Members Only | March 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

Using the n-word did not end Donald McNeil’s storied career at the Times. His incuriosity did

Issac J. Bailey has the last word on issues of journalism, not wokeness.

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It wasn’t the utterance of the n-word that ended Donald McNeil’s career with The New York Times. It was his incuriosity about maybe the most important story of our time, his comfort wrapped in a kind of blinkered ignorance, that likely did him in.

I’m not talking about the pandemic, for which McNeil’s reporting has been rightly praised and may net him a Pulitzer. I’m talking about rapidly shifting racial demographics in the United States and what that means for our democracy, cultural understanding and a host of related issues that include science and public health.

That’s the way he comes across in his own four-part series of columns explaining his exit from the Times. It doesn’t much matter that he also sounds ornery and a bit entitled to say whatever he wants because he’s been allowed to for such a long time. He even admits a time in which he said something so nasty about his boss, and shared it with colleagues, he expected to be fired. Gruffness is not a disqualifier inside newsrooms. It is a hallmark of many (though not all) accomplished journalists.

This episode is bigger than McNeil. The response speaks volumes about how far we are from having the serious, nuanced discussion needed to get us to a better place.

I’ve worked with such men and women. They’re often great allies once you understand them. I don’t doubt McNeil is in that number. But their demeanor can make you angry. They sometimes cross the line into disrespect, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. Their presence, though, often forces those around them to remain on alert and have to refine their thinking in ways that often improves their work. It’s why it would be unwise to usher them out the door before fully considering what effect losing their voice, no matter how gruff, would have on our ability to fully understand the complex, gut-wrenching issues we’ll be facing for the foreseeable future.

This is about the point where I must state a few things for readers afflicted by white fragility, which makes it difficult for many to earnestly grapple with points-of-view about race that make them uncomfortable: I’m not calling McNeil a racist.

I have no reason to believe he is. I would have had no problem if he were still a reporter with the Times. (He was forced or encouraged to resign though had the opportunity to take on a different role, which he reportedly declined.) Journalists who have the kinds of biases and blind spots illustrated by McNeil’s own words should not be ushered out of newsrooms to make room for the so-called “woke.” I just wish men like McNeil were more willing to examine themselves than presenting their long resumes as a kind of inoculation against even sincere, and much-needed, criticism.

Not only that, but management at the Times did not handle this well. That, however, is frankly typical of large media outlets that seem to not understand the need for radical clarity and transparency not only from those they report on but from themselves. It made little sense to tell McNeil he “lost the newsroom.” It’s the job of the managers and supervisors to set expectations and ensure everyone in the newsroom can be at their best no matter whom they are paired for a particular assignment, not McNeil’s.

Also, notice how I’ve barely mentioned the n-word incident. After reading McNeil’s explanation, speaking to others inside that newsroom and reading the independent reporting, I’m more convinced than ever that was not the reason he is no longer with the Times, except maybe in a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of way. Besides that, McNeil’s decision to list in his letter the times the n-word was spelled out in the pages of the Times to contrast with his actions, and assert he was a victim of racial discrimination, underscores a glaring need for him to commit to soul-searching.

His Black colleagues would not have been upset had McNeil and his editor decided to spell the word out in an article if they had deemed it necessary. No serious person argues that such situations are off limits to anyone, Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American or white. But that’s not what McNeil did on that now-infamous trip to Peru during which he was representing the Times as an expert. He was neither reading from Huck Finn while talking to those teenagers nor quoting NWA.

His use of the n-word was ill-advised, no matter his intent. That’s what started this, not “woke” colleagues, not ill-defined “cancel culture.” We are here because of his actions—not those students’. That’s why his incuriosity is most damning.

In the context he decided to utter the n-word in all its glory, he had no good reason to. None. It was unnecessary. Every white journalist—every white person—knows if he chooses to do such a thing, it will raise questions about his judgment and what else he has been doing and saying, no matter how many times his supporters quote Ta-Nehisi Coates or Barack Obama, point to the conclusion of Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Troublesome Career of a Strange Word or dig up Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. Hell, I’m Black but still pause before uttering the word in any context. I understand its power.

McNeil’s use of the n-word was ill-advised, no matter his intent. That’s what started this, not his “woke” colleagues, not his bosses, not ill-defined “cancel culture.” We are here because of McNeil’s actions—not those students’. That’s why his incuriosity is most damning. The irony is that though he was determined to teach those white kids a thing or two about race, had McNeil listened more intently and considered more seriously what they were saying, he would have been better off, more informed. 

In Peru, he got facts wrong about controversial events, such as the Minstrel Carnival in South Africa that was once named the “Coon Carnival,” even as he was lecturing teenagers to think beyond what they already believed. He argued that “the United States was never an imperial colonialist power in the way that Britain and France and Portugal were.” He argued that colonialism is over. He joked about racial disparities in standardized testing. He claimed to understand systemic racism is real—before essentially explaining why it isn’t. He chided a student for feeling “obligated to speak up for brown and Black people who can’t speak for themselves,” even knowing there was a lack of Black and brown students to speak up for themselves on that trip. He spouted straw-man arguments on subjects that require nuance and expertise.

McNeil wrote about one of his exchanges with a student this way: “I got exasperated and said something like: “Look, I don’t accept the far-leftie notion that there’s this Manichean split: all the evil in the world is done by white men, Americans, the US government, the CIA, colonialism or whatever, and all the rest of the world—brown and Black people, women, Latin America, Africa, etc.—are their victims. That was the line I heard at Berkeley 40 years ago when everyone read Max Weber and socialist countries actually existed and everyone was trying to prove they were more radical, more Communist, more Trotskyist, more Spartacist than each other.”

McNeil waxed poetic about how some Black people are in prison “because they actually committed violent crimes. You can’t blame it all on institutional racism.” Some Black people are in prison because they actually committed crimes and not solely because of the racist foundation of the prison system? Who knew?!

Representing the Times, McNeil said this to a group of mostly-white-well-off students on a trip: “And, I added, in my opinion, Black teenagers don’t do themselves any favors by adopting the gangsta ethic—dressing like thugs, glorifying violence, beating up women. Nobody will hire you if you look like a thug—even Obama said ‘pull your pants up—there are grandmothers here.’ It practically taunts the cops to target you. And once you’ve got a prison record, it’s really, really hard to get a decent job.”

Someone who understood systemic racism would have probably pointed out how absurd it is to blame young Black dudes for their mistreatment by the criminal system because of the way they dress. But that someone isn’t McNeil—or at least it wasn’t him in his own explanation. His own descriptions of his heated exchanges with students came across as a smugness bathed in racial stereotypes that have gotten Black boys like Trayvon Martin killed. Let’s be honest. His words would have found a welcome home on “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2012 and “The Tucker Carlson Show” tonight.

It’s more than that, though. I don’t feel an urge to sift through McNeil’s 40 years of work. Besides, if I took such a route, his defenders would accuse me of being unfair. But Jonathan Myerson Katz has never forgotten a piece McNeil wrote during the Obama era under the headline “Cholera’s Second Fever: An Urge to Blame.” Katz had discovered that a United Nations mission caused a cholera outbreak in Haiti, leading to the deaths of 8,500 people. McNeil soon thereafter focused on the importance of remembering that “the blame game for pandemics eventually involves everyone.”

It included this: “And the ‘fault’—if that’s the word—often lies just as much with the victims as with the vectors, since, as in syphilis’s case, they are careless about whom they cavort with, and with cholera, they must lack good sanitation for it to spread.”

A journalist who fully understood systemic racism would have asked: Why do they lack good sanitation? What role, if any, does racism play in that reality? What’s the best way to counteract it even while juggling other concerns? It was not apparent in that piece that McNeil had considered such things. That he didn’t should give pause to everyone who wants to write this off as just another overwrought “cancellation.” 

We are amid a once-in-a-century crisis that has disproportionately sickened and killed Black and brown people while Black and brown people have been disproportionately left behind by early vaccination efforts. Any journalist—every journalist—who touches this story must be fully aware of the roots and reaches of systemic problems and biases that are among the primary reasons we find ourselves in such a precarious situation. For all the well-earned praise McNeil has received, his blind spots on race—revealed by his own words—should also be scrutinized. The story is too important to look the other way, to allow this to be the latest front in the overwrought cancel culture wars.

It’s bigger than McNeil, though.

The response to this episode speaks volumes about how far we are from having the kind of serious, nuanced discussion we need to get us to a better place.

For radical clarity one last time: I didn’t want to see McNeil fired. I don’t believe he is racist. Viewpoint diversity remains crucial and always will be. But that means Black colleagues who raise questions about the racial views of a white colleague, particularly a celebrated one, should not be demeaned as “too woke” or “too sensitive” or told to just swallow what they believe is offensive and unhelpful behavior. That’s what they’ve been forced to do at places like the Times for far too long. That has to end. And now.

What should white people learn from this episode? That just because you aren’t racist doesn’t mean you are immune to ways of thinking that can be harmful and affect your work in ways you don’t realize. That a Black colleague’s decision to raise those issues aren’t always an attempt to make you feel guilty or silence you, but rather to improve your work and their own. That that’s true even when management gets it wrong.

Issac J. Bailey

Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s been published by The New York TimesWashington Post, CNN, Politico MagazineTime, among many other publications. He recently released his third bookWhy Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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