The news broke last week that The New York Times was parting ways with its first ever woman Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, and ever since, the air has been thick with speculation that she was fired because she noticed that she appeared to be being paid less than her male predecessor, and objected.
Much of the coverage has focused on Abramson’s departure, on the suspicion that she was the victim of discrimination, and on the larger implications for women’s leadership in media, especially since Abramson’s departure occurred in the same week as the resignation of the first woman editor-in-chief of Le Monde, one of France’s major dailies. People were outraged, and vocal about the fact that Abramson, who allegedly confronted the powers that be at the Times about her purportedly unequal pay, appeared to have been punished for “leaning in” and bridging “the confidence gap.” She was doing everything we tell women to do to conquer sexism, and she lost. It’s almost as if sexism isn’t something that individual women can’t fix alone, but rather, a complex social, cultural, and legal structure that can only be dismantled through collective action.
It seems highly likely that Abramson’s charge of discrimination is an accurate one — and her former boss Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. isn’t doing himself any favours in his condescending, tone deaf descriptions of the still-employed women who he considers to be model Times employees. The furor about sex discrimination is justified. But the nearly-exclusive focus on Abramson, a white woman, ignores the fact that her replacement, Dean Baquet is the first Black man to serve as Executive Editor of one of the world’s most influential newspapers. His appointment is of enormous historical significance, and barely anyone is talking about it. In our rush and determination to defend the rights and progress of a white woman, we’re ignoring the progress being made by a Black man.
This is an age-old American story, a quintessentially American tension: when progress happens, when rights are granted or upheld, the spoils must be granted to Black men or to white women — but never to both at once. Time and time again, the twisted white supremacy and misogyny embedded deep in the heart of America demands that we choose: Black men or white women?
This is the story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. The two had been allies, united in securing voting rights for their respective groups. But when the rubber hit the road — when it became clear that the Fifteenth Amendment wasn’t going to pass with both race and sex as a protected categories — that alliance fell apart, and Anthony and other white women turned on Douglass and the other Black men agitating for equality. “We say not another man, black or white, until woman is inside the citadel,” Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote — referring, of course, to white women only. “If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.” America has to choose: Black men, or white women. We can’t have progress for both at once. Women of all races would wait until 1920 before they were granted the right to vote. And even when we see progress for one group, it’s limited, tenuous, and fragile. Black people of all genders would spend decades of the twentieth century fighting for the right to exercise that right.
This is the story of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2008, there could only be one, and the debate over whom it would be — the Black man or the white woman — was, at times, ugly. No, hideous. During the primaries, Gloria Steinem insisted that in contemporary America, gender was a greater barrier to success than race. Voters were asked not only to choose a loyalty — Black or woman, an impossible question for Black women — but to make that decision while weighing the issue of electability, of whether the country was more “ready” for a Black man or a white woman. During the general election, people — mostly women, and mostly white women, at that — embittered by Clinton’s loss, or rather, enraged by Obama’s victory, called themselves PUMAs, and played on (or were played by) the old American insistence that progress cannot be made by Black men and white women at the same time. As a country, we have to choose, and the taking of sides, as it was for Anthony and Cady Stanton, is an ugly business.
And now, this is the story of Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet. Those who are outraged by the seemingly sexist treatment of Abramson are justified, of course. And they are under no obligation to give the Times credit for making a progressive staffing choice after first making what appears to be an incredibly regressive one. The fact remains, though, that a progressive choice has been made. The Gray Lady has its first ever Black Executive Editor. That is cause for celebration, but that celebration has largely been buried by the rightful anger over how his predecessor was treated.
In moments like this, the weight of American history, the American tendency toward stark contrasts and binaries, and the American discomfort with ambiguity, demands that we choose. We don’t have to. We can be simultaneously angered by sexism and thrilled by racial progress — while wondering if, and hoping that, if this old American dynamic can be undone. We can acknowledge that just as misogyny and white supremacy usually go hand in hand — in fact, because they go hand in hand — progress toward racial and gender equality is halting, contradictory, conflicting, and complicated as hell. We can, to quote the wildly racist poet Walt Whitman, contain multitudes.