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We now live in such a media conscious world that no one was fold for a single minute when the New York Times began its series on Race.  No one believed they had any intention to honestly explore and take a fresh look at the issues surrounding race relations in America.  No one expected them to get beyond the hoariest platitudes and exhausted clichés.  There was never even the remotest chance that they would challenge their own, and their readers, elite assumptions.  The fundamental unseriousness of the project was reflected in the parodies that even the Times's fellow liberal organs, like The New Republic, felt compelled to publish and by a comment from Mickey Kaus, of Slate magazine, whose Kaus Files provide the Series Skipper, condensations of interminably boring newspaper serials like this one so that folks can discuss them as if they'd read them.  Even Kaus said that he hadn't condensed How Race is Lived because he would have had to read it first.  No, from the start it was well understood that this much ballyhooed endeavor was simply a bid to win a Pulitzer, which it promptly and predictably did.

The entire series has been collected here and there are accompanying websites which reprint most of the material, as the Times imitates a demented Roman Emperor building monuments to himself.  Unfortunately, to have them all gathered in one place and to try to struggle through the turgid pages is to realize just how utterly banal the whole project truly is.  Though the settings for the various pieces range from churches to boardrooms to tv studios to army barracks to locker rooms to slaughterhouses, the stories have a deadening sameness to them.  But even worse, where one would think that the sameness is the story, it is instead ignored, because what it tells us is inconvenient and doesn't fit a storyline that the Times wants to tell.

First of all, the only races in the series are black and white.  Asians and Hispanics only rarely make appearances, and when they do it is often to illustrate a point about blacks.  Thus, Governor Gary Locke of Washington shows up, but only so we can see how he was able to use his Asian background and the accompanying positive stereotypes to his advantage in politics, while black rivals felt compelled to play down their race, with its negative stereotypes.  Likewise, in the story on two Cuban immigrant friends, they are not on hand to explore the plight of Hispanics in America, instead the story focuses on how much harder it has been for the darker skinned man to assimilate than the fairer skinned.

The second unifying theme is that the whites in these pieces are universally sick of the entire subject.  To a man (and woman) they just want to get beyond it.  They recognize that blacks have been victimized by racism in the past, seem genuinely sorry about that fact, seem to be trying very hard to improve their own attitudes and behaviors, and are now ready to let the whole matter drop.

The third theme is that blacks are not so willing.  To judge from the Times, black America very carefully nurses its grievances, perceives racism and discrimination lurking behind every statement, glance and action of white Americans, and is now just waiting around for some external force to change this situation.  In the most chilling scenes in the series, blacks act to segregate themselves, to push away whites who seek to join with them, and to denigrate any black who "acts white"--i.e., shows an interest in getting an education.  The most depressing story here is about three girlfriends in the South Orange-Maplewood, NJ school system who drifted apart in High School, largely because the black girl's black peers put pressure on her not to associate with non-blacks.  The other affecting piece is about the young white man who was recruited to play quarterback by historically black Southern College but left after two years of race baiting and death threats.

As the general themes and these specific articles show, there is an interesting and important story just waiting to be told, but the Times ignored it and its implications.  Suppose the Times had asked and sought to answer the question that its own reporting raises : if racial tension in America essentially boils down to lingering black resentment, however justified, against whites, and if whites are no longer willing to apologize and compensate for past prejudices, then where will racial progress in America come from in the future ?  Doesn't it necessarily have to come from blacks themselves, figuring out some way to get beyond the horrible things that were done to them in the past ?  And while, presumably, no one would suggest that blacks abandon their own culture, doesn't the general hostility to and rejection of white culture that the series chronicles suggest that blacks will continue to have an extraordinarily difficult timer succeeding in what, like it or not, remains a fundamentally white (western European, Judeo-Christian, liberal/capitalist/protestant/democratic) culture in America ?  Set aside the issue of whether blacks are entitled, in some abstract sense of concepts of justice, to more compensation from white America; the fact is that they aren't going to get it, so what do they do now ?

But to even ask these questions would antagonize the readers and the core constituencies of the Times.  And worse, they don't give out Pulitzers to series that ask these kinds of questions.  So the reader is faced with a massive psychic disconnect in this book as it relentlessly refuses to consider the most obvious questions it raises.  There's a funny scene in the movie Barcelona where a lunkheaded character asks his friend something to the effect of  :

    Okay, I get the idea of subtext, but what's above the subtext.

How Race is Lived in America has a similar problem, it is all subtext with no text.  One can only assume that's because the text that the stories force upon the whole series was simply unacceptable to the editors of the Times.  Therefore, coherence and the potential for social usefulness were sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.


Grade: (D+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -OFFICIAL TIMES WEBSITE : How Race is Lived in America (NY Times)
    -TEACHING GUIDE : How Race is Lived in America (NY Times)
    -BOOK SITE : How Race is Lived in America  (Henry Holt)
    -DISCUSSION : REGARDING RACE :   A New York Times series is examining the state of race  relations in everyday America. Where do U.S. race relations stand in the year 2000? Are there racial issues that need further discussion? Times reporter Dana Canedy, former Times writer and George Mason University professor Roger Wilkins and Dartmouth College professor Mary Childers take your questions. (PBS Newshour Online, July 2000)
    -ESSAY : How Race is Really Lived in America (Richard Rodriguez, Salon)
    -ESSAY : How race is lived in America :  New York Times journalists reflect on the making of a series (Cathy Cockrell, Bekleyan)
    -ESSAY : The New York Times Race Series Misses the Mark  (Makani Themba-Nixon, AlterNet, July 25, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Honesty Is Not the Best Policy : The New York Times is at it again. (Jonah Goldberg, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Big Story, Little News : An ambitious series on race leaves more to be said (JACK E. WHITE, TIME)
    -ESSAY : On Race, Online : Digital Afterlife of a Powerful Series (Lauren Janis, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -ESSAY : Angier's Wager? Race schizophrenia at the New York Times (Steve Sailer, V Dare)
    -ESSAY : Gersh on Washington : Race, Money and Washington  (NBR Washington Bureau Chief Darren Gersh,  6-30-00)
    -PARODY : How Race is Lived in America : Day 91 (New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of  How Race is Lived in America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart by Correspondents of The New York Times (Spring Harbor Press)
    -REVIEW : of How Race Is Lived in America (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)

    -"How Can You Tell  An American?" :   A Full-Time  Coordinated Studies Program  The Evergreen State College
    -The Multiracial Activist : Multiracial Issues in the Media and Other Organizations
    -SPECIAL REPORT : All mixed up :  Salon presents a special report on multiracial America.
    -ESSAY : Home Base (Andrew Sullivan, June 2001, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Confessions of a former self-hating white person It took a broken heart to teach me that guilty white liberals aren't the solution to America's racial strife, but part of the problem. (Joan Walsh, Salon)
    -LINKS : Race Relations (Mining Co.)