coalition of people. That is my dream, as opposed to having a mostly white hegemony that seems that it would never change.

Erroll McDonald is the vice president and executive editor of Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of Penguin Random House.

Interview by Concepción de León.

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