On a logistical level, Africana's 15-month gestation was fraught with complications. Grueling deadlines led to overexertion. Editors contended with bouts of plagiarism. Open revolt broke out among nearly a dozen staffers. All this turmoil eventually led to a crippling worker slowdown in the middle of the project. Most startlingly, a very low representation of African-Americans on the core editorial staff (four of 17 writers at the most) inspired a dozen employees to ask the management team to hire more African-Americans. ... What made this project so beset with bitterness?
Perhaps it was the great expectations of Gates the public humanist. Though Gates is only one of four Afropedia partners, he is Africana's front man and biggest personality. Politically, Gates is neither radical nor neo-conservative, but rather a thoughtful, learned voice of black progressive liberalism who has consistently been able to translate his intellectual ideas into books and articles geared toward non-academics. Pundit Adolph Reed Jr. called Gates "the freelance advocate for black centrism," while Time once voted Gates one of the "Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans." An outspoken advocate of affirmative action, the 49-year-old West Virginia-bred Gates also has voiced his concerns about the responsibility of corporations to soften capitalism's rougher edges. "A more humane form of capitalism is about the best I think we can get," he told the Progressive last year. "Which might sound very reformist or conservative, but that's basically where I am." While the notions of better business practices and affirmative action may mean different things to different people, some Africana employees told Salon Books that when it came to working for Gates the CEO, they encountered a split between Gates' progressive theories and Africana's bottom-line practices. ...
Eventually they would be rejected by publishers at Random House, Simon & Schuster and by new-media companies Voyager and Prodigy.
A publishing industry insider tells me that reference book companies figured Gates' encyclopedia would turn out to be both high profile and a piece of junk, so why trash their corporate reputations over it?
So in 1997 when Microsoft agreed to underwrite the project, the team jumped at the opportunity.
... To lure writers, Africana posted advertisements around Cambridge offering 15 cents a word to temporary writers. The writers who signed up on salary were mostly students between undergraduate and advanced degrees and would receive somewhere between $25,000 and $28,000; editors, some of whom were Harvard fellows or professors, received salaries in the $50,000 range. (For a university town, Cambridge can be costly. One-bedroom apartments generally rent for around $1,000 a month, which would be half a writer's salary, before taxes.) Writers would have benefits packages only if they had a previous arrangement through Harvard as a student. ...
With a large deadline looming at the end of August, the staff grew desperate. Writers had to meet the first milestone by August, a numbing 250,000 words that the group had to submit to Microsoft so that Africana would get its first advance. "It was as if they said, don't worry about quality, just get quantity," the senior employee said. According to one observer close to the project, the writing turned out to be lousy. "I was appalled by the quality of material. The entries were woodenly conceived. They had linear chronologies," he said. "These writers were not very experienced. They were at the low end of the freelance chain." When writers turned over their sources, an editor discovered that some entries were barely rephrased versions of the entries from the Macmillan. In the end, Africana had to hire a temporary staff to rewrite the plagiarized sections, all of which were purged and replaced. "There were huge, huge mistakes that never would have eluded Skip [Gates] had he seen them," the senior staffer contended.
... On Oct. 3, 1997, writer Hendricks and 11 other staffers sent a memo to Gates, Glenshaw and the rest of the management team suggesting significant editorial and personnel changes for Africana. The memo specifically asked Africana for a clearer mission statement, benefits for writers -- which would include medical and dental coverage -- and an employee-matched retirement plan. As Hendricks explains, "We wanted to hold it to a higher standard." Employees also wanted more specialists, and last of all, suggested that Africana hire more people of color.
Some editors now maintain that had Africana spent $10,000 more on writer's salaries, it could have hired more seasoned candidates and tempted more African-American scholars in the process. Among writers on the core staff, African-American representation never reached more than four out of 17 and none of the core editing staff was black. "We took a look around and said, 'Jesus, we're 90 percent here and we're not comfortable with this,'" said the senior staffer about the paucity of blacks. "I wouldn't buy an encyclopedia about women if it were written by men." It seems that despite Gates' formidable reputation, few blacks applied to work on Africana. Moreover, the editors whom Salon Books spoke with say that they were never given any directive by Gates to pursue African-American applicants. Part of the affirmative-action agenda involves seeking out applicants who have been previously denied opportunity.
Yet making an airtight case of hypocrisy against Gates isn't so easy. How far does an employer have to pursue it? How much time, for instance, should be spent searching for diverse candidates before such searches are deemed inefficient? And if such searches don't yield competitive candidates, how important is it to give an opportunity to a worker who is not qualified, but might rise to the occasion if given a chance? Still, it's remarkable that Gates -- a black luminary -- wasn't simply surrounded by bright, ambitious young African-American scholars who could foresee what their participation on this project might mean to them or their resume.
Or, perhaps Harvard blacks had too much sense and better things to do with their time than toil in Skip Gates' sweatshop?
Does the fact that Gates was somehow stymied by the problem of affirmative action hiring say more about him, the shortage of highly educated black candidates willing to work for peanuts or the very problems inherent in affirmative action itself? After all, it may be an easy practice to embrace in the abstract, but when you're running a fast company, who has the time for theory?
For meetings, Gates would have the staff convene in Barker Center, a humanities building where the Afro-American Studies Department is based. Indeed, every staffer interviewed for this story contended that they never once saw Gates step foot in the central Africana office in Vanserg itself, despite the fact that Gates' own house is right across the street. Not surprisingly, such aloof management only exacerbated worker resentments. In October, he drew the staff together and gave them an ultimatum: For those who don't like the project, there's the door. Gates also said that plagiarism would not be tolerated. The Oct. 3 petition was rejected out of hand -- and on the delicate issue of hiring more African-Americans, Gates apparently told staffers: "Affirmative action? I'm Mr. Affirmative Action. You think I'm not all for affirmative action? But look, what we hire here are qualified people, people who can do the work. White people can do this work, and black people can do this work."
Yes, but these are jobs blacks just won't do.
By the way, that reminds me of Ed Rubenstein's recent VDARE.com article on the huge percentage of economics Ph.D. students in American universities who are foreign-born. One reason that tenured economics professors are about as pro-immigration as strawberry farm owners is that they both profit from cheap immigrant labor.