The veteran New York Times reporter who tendered his resignation after allegations he used the N-word during a 2019 trip with high-schoolers also argued that “racism is over” and that black people “can get out of the ghetto if they want to” during the trip, according to a student who attended.
Donald McNeil — the Grey Lady’s public health reporter during the coronavirus pandemic — allegedly made the remarks during a July 2019 trip to Peru as part of the broadsheet’s “Times Journeys” program, a student on the trip told the paper.
Sophie Shepherd recalled that one of her first interactions with McNeil was trying to strike up a conversation with him about the trip’s optional reading assignment, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” a 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning history book criticized in retrospect for a soft approach to colonialism, Shepherd told the Times in a piece published Sunday.
“He got very defensive very quickly about it,” recounted Shepherd, who was 17 at the time of the trip. “[McNeil said] It’s just a book, it’s just making this point, it’s very simple, it’s not racist.”
Shepherd told the Times that at first she “felt terribly guilty — like I must have come off as a crazy liberal.”
But later that day, she said, the group was having lunch at a cafe when McNeil used the N-word in a discussion about racism.
Though bothered by McNeil’s use of the racial epithet, Shepherd recalled feeling sorry for the grizzled journalist over the generation gap separating him from his teenage charges.
“There was this atmosphere where people didn’t like him,” she told the Times. “He was kind of a grumpy old guy.”
A few nights later, Shepherd said that she again tried to strike up a conversation with McNeil, this time mentioning that her favorite class at Massachusetts’ prestigious Phillips Academy Andover had covered racial discrimination within the American education system.
“It’s frustrating, because black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over,” Shepherd recalled McNeil responding. “There’s nothing against them anymore — they can get out of the ghetto if they want to.”
When Shepherd tried to argue the point, she said that McNeil simply talked over her, attracting the attention of two other students on the trip who confirmed the account to the Times.
“This is the thing with these liberal institutions like Andover,” Shepherd recalled McNeil saying. “They teach you the world should be like this but that’s not how reality is.”
Asked by his own paper about Shepherd’s account, McNeil declined to discuss the incident at length until his resignation becomes official on March 1.
“I’m sure we’ll have different memories of conversations that took place that long ago,” he said.
McNeil, who has been with the Times since 1976, was let off with a warning after his use of the N-word was reported by the Daily Beast, but ultimately decided to submit his resignation, admitting that he used a “racial slur.”