In recent weeks, many organizations have issued statements supporting the nationwide movement for racial justice, committing to promote internal diversity and inclusion. Among these organizations is the National Book Critics Circle, in which one Penn professor, who is a former NBCC president and longtime board member, is facing backlash for objecting to the ideas referenced in the organization's proposed statement written in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In its statement, NBCC hoped to acknowledge the organization's “culpability in this system of erasure” of Black voices in the majority-white publishing industry. When NBCC President Laurie Hertzel shared the proposed statement with other board members to solicit feedback over email, Annenberg professor Carlin Romano replied that he took issue with several claims in the statement.
Romano wrote that in the email to the NBCC Board that he disagreed with the statement's claim that “white gatekeeping stifles Black voices at every level of [the publishing] industry.” He said this premise is “unfair to the white publishers that have been working to elevate Black writers, and Black voices, for years.”
“Equating American book publishing with American police departments is ridiculous,” Romano wrote in his email to the Board. “Many of the writers cited in the letter‘s own list would never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the dedication of black writers.”
Romano's emails prompted pushback from other members of NBCC and the Penn community. Fifteen of NBCC's 24 board members have since resigned due to a "wide range of reasons," and NBCC has received nearly 20 emails calling for Romano's removal, according to the organization's website.
Philadelphia-based writer Emma Eisenberg also started a petition calling on Annenberg faculty and deans to fire Romano from the school due to his "racist remarks." Romano is currently scheduled to teach COMM 378 Journalism & Public Service this fall.
Romano said his comments are not racist.
Romano’s comments have since sparked widespread media outrage, which began when Ugandan American author and former NBCC board member Hope Wabuke, who suggested the organization release a statement that supports Black Lives Matter, tweeted screenshots of the email exchange in which Romano expressed his distaste for the statement’s presumption that the publishing industry reaped the benefits of white supremacy.
On June 11, Wabuke tweeted, "Effective immediately, I resign from [NBCC] because racism. It is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain."
Wabuke did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In response to the email exchange, Eisenberg started a petition to have Romano fired from Penn and barred from teaching his fall course. In the Change.org petition to Annenberg faculty and deans Eisenberg wrote that Romano's “views on race and responsibility are severely damaging to the young people he might encounter, particularly Black students and other students of color.” The petition currently has over 235 signatures.
“My alma mater can do so much better in determining who stands in front of its classrooms and constructs syllabi to inform and inspire young scholars,” 1991 Wharton graduate Stephanie Renée wrote on the petition’s website.
NBCC Vice President of Membership Richard Santos wrote in a June 29 statement that once the required number of active NBCC members join the demands currently seeking Romano's ousting from the board, a special membership meeting will be scheduled to vote on his removal. According to NBCC bylaws, Santos wrote, removal of a board member is only possible if two-thirds of meeting attendees vote for removal.
As of now, Romano said he has no plans to resign from his position at NBCC or Penn.
“I’m a free speech person. I don’t believe in silencing people,” Romano said. “And I deeply believe in the NBCC as a place where people can state their opinions freely. I won’t resign because I want to restore those values to the organization.”
Romano said he feels he has been wholly misrepresented by media outlets on social media, which he said are falsely claiming he opposed the publishing of NBCC's statement.
Romano said he was happy for NBCC's statement in favor of Black Lives Matter to go out, whether or not his objections were addressed.
“I am pro-Black Lives Matter. I am in favor of greater diversity in the book publishing business," Romano said. "I am not racist, not by a long shot.”
Romano formerly served as NBCC President and Literary Critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has also served a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.
1978 College graduate Daniel Akst, a Wall Street Journal columnist who left the NBCC Board in the year prior to the controversy, said Romano’s tendency to express less-than-popular opinions with the group led to some tension, but believes Romano remained “crucial” to the board.
"Like any good critic, he’s full of opinions, which he doesn’t hesitate to express with sometimes painful bluntness, likely to irritate nearly everybody sooner or later,” Akst said. “As such, he’s indispensable. The NBCC, and Penn, are lucky to have him.”
In addition to Wabuke, John McWhorter, a member of the board and an associate professor at Columbia University, also recently resigned from the board for unspecified reasons. Though McWhorter wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian that he thinks some of Romano’s comments were “unideal,” he does not believe they were unjustified.
“Claims that racist bias is rife in modern American publishing are nonsense, as is anyone's claim that the NBCC needs 'schooling' on how to acknowledge 'diverse' work,” McWhorter wrote.
He added that he views Romano's email to the NBCC as honest, not racist.
"Of course, Black writers are less responsible for helping white ones, and Carlin wasn't ideally gracious in putting it that way. But what he meant was that white writers have helped Black ones a lot over the past fifty years, understanding that they needed to,” McWhorter wrote.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the emails were exchanged between Hertzel and Romano, while in fact the emails also went to the rest of the NBCC board. A previous version of this article also stated that Romano is a professor at Ursinus College, while in fact he no longer works there. The DP regrets these errors.