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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Pamela Newkirk

We caught up with our friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Pamela Newkirk.

A former reporter for Albany’s Knickerbocker News (1984-87) and a professor of Journalism at NYU, she visited the Writers Institute in November 2019 to present her acclaimed book, Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business (2019), a landmark survey of recent efforts to bring racial equality to America’s major corporations and institutions. Diversity, Inc. was a TIME Magazine "Must-Read Book of 2019." Purchase the book.

Pamela's 2019 events at UAlbany and the Times Union's Hearst Media Center were cosponsored by the University at Albany School of Business and UAlbany Alumni Association. In 2017, she was a featured guest at our Telling the Truth symposium at the University at Albany, where she participated in a panel discussion titled "The End of Newspapers." (See video on our Facebook page. Video begins at the 4:30 mark.)

Q: Where are you now?

A: I'm social-distancing with my husband and dog (our Shih Tzu, Miso) in our Upper West Side apartment which, fortunately, is sunny, bright and relatively spacious (for New York City!) and a half-block away from Riverside Park.

Q: How would you advise Journalism students to make the best use of their time during these strange days?

A: My journalism students -- who are now scattered all over the country and one in the Philippines -- are hard at work on articles on the pandemic which they've managed to do from their bedrooms, thanks to social media and their own grit. Students in my Advanced Reporting class, all seniors, are writing 3,000-word capstone articles which they have had to adapt to conform to our new reality. I'm extremely impressed with the level of dedication and integrity they've brought to their work under extremely challenging circumstances.

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

I was in the midst of a book tour when the pandemic struck. While most of the events were cancelled, several were hosted online. Thus far I've done several virtual talks, a podcast interview and presented a paper at a virtual conference. I am scheduled to do a few webinars. I was scheduled to be a faculty speaker at this year's NYU Graduate School of Arts and Science graduation and just recorded my remarks for a virtual graduation ceremony. So life -- and work -- go on!

Q: What are some good ways to spend our time?

A: This may be obvious to some, but it's a good time to take up meditation and yoga. I've practiced both for several years and believe they helped prepare me for this period. The idea of radical acceptance cultivated in Mindful Meditation is especially useful right now. It's also a good time to watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. We can all use a good laugh and all ten seasons are on HBO on Demand.... I'm a big walker but since the pandemic I have been far less mobile. I was just thinking about maybe getting a jump rope.

Q: Anything you'd like us to read?

A: Since I'm in the midst of a hectic semester there has not been much time to read new works but I did recently finish a brilliant novel by one of my former students. In My Mother's House by Francesca Momplaisir, a house that bore witness to years of trauma is the main character. It pulls you into a world of immigrant strivers and is beautifully written. I also loved James McBride's new book, Deacon King Kong. Like many of McBride's books, it crackles with humor and uncanny turns-of-phrase, but it's also brimming with social commentary and recalls a period in New York City that I had almost forgotten. I have a long list of books on my summer "must-read" list.

Q: Is social distancing difficult for you?

A: Social distancing is not that unusual for writers so it has not been particularly difficult. The only challenge has been the inability to see my grown children, one who is in Brooklyn and the other in Boston. We regularly FaceTime one another and have a family chat each weekend.

Q: What do you do to stay sane?

A: Sometimes I have to turn off the news. Not an easy thing for a journalist to do.

Q: Is there any skill you'd like us to perfect while we have the time?

A: I think many of us assumed we'd find more time to learn a language or some other skill but instead find ourselves working longer hours than ever as work bleeds into our personal lives. So the most important skill is that of self-care and maybe tuning out and allowing yourselves to be unproductive. That big closet-organizing project can wait.

Pamela Newkirk's previous books include Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (2000), and Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (2015).

Listen to an excerpt from Diversity Inc.

Read an excerpt

I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to journalism and higher education, both fields in which people of color are radically underrepresented. In three of four newsrooms, I was the only African American news reporter. I would later become one of two people of color on New York University’s tenure-track journalism faculty and for a time was one of the few tenured African American female professors on the entire faculty of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

During more than three decades of my professional life, diversity has been a national preoccupation. Yet despite decades of handwringing, costly initiatives, and uncomfortable conversations, progress in most elite American institutions has been negligible. While racial/ethnic minorities make up roughly 38.8 percent of the national population, they comprise just 17 percent of full-time university professors, which includes faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Put another way, non-Hispanic Whites, who comprise roughly 61 percent of the population, hold 82 percent of full-time professorships. Hispanics and Blacks, who together encompass roughly 31 percent of the US population, are just 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of full-time professors. Their numbers have barely budged over the past few decades.

The field of journalism has not fared much better. Four decades after the newspaper industry pledged to create newsrooms that reflect the proportion of minorities in the population by the year 2000, they, too, remain disproportionately White. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans combined held 16.55 percent of newsroom jobs, based on the 2017 annual newsroom survey released by the American Society of News Editors.4That number was even a slight decrease from the preceding year, and when online news sites were excluded, the percentage of minorities dropped to 16.3 percent...

I explore diversity across numerous fields but pay sustained attention to three fields in particular: academia, Hollywood, and corporate America—each of which has publicly and privately grappled with the issue over the past five decades. They are among the fields whose leaders have in recent years renewed their commitment to diversity, collectively pledging billions of dollars to commission studies, set up training sessions, and hire consultants and czars to oversee diversity programs. These efforts have, among other things, shored up a multibillion-dollar industry, expanding opportunities for an ever-growing number of law firms, consultants, and senior-level executives. It’s impossible to understand diversity without exploring the big business of it, the tension between the rhetoric and expenditures, and the chronically disappointing results. In recent years, organizations have begun to use the term diversity and inclusion to underscore the need for compositional diversity and institutional belonging. Unless otherwise indicated, the word diversity will imply both.

In examining the data and conversing with scores of people on the front line of the movement for change, I discovered some of the reasons why, despite decades of deliberation and multibillion-dollar initiatives, many are still pondering and gesturing rather than meaningfully increasing diversity. Perhaps most surprising is that many of the fields that are considered the most progressive, such as the arts and entertainment, are the least diverse and that corporate America—despite remaining challenges—has in many instances made far greater strides toward employing and promoting racial minorities.

The plodding pace of change a half century later makes clear the need to reframe the diversity conversation of recent years from a rosy we-are-the-world ideal to one fired by a mission to combat systemic racial injustice and pervasive delusion about where we stand. Our current predicament is part and parcel of an enduring ideology of White preeminence and the callous resolve that America’s global ascent justified the means by which African Americans, Native Americans, and others were ruthlessly exploited. This ethos permeates mass media, so-called high art, the Western literary canon, and our criminal justice and educational systems. The dismal numbers reported year after year are a predictable outcome of this morally impoverished calculus.

Reviews and interviews with Pamela Newkirk, author of Diversity Inc.

The real reason our workplaces aren’t getting more diverse, Interview with Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar, October 23, 2019, NPR Marketplace

A Q&A with Pamela Newkirk, author of ‘Diversity, Inc.’ October 22, 2020, Christian Science Monitor

Diversity initiatives fall short in the workplace, aired October 23, 2019 on WNYC Radio


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