Commentary Magazine

How Race Is Written in America

Widely judged the world’s greatest newspaper, the New York Times endlessly enriches the lives of educated New Yorkers. And not only of us locals. The paper’s reach extends far beyond the city, beyond its national edition, beyond even its news service, to which papers everywhere may subscribe. Because of its exhaustive coverage and basic perspective—liberal, high-minded, politically correct—media decision-makers across the land inevitably assume that, in deciding what is news, and how to play it, you cannot go wrong taking your guidance from the Times. Even those of us who find its mindset infuriating have trouble living without the paper. An invariable early order of business in the boondocks or the Caribbean is figuring out how to get your hands on the Times.

Which does not necessarily mean you are going to read it all. I confess to not having read much of the six-week, fifteen-part series on race that originally appeared in the Times a year ago, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this past April, and has recently appeared as a book, How Race Is Lived in America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart.1 This was partly because it became clear early on that each of the articles would be long (6,000 or 7,000 words) and rambling, and—in something of a departure for the Times—lacking in any crisply summarizable main point

The Times has a way of speaking with a forked tongue when it comes to race. The subject is sensitive everywhere on the planet, but it is especially tricky for humane and liberal-minded journalists who see themselves (correctly) as major participants in a mixed-race society’s public dialogue. From much of its everyday coverage, at any rate, readers of the Times might plausibly infer that its editors think of the ideal feature story as one involving racial minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, victimized by heartless discrimination and brutality. A search of the online archive Nexis for 2000 shows 267 articles in the Times that mention “racial profiling,” their subjects ranging from the federal espionage case against the Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee to the stop-and-search practices of the New Jersey state police. In the same victimological vein, the phrase “police brutality” appeared in 591 articles during the year.

A high fraction of those latter articles turn out to be bad-mouthings of the Giuliani administration’s aggressive take-back-the-streets theory of police work, which in New York City plainly reduced crime in minority neighborhoods—but which was repeatedly asserted in the Times to have inspired fear of the cops among poor blacks and Hispanics. A New York Times Magazine article by James Traub earlier this year commented sympathetically on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s use of the phrase “occupying army” to describe the feelings prevalent in minority communities about New York Police Department tactics.

When there is a genuine case of police brutality, like the ghastly torturing of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house in 1997, the Times is seemingly unable to let go of the subject, or to spare its readers reminders of exactly what happened. The running Nexis total of articles mentioning “Louima” in proximity to “rectum” is now up to 174. Seemingly determined to build up the brutality count, the Times has often linked the Louima case to the 1999 Amadou Diallo case, a truly dishonest conflation of quite different events. Purposeful police brutality is one thing, but Diallo, as the courts have established, was plainly the victim of a tragic mistake made by cops in a split-second decision. He was killed in a hail of 41 bullets, and the Times cannot let go of that detail, either. A Nexis search for “Diallo” within 30 words of “41” recently yielded 253 hits in the Times.

Even as the Times was celebrating the Pulitzer Prize for its race series, the paper’s coverage of race was scaling new heights of tendentiousness, with the civic violence that erupted in Cincinnati after the fatal police shooting of a young black man being described by Times reporters as “protests and vandalism” rather than as what it obviously was—a series of race riots. While the local media provided graphic accounts of the four-day course of events in Cincinnati—widespread arson, politicians sequestered inside City Hall and protected from mobs by a phalanx of police, marauding bands of young black men stopping cars driven by whites and beating their occupants—Times reporters averted their eyes from such details.



Has the Times‘s marquee series on race, now brought together between hardcovers, managed to escape this relentlessly ideological agenda? The heart of the book consists of fifteen chapters—originally the series articles—each about some race-suffused situation that will presumably leave readers wanting to know more about the participants’ inner lives. All of the chapters are readable, but the authors nowhere tell you the main point of the exercise, or even if it has one. As it happens, this failure to state a thesis, much less the Times‘s usual thesis of rampant discrimination, was quite deliberate.

In the book’s introduction, Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld reports that, from the outset, the editors and reporters involved in the project decided to set aside the ordinary rules of their trade. They promised themselves

not to be glib in a way that journalists normally consider to be mandatory, not to force the articles into a thematic grid of our own devising, but rather to tell the stories we found as honestly and directly as we knew how and then leave it to our readers to reach their own conclusions on what our narratives actually meant In the jargon of the newsroom, we made this revolutionary and humbling promise to ourselves by stipulating . . . that there would be no “nut grafs” in the series. A nut graf is the paragraph that comes high up in a newspaper article and points as clearly and succinctly as possible to the themes that give the article its essential meaning and point. According to our normal standards and practices, running long articles about the real situations of people without the aid and comfort of nut grafs is an invitation to confusion, even anarchy. . . . Here, for once, all our instincts told us to trust our readers to find their own way—or, rather, individual ways in the worlds we hoped to portray.

This seems weirdly inadequate. The Times had plausibly identified race in America as a subject of transcendent importance. Lelyveld’s introduction refers to black-white relations as “the central conundrum of American democracy.” The editors poured enormous resources into the series. Lelyveld identifies it as “the largest commitment of time and talent the New York Times has ever given to a single series—larger than even the Pentagon Papers.” Like every other Times series one can think of, the one during the Nixon administration on the Pentagon Papers had a main point (“They’re lying!”). Yet when this recent series on race was all over, the editors opted not to tell the world what if anything they had discovered, and as a reason offered only some unelaborated “instincts.” Why would they do this?



The situations profiled in the fifteen articles range all over the lot. Among the chapters I found most interesting was a report on the ups and downs of a young white quarterback in Louisiana who was so desperate to play college football that he ended up enrolling at Southern University, a traditionally black college. Other notable contributions include a chapter titled “Why Harlem Drug Cops Don’t Discuss Race”; a somewhat incestuous look at the mixed-race newsroom of the Beacon Journal of Akron, Ohio, which had itself won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier series on race; an entry from Maplewood, New Jersey, tracing the friendship of three girls—one white, one black, and one half-Jewish and half-Puerto Rican—during their first year in high school; a distinctly bloody view from the factory floor of a Smithfield Ham slaughterhouse in rural North Carolina, where blacks, whites, Native Americans, and Mexicans each operate their own separate assembly lines; and the final chapter, by Times correspondent Don Terry, an affecting account of his own life growing up with a white mother and a black father (who ultimately got violent and was taken away).

Rounding out the book are Lelyveld’s introduction; an opinion poll commissioned by the Times, which generally indicates that blacks are far less likely than whites to think race relations are good these days; and assorted comments on the project by those who participated in it, from whom we learn, inter alia, that race relations at the Times itself leave something to be desired—a thought that is not, unfortunately, further developed.

As for the origins of the series, Lelyveld writes that the paper’s interest in such a project may have begun with the O.J. Simpson trial or possibly earlier, with the case of Tawana Brawley, the Hudson Valley black teenager who in 1987 fabricated a tale of having been gang-raped by whites. In any event, he tells us, the Times has long had “this itch, this wish to do something ambitious on the theme of race in America,” and was looking for a way to do it that went beyond the usual dreary data on income and education.

This the paper certainly has done. Reporters were allowed to conduct their interviews over the course of many months, sometimes as long as a year, and apparently got to know their subjects well, often forming friendships with them. The idea, according to Lelyveld, was to “go deep” and “hang in there.” The book includes the transcript of a round-table discussion among reporters and editors who had worked on the series, in the course of which you run into this self-congratulatory reminiscence by reporter Janny Scott:

In these situations, you have the license . . . to go . . . immediately to the heart of the matter. And all of a sudden you can ask the kinds of questions that you would normally never be able to ask. . . . That was the most exhilarating thing. You could ask all these taboo questions.



This reader, however, saw no sign of taboo questions. Indeed, the core difficulty of the book, and the key to its anomalies as a Times project, lies in its avoidance of taboos. Instead, the book gets caught in the inescapable tension between two decidedly conventional propositions, both of which it treats as self-evidently true but which happen to be at odds with each other. Proposition No. 1 is that “diversity,” understood to mean mainly racial or ethnic variety, is a powerful source of strength in our society. Proposition No. 2 is that, deep down inside, we are all the same. To push both of these ideas simultaneously is to guarantee reporting that ties itself in knots or, at the very least, turns all wobbly and evasive any time the proverbial ten-foot pole gets close to any genuine taboos—like when the subject of racial variety threatens to turn into the subject of actual racial differences.

In the Times itself (as opposed to the book), a few recent instances of this phenomenon have been especially memorable. Case in point: a recent article titled “Skin Deep: Shouldn’t a Pill Be Colorblind?” The article is a dreadful muddle. It begins with news about clinical trials run by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop heart medicines targeted exclusively at African-Americans. This effort might seem quite reasonable since, as we are reminded in the opening paragraph, blacks suffer disproportionately from heart failure and high blood pressure. But the design of the FDA study implies that there are important physiological differences between blacks and whites—to the Times, definitely a suspect idea. And soon enough one sees the reporter reaching for the ten-foot pole. Readers are reminded at length that UNESCO, the American Anthropological Association, and various other authority figures believe that race is “purely a social convention with no biological significance,” and they are informed about studies indicating that genetic differences between the races are trivial. Although the article also notes at one point that “even tiny genetic differences between populations can have powerful health consequences,” it rapidly backs away from the ominous implications of this statement, and toward the end dwells on the thought that observed black-white differences in heart disease may reflect poverty and stress, not biology. Readers who make it to the finish come away without a clue about whether the FDA study is a good or bad idea, or even how it is being conducted.

The Times has also been weighing in heavily on racial regroupings revealed by the 2000 Census. A recent article leaned hard on the fact that New York City’s population, swollen by immigration, was for the first time above 8 million. This was hailed as a sign of the city’s resurgence and its dynamic economy, which it is. But completely buried in the story was the newsworthy flip-side of these numbers: that despite the city’s obvious resurgence, its non-Hispanic white population, which as recently as 1980 formed a majority, has continued to flee, dropping by a whopping 12 percent over the past decade to a mere 35 percent of the city’s total.

The Times‘s commitments evidently leave it unable to see a declining white population in New York as big news. What seems truly bizarre about this mental block is that the Times‘s own world, not to mention its profitability, depends overwhelmingly on the support of non-Hispanic whites. The demographics of Times readers are unfortunately not available to me, but, as any rider of the New York City bus or subway system will readily attest, the demographic profile of Times readers is overwhelmingly white. A similar statement can be made about the city’s cultural institutions. The New Yorkers who go to the museums, theaters, opera, ballet, and, for that matter, sports events are disproportionately of European ancestry. How can the significant decline of this population segment not be treated as a major matter?

Still, for appreciating the Times‘s sheer lack of candor about systematic differences among racial groups, there is no beating How Race Is Lived in America. Nowhere among the scores of characters populating this book do we encounter anyone who might give us insight into the high crime rate among blacks and Hispanics—a central and obvious source of racial tension. (The only prisoner we meet is a no-good white man in a work-release program at the Smithfield slaughterhouse.) Nowhere do we encounter the idea that there are well-established personality differences among the races (e.g., blacks tend to be the most sociable, Asians the least, and whites somewhere in between). Least of all does the book confront the taboo that is arguably most relevant to its subject: racial differences in IQ. The closest the Times gets to this is in the article about the three young ladies of different races who became friends at middle school in Maplewood, New Jersey.

This community, the reporter makes clear, is dominated by people of liberal inclinations who worry about white flight and place a high value on diversity. Roughly half of the school’s students are white and half are minority. Many of them—not just the three profiled in the article—have interracial friendships. Or at least they do up to the end of middle school. By that time, they have begun to move apart, and when they get to high school, “race becomes as much a fault line in their world as in the one their parents hoped to move beyond.”

The reason, we learn, is that the kids are now grouped by “perceived ability,” which leaves whites and minorities in different classes, and different social settings. The article makes clear in a brief postscript that after being the best of buddies for years, the three girls ended up not particularly close. But it tells us nothing explicit about the academic tracks to which the three girls were assigned, and certainly nothing about their IQ’s.

Racial differences in mental ability are an excruciatingly difficult matter to talk about, and one can sympathize with the inclination of reporters to give it a wide berth. (On the most widely used test, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, the average black-white difference is a considerable 15 IQ points.) But the absence of this subject in so ambitious an examination of race in America is a big, big problem. If the nation’s premier newspaper is determined to write candidly about black-white interaction across the board—is pledged to “go deep” and “hang in there”—how can it go shallow and walk away from one of the thorniest issues affecting “how race is lived in America”?

It is a fact of life that people naturally gravitate to friends with interests and ability levels somewhat similar to their own. Surely this phenomenon has something to do with a recurring theme in the Times series: namely, the “distance” that whites and minorities put between themselves. Examples include the broken friendship of the schoolgirls in Maplewood; the ongoing tension between two columnists at the Akron Beacon Journal—one black, one white—sparked by that paper’s own series on race; and the white quarterback at the black college, who finally leaves for another school, weary of “all the daily irritations that go with being in the minority.” In fact, some version of this process is present in most of the articles. There is the oddball white man known as Upski, who had devoted his youth to the black-dominated world of hip-hop music but eventually discovers, according to the reporter, that, “As you get older, holding on to your hip-hop values seemed a lot harder if you were white”; and there are the two high-tech business executives—one black, one white—who start a company as close friends, only to go their separate ways after the white partner comes to play the leading role.

Inescapable as the distance problem appears, nowhere in the book does one encounter any serious interpretation of it. What one keeps reading, instead, are all too vague references to groups being “divided by mistrust and misunderstandings” (to quote a line about the Beacon Journal newsroom). Most of the chapters are about situations in which we initially are given reason to hope that different racial groups will (in Lelyveld’s phrase) “reach across the divide,” only to discover ultimately that they are voluntarily separating themselves. The book’s subtitle—“Pulling Together, Pulling Apart”—is thus peculiarly apt, if utterly unexplained.

But this may offer a clue to the Times‘s puzzling posture about the significance of its own reporting—its decision, that is, not to extract any wider meaning from its series on race but to leave that interesting chore to its readers. I have no doubt that, just as Joseph Lelyveld predicts, different readers of How Race Is Lived in America will come to different conclusions. But I surely will not be alone in seeing the book as farther evidence that Americans of all races generally prefer to live and work among people racially like themselves—a distinctly subversive thought to a great liberal institution that, when not busy decrying the country’s supposedly pervasive racism, feels obliged to proclaim that diversity is wonderful and that deep down inside, we are all the same.




1 Times Books, 394 pp., $27.50.


About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.

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