It’s Fall, and writers are submitting their best stories, essays, and poems to literary journals, which have reopened after the summer break. The readership for many of these journals may be small, but they are powerful gatekeepers for aspiring poets and literary authors. Many journals receive hundreds, or even thousands, of submissions every month, from which they typically select only a few pieces for publication. Of the works they publish, they nominate only a handful for prestigious prizes—such as the Pushcart, the O. Henry, and the Best American series—which can launch a young writer’s career.
In apparent violation of federal anti-discrimination law, a growing number of literary journals across the United States are openly discriminating based on race or ancestry in setting the fees they charge to writers submitting their work. By following the current trend toward race essentialism, literary journals are establishing an ominous precedent, while flouting the fundamental principle of equality under the law, regardless of skin color.
Submitting work to journals is easier now than it once was. Gone are the days of mass postal submissions and stamped self-addressed envelopes. Most journals have transitioned to electronic portals such as Submittable.com to manage submissions; and they often charge hopeful authors a submission fee to defray their operating costs. All you need to do is upload your piece, pay your money, and keep your fingers crossed. A single story or poem might be rejected dozens of times before it finds a home.
Even though these fees are typically quite low—five, ten, or twenty dollars—they can start to add up, especially when one considers that the payment for published work offered by these journals is often nominal. Historically, journals have been mindful of the hardship their fees can impose. Harvard Review, Yale Review, and many other prestigious publications offer need-based fee waivers or fee-free submission periods in the case of authors suffering financial hardship.
Recently, however, many journals have taken a different approach: They are assigning fee waivers on the basis of applicants’ skin color and ethnicity. At Ecotone (affiliated with the University of North Carolina), for example, “historically underrepresented writers” may submit earlier than others, and are exempt from fees entirely, regardless of financial need. A similar policy was implemented at Indiana Review(Indiana University Bloomington), where “Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color (BIPOC)” writers were automatically exempted from fees. (Non-BIPOC writers were required either to pay, or to request fee waivers on an individual basis.) At Black Warrior Review (University of Alabama), those who are a “Black, indigenous, or incarcerated writer … may skip the Submittable process and email your submission directly to the editor … for no fee.”
These race-based fee structures violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by universities and colleges that accept federal funding. In the case of public universities, race-based fees also run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And yet, this sort of overtly race-based treatment has continued largely unnoticed and unchallenged.
Perhaps these developments should not come as a surprise. Literary journals are simply exhibiting the fixation on racial and ethnic identity that has become a mainstay of academia and mainstream publishing. But trying to atone for past discrimination by imposing differential race-based treatment on citizens isn’t just illegal in many cases; it also serves to stereotype non-white people as poor, beleaguered, and victimized. And it serves to overlook those who do need assistance because of disadvantages they’ve suffered in life, but who don’t possess the immutable characteristics considered to be an indicator of struggle and strife.
Moreover, these practices foster societal division by elevating superficial differences over all the elements we have in common. This undermines the sense of empathy, imagination, and intellectual freedom required to create compelling literature; and deadens the unifying, inspiring, and humanizing effect that art can have on us.
In the grand sweep of things, the submission policies of small literary journals may not seem to be an important issue. But it represents yet another challenge to our liberal values—and a harbinger of what kind of racially Balkanized society awaits us if we allow unconstitutional race-based policies to become the new normal in American cultural life.
Leigh Ann O’Neill is managing director of legal advocacy at the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR). Brent Morden is managing director of FAIR in the Arts.