July 13, 2013 was a heavy day in New York City.
The summer swelter hung in the air like steam rising from a hot, damp cloth. Hustling up the steps from the subway, I legitimately could not tell whether the subterranean stifle was stickier than the “relief” awaiting me at street level.
If racism were a natural phenomenon, it would be humidity. Dense, suffocating, unrelenting.
Less than two weeks into my new job with the New York City Department of Education, our team had a special session. The verdict in the case against the man who murdered Trayvon Martin had just dropped. The majority of our team were Black men, still processing the news yet aware that the community would be looking to us for answers.
Our task was to design and launch innovative new high schools that would radically transform outcomes for Black and Brown youth in the nation’s largest school district. On the day that #BlackLivesMatter was born, we questioned the core focus of our own work.
Did it matter if we built great schools for the Trayvon Martins of the world only to have them gunned down by the George Zimmermans? Who is building the schools that prevent the creation of future George Zimmermans?
We didn’t have answers, only more compounding and painful questions.
Now we find ourselves in a moment of reckoning. The publishing industry is yet another institution responsible for educating the populace—and it’s failing miserably.
Think about the current moment: Could the right progressive school or enlightening book have prevented Derek Chauvin from kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds? Would the other officers involved have intervened if they had read an essay on critical race theory or a pamphlet on police brutality before that moment?
The absence of such anti-racist learning and literary spaces has real ramifications for Black bodies.
The big question: is the publishing industry ready to confront its own historical anti-Blackness?
“But Paul,” you interject, “look at how the current New York Times Bestseller list for non-fiction is now dominated by anti-racist books! That’s surely a sign of progress!”
I gently remind you that it was only a few months ago that the largest bookseller in America was committing “literary blackface” by slapping darker hues on white characters from famous novels. In both the UK and the US, the issue of an appalling lack of diversity in publishing has been studied to death—yet concrete change seems elusive.
Why is that?
Publishers are drinking their own Kool-Aid.
They simply haven't made a concerted effort to balance the scales in a meaningful way. They love being data-driven when it comes to boosting those profit margins yet the data goes out the window when it comes to building truly diverse workplaces and delivering representative content for audiences.
As the gatekeepers of culture and learning in society, publishers have a huge burden to bear in terms of educating current and future generations out of anti-Blackness and prejudice.
Publish anti-racist content or perish
Publishers must now meet the moment.
We need mountains of new, anti-racist literary content to begin to unravel a canon suffused with anti-Blackness. New works must be vetted with a stronger lens for equity and inclusion so that another American Dirt never happens again.
I get it. Many well-meaning white allies and accomplices (there’s a big difference) in the publishing world have taken a step back to make space for Black voices. That’s good.
But within that vacuum has been a noticeable absence of white folks demanding specific changes from the publishing industry that will meaningfully dismantle its white supremacist tendencies.
I hesitate to get so prescriptive. But here I am, yet another Black person doing the work for the white folks in control of the publishing industry by telling them exactly how they must do better.
Because it’s an urgent matter for my people, I’ll do what Black people have always done—shoulder the burden for the rest of society. Here’s a list to get publishers started on tackling anti-Blackness in their industry:
1. The publishing industry needs its own truth and reconciliation commission: Conduct internal investigations on anti-Blackness within the publishing industry coupled with real reparative actions. Uplift the voices of Black people within the industry and bear witness first.
2. Reform the role of agents: Replace the so-called tastemakers blocking greater proliferation of Black works with a mosaic of new publishing professionals.
4. Shift the content: Strengthen commitments to the development and dissemination of anti-racist content.
5. Empower new leaders: Support the creation and growth of more literary spaces led by BAME/POC writers (like ZORA).
6. Focus on the next generation: Aid families working to raise truly anti-racist children.
7. Reform school curricula: Increase direct engagement with Black-owned bookstores and schools working to embed anti-racist texts in educational programs.
8. Set equity quotas: Develop clear benchmarks for increased publication of BAME/POC authors (like Jacaranda Books) as well as hiring and retention of BAME/POC staff.
9. Build stronger talent pipelines: Open new fellowships and channels for access to the industry for underrepresented groups and transparently track progress annually.
The era of publishers supporting the racist status quo in one of our most sacred industries must now end. Without publishers hopping onboard the anti-racism train—which is now leaving the station—we simply cannot move forward as a society.
The lives of Black people genuinely depend on publishers taking a long hard look in the mirror and shifting the balance of power within the industry. We’re no longer asking. The demands for proactive anti-racism across all industries are growing louder with each passing day.
Your move, publishers.
Paul Perry is a freelance journalist and writer. After 10 years of working in education and nonprofit management, his reporting and opinion pieces focus on race, politics, and justice. His work has appeared in The Intercept, Inside Philanthropy, Priceonomics, Next City, and various other publications. Paul also leads a digital marketing and content strategy agency.
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