Black and White in Color
Thanks to deep, close-to-the-bone reporting, the New York Times' series on race in America offered three-dimensional portraits and remarkable insights into the nation's intractable dilemma. But was the focus too narrow?
By Keith Woods
Keith Woods teaches journalists how to report and write about race relations at the Poynter Institute. He has taught ethics and writing seminars in South Africa.
F OR MONTHS, REPORTER Janny Scott talked about almost nothing but race with director Charles Dutton. As a writer on the New York Times' blockbuster series, "How Race Is Lived in America," she climbed down into the chasm with Dutton, an outspoken black man whose anger and suspicions about discrimination in Hollywood rose like heat from the newsprint. By the time the story about the making of the HBO miniseries "The Corner" hit the newsstand on June 11, Scott had glimpsed the depths of racial complexity.
Mireya Navarro had navigated her way through a tale of cold, practical race relations among building executives in Houston for her series-ending piece, "Bricks, Mortar and Coalition Building." She had learned some things about challenging preconceptions and had come to a clearer understanding of what people mean when they say the only color that matters is green.
And as the dust settled a month after the landmark series ended, the two reporters looked back and, between them, found one more truth about complexity and color that was worth writing down.
Scott: "I never thought that Charles was talking to me as a white person. I never took what he says about white people personally. I'm just realizing that, just now. I wasn't thinking of myself as white."
Navarro: "This was the first time I was sitting down with people and thinking, 'I'm Hispanic. That's in their mind.' I think usually people look at me as the New York Times first and as Puerto Rican second, third or fourth. This time, I was very much aware when I was talking with a person that he was looking at me as a Latina."
That's how race is lived. In America. In journalism. In the country's first major race project of the new millennium. It's full of contrasts, colliding perspectives, unexpected introspection. For six weeks, with 14 stories (some topping 7,000 words), a buzzing Web site and a Sunday magazine dedicated to the topic, the Times set out to tell stories that showed race relations in action.
The series took readers to school, the police department, politics; onto the Web, into a slaughterhouse, onto the football field; into the military, the newsroom, a church, the hip-hop scene. Launched at what Scott calls a "nerve-jangling" meeting at an editor's home 14 months before the first story appeared June 4 and culminating with the unfiltered July 16 magazine finale, the series was a fresh cut on a subject that grows grayer but never grows old.
It was an exercise, says Assistant Managing Editor Soma Golden Behr, in "breaking the mold." In the pieces of that broken form are insights into interviewing, writing and reporting across race, insights for journalists wanting to take their craft up a notch.
Where it succeeded, the series showed how race wraps itself around the daily lives of people like a second skin, sometimes adding texture and substance to relationships, sometimes chafing and rending from the tension. The stories put to lie the cliché "I don't see color," and showed that people not only see it, but see it in its smallest and most meaningful manifestations.
"It got into the cracks and crevices of the story of race relations and told it in human terms," says former Milwaukee Journal Editor Sig Gissler, who leads Columbia University's programs on covering race relations.
Where the Times fell short was in promising, with its title, more than it intended to deliver. This was a series designed, by and large, to be about black and white people in America, and the truth of race relations in this country is far more complex and intriguing than that.
The series did break free of many conventions that often characterize reporting on race. It pulled away from the pulpit, presenting stories that drew no grand conclusions and preached no sermons. Instead, Times readers got three-dimensional characters who had to be considered in their fullness. They got stories that defied the false dichotomy of race relations, where racism is devastating only when a cross is burning, and where those with prejudices are easily declared pariahs.
"I was surprised at how complex [race] is and how complicated it is and how deep the divide remains," says Times Deputy Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, who led the series with Golden Behr. "There has to be a better way. Race can't loom so large that you can't talk about it, and yet [it can] take such a toll on people. You can't operate as a society like that. There just has to be a better way. There has to be. I think that's what these stories were trying to document, in order to start addressing it."
Kevin Sack's leadoff story set in a Decatur, Georgia, church confronted readers with a white man beloved by many black worshipers, though he referred to them as "colored" and called others "niggers." The story forced readers to wrestle with the dissonance of the white man's black friends, who struggled to live up to the tenets of their faith while their own relatives turned away and accused them of wanting to be white.
Amy Harmon captured much of the confusion in a single passage of her June 14 story "A Limited Partnership," about black entrepreneur Tim Cobb and his white friend and former partner, Jeff Levy. When Cobb and Levy had to decide who would be the CEO of their new Internet venture, the practicalities of race and prejudice pushed Levy to the fore, though the company was Cobb's idea, and he was better qualified for the position.
"They did not think people would refuse to invest simply because Mr. Cobb was black. Not exactly," Harmon wrote. "They just thought a black C.E.O. would make the company look more unusual, Mr. Levy said."
The story of Cobb and Levy was about friendship, and it had virtually none of the examples of racist behavior most familiar to newspaper readers. Yet, Harmon showed with the details only time and good reporting can provide that the destructive impact of subtle racism on Cobb's wallet, his career, even his marriage was undeniable.
That was the series' strength throughout: Racial truths woven into a narrative and left bare for the reader to discover, interpret, reconcile. And the truth was that people are still miles apart in understanding race in America, even when they are best friends, business partners or holding hands and praising the Almighty. The Times sought to lay that out for readers and provoke conversations beyond the newsprint and Web site.
The approach did not play to universal rave reviews. Time magazine's Jack E. White complained that the newspaper offered "basically the same message the mainstream media (including Time) rediscover every few years and bring forth as a revelation."
The New Republic delivered its criticism less directly, but with sharper teeth. The magazine lampooned the Times in mid-June with a spoof of the series' relationships theme, as stories meant to break the mold of race-relations storytelling danced perilously close to a formula all their own. The magazine spoof paired white, conservative curmudgeon Sen. Jesse Helms with black, liberal Rep. Maxine Waters (who was later featured in the Times' Sunday magazine paired with white, gay Rep. Barney Frank).
An overline of The New Republic story declared: "WE DON'T CARE WHAT ANYBODY SAYS, WE'LL RUN THESE STUPEFYING ARTICLES EVERY DAY UNTIL WE GET THE PULITZER." The logo carried this tag: "Ninety-first article of a series."
"H OW RACE IS LIVED in America" was more than two years in the making, and grew not out of the legal breakdowns and cataclysmic uprisings that have spawned other such work, but out of the silence that came after the fires had died down and O.J. had left the court building. Boyd and Golden Behr remember marveling at the meaning behind the quiet as their idea for the series took shape.
"If you look at the story of race in this country over the last 30 years, it's a story of some progress that brought with it interaction between the races," Boyd says. "This silence that has come with it has taken on added meaning. It tells us that we have a real problem. We hoped the series not only showed people how difficult it was to talk about race, but got at why. If we can begin to understand the why, perhaps we might want to do something about it."
After securing the blessing of Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld and the support of the newspaper's six major desks, the Times burrowed into the silence with 13 reporters, 14 photographers and seven editors, three of whom also wrote stories. Twenty-one of them were white, seven were black, five were Hispanic and one was Native American. The team was chosen, Boyd says, based on talent, experience and interest, and was fairly representative of the Times staff, with one exception: No Asian Americans reported on the project.
The unusual undertaking began with an unusual meeting at Golden Behr's Manhattan home in April 1999. There, 20 reporters, editors and visual journalists, most of whom would end up working on the series, were given this assignment: Talk about your background. Talk about your fears. Talk about what racial attitudes you bring to the table before you talk about the series.
At that meeting, there were stories. There were tears. There was silence. And there were stories in the silence. That's what Boyd wanted to get at.
"We thought from the beginning that our challenge was to be able to engage the subject of race in an honest way and get the characters in the stories to talk about it in a truthful way," he says. "And we thought that if we were going to ask or even demand that of people, then we had to be honest about our feelings. We struggled early with how we were going to deal with these things as editors so we could get it out there and be honest about it."
Some people talked about themselves, Boyd says. "Others chose not to."
Janny Scott didn't talk much. "I don't think any of us knew what we would be asked to do," she says. "We went in somewhat blind. It's a very unusual experience to be taken off-campus to the home of an editor, to sit down for an all-day, nonstop meeting. But we plunged head-first into the unusualness of what we would be doing. It was a much more racially mixed group than we were accustomed to. It included some of our superiors. It was absolutely nerve-jangling. At the end of that day, I really wanted to be a part of it. I knew it would be a different reporting experience and a different human experience. It would be shaky terrain."
Long Island reporter Charlie LeDuff, whose June 16 story of a North Carolina slaughterhouse showed in bloody detail how racial prejudices were constructed as hogs were being "disassembled," went to the meeting with more than 10 story ideas and this attitude: "That's OK. That's fine. If this is what it takes. You're the boss."
The whole idea of looking inside himself before reporting on someone else is part of his normal strategy, he says, so there was no epiphany waiting for him when he got to what he calls the "encounter group" at Golden Behr's house. "I try to do that on every story," he says. "I'm trying to know as much as I can about you. So I'm trying to know as much as I can about myself."
Still, he says that, though he didn't know who went to the meeting already enlightened or who came away changed, the idea was clever. "Did we get there?" he asks. "Maybe. One person cried. But, look, the proof is in the pudding. Read the stories."
A meeting at Boyd's home followed. Writers were asked to submit memos proposing stories. They met individually with teams of editors to hash out the ideas. They did more reporting, wrote more memos, had more meetings.
"There's no question at all that this process that we used would help sharpen attitudes about race," Boyd says. "The whole point of it was to get people to buy in. I wouldn't necessarily say that everybody involved bought in to the same degree."
Senior sportswriter Ira Berkow missed the gathering at Golden Behr's house and was happy he did. The memos and meetings rubbed his journalistic hide the wrong way, and it was more than he figured he needed to do after 35 years in the business, a bunch of prizes and more books than most. "I'd like to think I know what I'm doing," he says. The process "seemed to me to be stamping out something. It seemed sort of mechanical. I kind of resisted that."
Berkow's July 2 story, "The Minority Quarterback," was a tale of race relations turned on its head. The white kid, Southern University's Marcus Jacoby, is in the minority on campus, and he's the one trying to figure out how much of his trouble is their prejudice and how much is his paranoia. The story gave white people a different angle on how minorities are often treated and gave black people a chance to see what it looks like to be cast as the oppressor.
Berkow found The Process onerous. He "flunked the first memo" by saying too little about what he had learned through his reporting in too many words. He did more reporting and declared himself ready to write. An editor disagreed. "There was an argument," Berkow says. He handed in a story and says he was told, "This would be an excellent story for Sports Illustrated or for a features page, but it's not ready for the front page."
He wrote more. The editors asked for more. "In fact, they'd said, 'Research a book of 100,000 words and give us your best 8,000 words,' " he says. The story got longer. The editing got tedious. When it was over, Berkow took another look at the road he'd been forced to travel.
"I resisted the process," he says. "But if I judge by the reaction I got from people when the story appeared, I guess the so-called process worked."
Berkow had his subject in mind before the first meeting. So did Kevin Sack. Michael Winerip cracked the blue wall of the New York Police Department for his July 9 story, "Why Harlem Drug Cops Don't Discuss Race." To do it, he enlisted Executive Editor Lelyveld, who called Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who called the police commissioner, who suggested the narcotics unit. Others took months to find the right fit, following trails that often led to reticence and rejection before someone said yes.
In one of the essays writers and photographers wrote for the Times Web site (www.nytimes.com), Steven A. Holmes described how, after overcoming his unfamiliarity and the Army's official suspicion, his June 7 story out of Fort Knox, Kentucky, "Which Man's Army," crystallized during a conversation with Bravo Company drill sergeants:
"During a lull, Earnest Williams, one of the black drill sergeants, told me he had to move the company's truck to another spot and asked if I would like to ride along. Sitting inside the cab, Sergeant Williams began speaking about his frustration in not getting a promotion and how he felt he was not getting ahead because of his race....
"As I listened to Sergeant Williams and thought about the lively talk I had just had with the other drill sergeants, a thought came to me. These were men‹and they were all men‹who were pleased that a reporter for The New York Times, a person they deemed important, wanted to know what they thought. In an age when so much of the news media seems fixated on the lives of politicians, celebrities and dot-com millionaires, they couldn't believe that a major newspaper was interested in them."
A S THEY SEARCHED FOR stories, the editors were looking for three things: cross-racial relationships; broad, deep access; and variety. As many as 75 percent of the story ideas didn't work out for one reason or another, Boyd says. Lost during the winnowing process were stories about federal employees; somebody from comedian Chris Rock's HBO show; anyone from the show "Law & Order."
Lost, too, was a story idea about the relationship between a West Indies nanny and a Hispanic nanny and the women who employed them. Had that one worked out, it might have cooled some of the heat the series has taken for its narrow racial and gender cast.
"It's an old issue," one reader wrote in to the Times' online discussion, "but it seems, from my Asian American point of view, the insulting old hash all over again about 'race in America,' i.e., black and white, with, maybe this time...a token amount of Asian American point of view."
In the America of this series, race is lived mostly by black and white people, and mostly by men. Five of the central characters in the 14 installments are Hispanic, one is Asian, and the only Native American with a name in more than 80,000 words of copy is a dead man in the middle of Charlie LeDuff's slaughterhouse story.
"I've got complaints with that," says LeDuff, who is white and Ojibwe Indian. "At least my story had something, some Indians."
This is not a rap that Boyd, who is black, or Golden Behr, who is white, take quietly. "It's fair criticism to say that we didn't zero in on a relationship with Native Americans and a black or white or Asian person," Boyd says. "We have laid out‹in a way that is interesting and detailed and often powerful‹how people interact across racial lines. It's not exhaustive. It's not every minority group. It's a start."
The series needed to be balanced by geography, subject matter, income levels, Boyd says. It had to have stories that were original, that were unexpected. There were stories that were too obvious to pass up, like Winerip's piece on narcotics cops in Harlem, a story that pushed readers to see race relations through the life-and-death lens of a cop and featured a Dominican detective and a powerful female sergeant. Any of the other ideas, on another day, under different circumstances, could have yielded a more diverse cast of characters, Boyd says.
It's clear, though, that black-white relations was the lens through which the editors were looking when they envisioned the series. "I think the black-white thing is the most vexing, unsolved race problem we've got," Golden Behr says. "We're all frustrated by it. It's something we thought was the central problem. We took a big hit at racial attitudes. I wish we'd found more women.... It didn't break that way. We didn't say, 'Go out and find men.'
"And Asians? Which Asians? Hmong? Cambodians? Chinese? You can't do everybody. At some point we had to go with the best stuff we had available. It would've been neat if it had worked out differently. But we were more focused on the stories."
With the political conventions looming, the Times wanted to get the series in the paper, she says. Practicalities ruled. LeDuff could relate to that. Like so many others, he didn't want to force someone into his story for the sake of satisfying a racial quota. "I'm not a bean counter," he says. "I've gotta be true to the narrative."
The slaughterhouse story produced some of the series' most racially potent scenes, like the moment a black man standing in the hiring hall had heard his fill of Spanish from the Mexicans who might be his competition:
" 'This is America and I want to start hearing some English, now!' he screamed.
"One of the women told him where to stick his head and listen for the echo. 'Then you'll hear some English,' she said.
"An old white man with a face as pinched and lined as a pot roast complained, 'The tacos are worse than the niggers,' and the Indian leaned against the wall and laughed."
Though LeDuff's story brought him near Indians, none were close by when he went to work undercover in the slaughterhouse making boxes. That limited their presence in the narrative, and the writer in him could accept that.
His understanding and patience end there, though. He wonders about the July 16 New York Times Magazine that closed out the series, where the newspaper solicited first-person accounts from a much more diverse pool. Couldn't they have found one Native American for that package?
"Personally, yeah, we didn't do enough," LeDuff says. "We could've gotten an Indian in there, goddamnit."
Mireya Navarro came to the project late. Really late. She had moved from her job as Miami bureau chief in November and was about to begin the not-quite-defined Metro beat of Latin culture reporter when she decided to make a pitch to join the series. She was intrigued, attracted, thought the concept was "brilliant." And she was surprised to learn that there were so few U.S.-born Hispanics featured in the series' many relationships. Navarro had missed all the meetings and memos but argued that the series was about to "leave out some people who always fall through the cracks." She got the go-ahead for a story. She got a crash course on demographics from a Rice University professor, and eventually she found Richard Castaneda, who she says traces his Texas roots back to when most of it belonged to Mexico.
Concentrating heavily on the black-white piece of race relations, she says, "is a very legitimate tack." And like Boyd and Golden Behr, Navarro cautions that the Times couldn't do it all in one series. "Whatever conflicts people have about this series," she says, "they have to realize that we weren't writing a book. We weren't covering everything."
She empathizes with her editors. She finishes, however, closer to LeDuff. "I think it reflects the interests and thoughts of the people involved in it, just like anything else," she says of the series' racial makeup. "I think if you had more people in the room that represent more groups, you would have had the kind of discussions that would deal with their leaving other groups out. [Race relations] is a different issue when there's a third group in the mix," she says. "Because Hispanics are such a growing force, we just had to have that story. And there's obviously much more to be done."
I N CHOOSING TO PLUNGE deeply into the lives of one or two people, showing more than telling, Boyd and Golden Behr borrowed strategy from "Children of the Shadows," a 1993 Times series that they edited. One installment helped reporter Isabel Wilkerson win a Pulitzer Prize.
The Times staff made a conscious decision that the series would provoke, not recommend. Thus, the stories were not burdened with intrusive analyses that so often detract from the narrative and push the copy through the same sort of formulaic molds that have leadened other projects.
Readers no doubt appreciated the chance to simply travel through the story with the characters without the requisite asides from sociologists, psychologists and Cornel West. Indeed, the series more resembled the groundbreaking ethnographic work probing racial subtext by Chicago author and radio personality Studs Terkel.
Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Times should have delivered some forest with all those trees. Time and again, readers were left at the entrance of one racial gold mine or the other, never quite sure what to do with the unrefined insight sparkling in the darkness.
Black and white friends drift apart in Tamar Lewin's June 25 story out of Maplewood, New Jersey, "Growing up, Growing apart," and it's almost impossible to figure out whether it's race or personality or hormones or just growing up that's to blame. One of the girls in the story says she feels "powerless" against the magnetic pull of racial polarization, and the reader reels helplessly with her.
True to the series' title, that's how race is lived every day in America. But what of the readers whose children are walking that path right now, readers who are looking for wisdom or direction or something more meaningful than a chance to say, "Hey, that's what we're going through!"?
"This is not that kind of series," Boyd says. "It's not for us to say, 'This is what you should say, readers.' I take issue with the view that it was critical that we do that. It runs the risk of people viewing what we did as just the normal way that race is written about. A lot of truths were self-evident. You run the risk of coming across as simplistic. What we were trying to do was something else."
The hope, Times editors and reporters say, is that readers will use the stories to launch the critical conversations everyone seems to think the country needs. With more than 3,000 online responses by the time the project ended, the series showed that, contrary to American mythology, people do want to talk about race, though not to just anybody, and anonymity makes it easier.
The Times Web site features audio of people who called in to talk, a discussion site to debate the articles, and a questionnaire probing racial attitudes. The cyberconversation the newspaper sought came out sounding as tangled and hopeful and troubled as the series, producing the sort of muddied truth told by "Kristine," a multiracial woman from Chicago.
"I was actually adopted by a white family who was very racist," she wrote. "They thought I was white or so they claim but I assure you that i didn't look like a white child ... My parents always spoke negatively about people who were nonwhite therefore i grew up feeling like i had to conceal who I was, by lying to myself telling myself I was white, but I never looked white, and I always tried and still do to some degree measure myself against white standards of beauty which is something I can never achieve."
T HE TIMES SERIES consciously avoided conclusions, and those interviewed for this story were loath to declare that they had found the secret to understanding and explaining race in America. But themes surfaced after all the talking and listening, and reporters and editors could offer, albeit reluctantly, some of the lessons for journalists that emerged from the mammoth undertaking.
Gerald Boyd: Explore your silence first.
"If there indeed is a silence [in the newsroom about race], then at some point you have to pause and acknowledge that and try to find a way to lay the groundwork for addressing that. I don't know if it's a brown-bag lunch or two brown-bag lunches or a staff meeting.... I think we have to acknowledge that the discussion is not taking place and that, therefore, we're not doing the job we could do."
Soma Golden Behr: Ask the question.
"It's hard. It's exhausting. It takes more time. It's asking the question you wouldn't ask a white friend or a black friend. The amazing thing is that people will answer it. The surprising thing to me is that if you have the chutzpah to ask, it'll lead to an interesting conversation. It isn't going to be a slammed door. Who knows what richness will lie ahead?"
Charlie LeDuff: Treat people fairly.
"You've got to ask people [when they say racist things], 'What is it you mean by that?' I'm gonna ask you, but before I ask you, I'm gonna pick around the edges and ask a few other people what sort of person you are. I'm gonna put it in context. You don't have to crucify everybody. It's about being a decent person."
Mireya Navarro: Listen for unfamiliar ideas.
"The relationships in my story [about Houston building executives] were built on mistrust. It wasn't a case of three friends who grew up with each other. In this instance, it was just about making money. That's OK, and they feel that that's satisfactory enough. Just because they know each other and work together doesn't mean they have to be bosom buddies. That was surprising to me. Even when conditions are favorable to get close, to get to the next level of friendship, they don't do it. That's not my experience. So I really had to be open-minded."
Ira Berkow: Just do good journalism.
"Race is a part of life. It's like a lot of things: murder, robbery, family relationships. Ask people to be honest about their marriage. It's not going to be easy. It's all about good reporting. Listening closely. Following your instincts. It's the basics of journalism, and it comes with experience and creativity."
T HERE WERE TWO MORE things that are really just one: Time and complexity. Times writers and editors interviewed for this story say that daily journalism can be made better by heeding the micro-lessons of such a huge project. But all insist that it takes time to get to complexity when the subject is race relations, and daily journalism is impatient. So feed the daily beast, Golden Behr says, then do it more expansively later. ###
"Do it fast," she says. "Then do it slower."
It's one way to capture the contrasts, colliding perspectives and unexpected introspection that are part of how race is lived. Sometimes that means showing, not telling. Sometimes it means choosing depth at the expense of breadth. Sometimes it means moving the messenger out of the way of the message. The Times' concluding Sunday magazine was 82 pages of people just talking about how they live race. It was more journalism, but less journalist. Allow Janny Scott, unfiltered, to demonstrate:
"The hardest thing for me was in the writing and representing the people. I think it knocked me over trying to express what I had learned in the piece. It's such a complex, subtle, slippery business. I just felt like I was just barely up to the task of capturing it in words.
"Sometimes it seems like race is something we don't have a language for. It's very hard to express in normal language. I felt like I was bumping up against my own limitations in expressing what we were allowed to see. I wasn't worried about getting something factually wrong. My worst-case scenario was that it would be simplistic and not do justice to the complexity.
"[Director] Charles [Dutton, the focus of her story] said to me once, 'I distrust you because you're white.' He told me, 'I'm going to say things that you just can't understand.' He told me there were things I wouldn't get no matter how long we talked about it. Just because I was white. I didn't totally comprehend what he was telling me until the end. It took months of him saying these things in many different ways before I developed more than an intellectual understanding of what he meant.
"An example of that was the issue of the racial composition of the crew. [Dutton complained that there were not enough black people on the crew.] It's something that had upset him deeply. As a white person, I understood that as an issue of equity. The more he talked about it, the more he began talking about slavery; that it was a vestige of slavery; that white people could not see black people as equals.
"It occurred to me that I was thinking simple and quick‹equity‹and he was talking about it as slavery. I think there was something there that I didn't get at a deeper level.
"No white reporter can go through this and not be more conscious of the racial dimension to most stories. I've been changed by this. At that first meeting, I didn't say so much. My head was spinning. It was scary. But after the basic training of being with Charles Dutton and ["The Corner" writer] David Simon, it made me realize something about honesty and the value of answering questions and revealing yourself.
"I resolved not to stay away from it the way we so reflexively do as white people. After people give up nine months of their time talking about it, I can act on the same principle."