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executive editor's view.

Racial Profiling at the Bookstore--and in Our Hearts and Minds

It's a 21st century dilemma our grandparents would not have imagined: Now that we have more than a handful of books by and about people of African descent available for sale in bookstores nationwide, which section of the store do we go to find them? Recently two black authors--both notorious in quite different ways for polemical ferocity and impolitic opinions--published highly visible newspaper columns questioning the use of the hard won African American interest category on bookstore shelves.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Ward Connerly, the infamous black anti-affirmative action activist (who calls himself an "advocate against racial preference"), attacked the local bookstore as "the last bastion of segregation in America," when he discovered his book had been placed in the "African-American Interest" section, rather than in the general "New Releases," "Politics and Government" or "Autobiography and Biography" categories.

Now Connerly's book Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences (Encounter Books, $24.05, ISBN 1-893-55404-X), has not yet been reviewed in BIBR, although his colunm suggests to me now that this wouldn't be a real concern to him. (Let us note, however, that his book was published in February, or Black History Month! Certainly that's an ironic coincidence.) Still, at our weekly BIBR editorial meetings we've been conscientiously, but so far unsuccessfully grappling with finding a thoughtful reviewer who is prepared to offer more probing insights into Connerly's book and the controversy over his public profile than simply labeling him an "Enemy of Black People."

Maybe we should have asked author and commentator Stanley Crouch (whose first novel Don't the Moon Look Lonesome, published in April, was noted under "BIBR Recommends" in the July/August issue). Not that we wanted to guarantee Mr. Connerly's book a positive review--just a fair one. Anyway, Crouch, who unlike Connerly gives affirmative action policies his somewhat qualified support, recently slipped into the Amen Corner with Mr. Connerly on the subject of "literary segregation." He reported in his New York Daily News column that Connerly called him to let him know that in northern California Crouch's new novel was "put in the black section, next to lesbian and homosexual writings." To his credit, Crouch's first reaction was, "I can't say that I was indignant." He does quote Connerly's observation that in bookstores "customers largely ignored what seemed to them marginal literature written about homosexuals, lesbians and black people." Which customers does Connerly mean? White? Straight? How about narrow minded and poorly informed?

Marketing or merchandising categories rarely fit any author like a glove, and black authors, indeed any author writing on black interest subjects, are no exception. Publishing sales and marketing people know that in this sound-bite media world a precise, well-considered substantial description of a book's content and the author's intentions is rarely the best way to prompt an impulse buy on the selling floor. It's the role of book reviews to pay close attention to a book's content and context when making a critical judgment--and why BIBR in particular fills a crucial void.

Yes, the so-called niche categories may not be the most heavily trafficked sections in the bookstore chains, but they are an enormous convenience to readers who fit the relevant demographic. As a black reader with very broad interests I browse most sections in the bookstore when I have the time--and I'm delighted when I run across black authors in the general sections--but it's so helpful being able to hit the black book section quickly for a particular title, and I am generally lured by the proximity of other black titles to buy more than I had planned. And here's another book buying tip from a savvy black consumer: For immediate access to black titles of interest that are not necessarily mainstream bestsellers, visit independent black booksellers.
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Author:MCHENRY, SUSAN
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:638
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