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Facebook stalking in the name of affirmative action

Ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on affirmative action, I recall how at Roll Call newspaper, I was told that one of our three interns had to be from a racial minority. Diversity is important, but giving someone an advantage beyond his experience degrades the applicant and the hirer.

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Meanwhile, besides my Facebook-stalking of candidates who had sent in resumes and published clips, I was systematically approaching groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and historically black colleges like Howard University. But as soon as I mentioned the fact that these were unpaid internships, the conversation was over.

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Eventually, I convinced Roll Call that offering a salary to interns was a way to widen the search. And that $10-an-hour slot did seem to improve the diversity of the candidates applying for the spots.

The next problem was that I was pressed for time and collecting applications from all over the country, which meant that I was unable to interview candidates in person. I was back to sleuthing: Did the student belong to any organizations that might give an indication of his racial background? What about languages spoken? Did her newspaper clips reflect an interest in diverse topics?

These all turned out to be more useful methods of research than the illegal tactic of simply asking a job applicant about his race. And in some ways it was all part of the thorough investigation I did of most candidates for these spots, since I needed to hire interns who had a foundation in journalism experience and could write well. I spent hours reading clips, poring over cover letters, making notations, ranking the applicants in a pile. For summer internships, the competition was fierce: as many as 100 viable applications for what had been reduced to two spots.

In the end, I can say that I put my finger ever so slightly on the scale for the candidates who were both accomplished journalists and from diverse backgrounds. Most of the time that meant that one out of my two interns was from a racial minority but also highly qualified to be an intern at Roll Call.

Occasionally, the process got clumsy and almost funny: Once, I assumed from the spelling of a name an ethnicity that wasn’t there. Sometimes a intern from a racial or ethnic minority was from a private-school, privileged background that seemed to defeat the purpose of giving advantages to those who might not otherwise have them. Another time a young man announced to me on the last day of his internship that he was biracial. Who knew? Who cared?

Overall, this focus on race felt ultimately racist itself, a process that was less about journalism and more about race. To this day, I haven’t admitted to any of the wonderful interns I hired that their ethnic or racial background had been even the remotest factor in the hiring process. In fact, I’m sure they would be appalled to think that they were chosen for anything other than their journalistic potential.

THE MONITOR'S VIEW: Redefining campus diversity


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