Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More on Integration and the Honesty of Debate

An article entitled “Dividing Lines: Why Book Industry Sees the World Split Still by Race”, which appears on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, dovetails with some of the previous posts concerning integration in a way that may be of some interest. The article notes that, in many book stores (Barnes and Noble being a notable exception), novels that are written by African-American authors and/or feature African-American characters are shelved in a separate “African-American” section, rather than in the general fiction section. In the main, the article discusses the pros and cons of this approach from the standpoint of the authors, many of whom -- at least as represented in this particular piece -- view it as a positive thing. The claim is that displaying these works in a way that makes them easily found by audiences who are specifically looking African-American fiction helps their sales. The article adds that many “[m]erchants and publishers say such sections also brighten the chances for new, undiscovered writers.” Others, however, see this practice as a two-edged sword, noting that although it may help launch an author to a certain point, it is not likely to enable him or her to compete with the most successful authors of the day, whose audiences may not frequent the African-American section of the book store.

As I was getting toward the middle of this somewhat-lengthy (by WSJ standards) article, I finally came upon the paragraph I suspected was lurking in there somewhere -- the one that discusses a lawsuit that has been filed to challenge this practice. The article reports that Pearson PLC’s Penguin Group has been sued by author Nadine Aldred, who writes as Millenia Black. Ms. Aldred reportedly alleges that the publisher asked her (among other things) to change certain characters in a recently-published novel from white to black or “race-neutral,” in order to make the novel more appealing to African-American readers. The article indicates that these requests were not ultimately implemented, but that the lawsuit proceeded anyway. I have not been able to lay hands on a copy of the complaint, but the article reports in general that Ms. Aldred claims that the publisher’s policies are racially discriminatory.

I would venture to say that in plain terms they probably are; books are being expressly categorized by race. The question of whether this kind of sorting results in any kind of discrimination against people (rather than books) is something about which volumes could undoubtedly be written by people who are much smarter than I am. Indeed, some might argue that this kind of sorting is essential to provide appropriate service to certain audiences -- which the publishers, booksellers and authors apparently assume are largely African-American -- and is therefore necessary to ensure equal treatment of all customers. (I must say this sounds vaguely familiar). And some might argue that the compromise should be to display the books in question both in an African-American section and in the general fiction section, just as many other types of books are presumably double-referenced in such a manner, until the point when there are so many of them that this becomes truly impracticable -- at which point, the argument would go, neither the books nor their audiences “need” a separate section anymore. (Also a little familiar). In all events, with respect to books and their presumed audiences it seems that we do still know how to debate honestly the question of whether and under what circumstances race should be taken into account in order to achieve a desirable social purpose. Of course, with respect to books the debate is over whether to consider race in order to maintain a species of “segregation,” whereas with respect to schools the purpose of considering race is to achieve integration. Is that the difference?