CNN has been engaged in either a purge or a make-over in recent weeks, depending on one’s point of view. One of the talking heads given the gate was Roland Martin, who describes himself on his blog as “a dynamic and engaging journalist.” Upon getting the bad news, Martin, who is African-American, took a hard look at his own career and abilities, applied an objective analysis, and concluded…that CNN was racist. He told the Huffington Post:
“You have largely white male executives who are not necessarily enamored with the idea of having strong, confident minorities who say, ‘I can do thisWe deliver, but we never get the big piece, the larger salary – to be able to get from here to there.”
Martin cited as proof the fact that when he guest-hosted a show for the network, the ratings didn’t drop: “If it’s a ratings game, and we won, how is it I never got a show?”
This is the permanent handicap a legacy of racism in the U.S. culture and the workplace bestows on American blacks. Not necessarily discrimination, but the impossibility of ever knowing whether discrimination and not legitimate factors have been the reason for a career setback, a failure, or the inability to advance. It is potentially crippling if the African-American, like Martin, uses the doubts created to relieve him of the duty of honest self-assessment, and to block him from the responsible course of rededicating himself to improving his skills and marketability.
I don’t blame Martin for making the choice he did. I have been fired a number of times, and as a well-connected, white, WASP male, I never had anyone to blame but myself, or believe me, I would have loved to point the finger elsewhere. Since I couldn’t point the finger elsewhere or find a vendetta or conspiracy no matter how much one would have let me off the hook of my own failings, I had to accept that fact that a substantial reason for my career collisions were my own failings. As a black man, Martin had another option, and, as I might have in his position, took it. Unfortunately, accepting the assumption that prejudice and bias is what blocked his way at CNN will continue to impede Martin’s success professionally and personally.
Of course it’s possible that CNN management bias undermined Martin, though I doubt it. As dynamic and engaging as he thinks he is, I always found him to be a pugnacious race-baiter with a knee-jerk response to every issue that could be predicted with near 100% accuracy by anyone who had watched him pontificate more than once. I often wondered, in fact, if Martin was only on CNN to boost the network’s minority component, rather than because he had anything unique or appealing to offer audiences other than his color and reliable liberal slant, unless the network thinks there is a market for arrogance. (Then again, Piers Morgan still has his job.)
And voila! There is the other handicap America’s racist past has inflicted on its black citizens: a nagging doubt by black professionals and often those who deal with them that their positions were acquired through affirmative action—that is, bias of a different kind—rather than merit.
Other than eliminating affirmative action as a first step, I have no idea how to address the reasons for Roland Martin’s plight, but I know this: in cases where there is doubt regarding the cause of a serious problem, the rational and responsible approach is to assume the cause is the one you have the power to address, even if that assumption is a painful one. Martin should handle his crisis like any white professional must, by assuming that it is his responsibility to perform an unblinking audit of his assets and deficits, and to do the hard work necessary to increase the former and minimize the latter. He can’t change his race. He can improve his skills and appeal to audiences; anyone can.
Yes, it is unfair that Roland Martin or any African-American should have to wonder, “Was it my failings, or racial bias that lost me my job?” He is smart enough to know, however, that automatically crying racism does nothing to address either the nation’s race problems or his professional ones, and indeed exacerbates both.