Nonetheless, Boyd continued his remarkable rise. When he was assigned anew to the White House, he writes, “I did not feel as if my race had anything to do with my getting the post.”

Here the narrative enters its trickiest territory, for if race worked to undo Boyd’s career, it had just as clearly helped make it. He had been the beneficiary of a special brand of affirmative action, fast-tracked by a management suddenly sensitive about its own stark lack of diversity.

This, of course, was unfair to the highly capable Boyd from the start. As his colleague Bernard Weinraub recounts, he was saddled with a double burden: “to represent his race and create the best journalism.” Boyd’s leapfrogging ascent in an intensely competitive environment stirred powerful resentments, which found in the Blair scandal the kind of socially acceptable cover it needed to surface.

As a younger African-American peer of Boyd’s, I know something of the dynamics of racial resentment at the Times. When I was assigned to cover the Caribbean in 1990, certain white colleagues grumbled openly that I owed my promotion to affirmative action—even though I spoke French and Spanish and was busily learning Creole, and had done successful stints in Haiti amid outbreaks of political upheaval. Later, my very first conversation with a new foreign editor consisted of a telephoned shouting-down about calling the newspaper racist (I had not) over its Africa coverage.

Someone who did not know him well might well be surprised to learn of Boyd’s student militant phase, when he briefly adopted the name Uganda X. By the time he became entrenched at the Times, he had shed common manifestations of black identity in favor of the corporate culture. He armored himself with a firmly buttoned-down style, ironic repartee, and an inscrutable poker face, of which he was proud. “I became proficient at getting more from others than I gave to them,” he writes.

An abiding irony of the Blair scandal—and of the rap that Boyd had been his “rabbi”—is that he was always leery of being cast as the “editor for blacks.” Nor was he especially involved in nurturing people of his race, not that this should have been required. A newspaper more serious about diversity would have shared that responsibility widely throughout management.

There are moments in this book where Boyd rues having allowed the Times to so dominate his identity. In the end, his strategy of being the consummate company man proved to be a dubious survival technique.

Still, his account provides a timely opportunity for a beleaguered industry to think deeply about diversity. The Times seems to favor blacks who don’t make whites feel uncomfortable—as even Boyd did from inside his cocoon of inscrutability. In practice, this suggests that only the most thoroughly assimilated minorities (politically, culturally, some would even say physically) get in the door or get ahead.

If this is diversification, one might wonder, what’s the point?

 

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was the Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. At present, he is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation and is researching a book on China and Africa. French's most recent book is "Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life," with Qiu Xiaolong.