News & Politics

How Race Is Lived in the Media

Six weeks and more than a dozen front-page articles later, the New York Times series, How Race is Lived in America, ended this month as a major disappointment. Abandoning investigative journalism for storytelling, the Times' race coverage often trivialized racism as nothing more than personal relations.
When The New York Times launched its yearlong project, How Race Is Lived in America, there was great fanfare. There was so much hope and for some, dread. After all, how often does the country's "paper of record" take on the thorny, complex subject of race? Six weeks and more than a dozen front-page articles later, the series ended this month as a major disappointment. Abandoning investigative journalism for storytelling, the Times' race coverage was only skin deep. And as a result, it often trivialized racism as nothing more than personal relations.

Once The Times defined the terrain as personal and not political (as if we haven't learned anything from the women's movement), they missed an opportunity to become reporters on race and instead became ethnographers. By ignoring institutions, laws and systems that provide the context for race relations, they let these structures off the hook and relegated any evidence of racism to the subjective space between quotation marks.

To some, that was the most powerful aspect of the series: the way it afforded people of color to speak for themselves. An entire Sunday Magazine of personal memoirs. Editorial pages open to some of the "best and brightest" people of color in the nation. Black media mogul Robert L. Johnson got to wax poetic about being mistaken for a working class black man, one time as a stable hand on his own ranch and another time as a chauffeur at a Four Seasons Hotel. Beverly Daniel Tatum and Loretta Sanchez did, in a rare opportunity, bring out important points on institutional racism and its impact and, of course, corporate media's favorite race man, Ward Connerly, got to assert the right to claim his Irishness. (Of course, there are large numbers of African Americans who would gladly relinquish all claims to Mr. Connerly in favor of any that the Irish might stake, but I digress.)

Yet, the most powerful aspects of the series were those it didn't cover. The Times did not turn up much on white privilege, very little on hate crimes, and even less on historical factors that contribute to present day race relations. In fact, in 11 of 14 articles (not counting the memoir pieces in The New York Times Magazine), whites were portrayed as victims of racism. And by "portrayed" I mean the story took place outside the quotation marks. It was relayed as fact.

And whites weren't just portrayed as victims of personal bias but of rules, policies or practices implemented by people of color in bureaucratic roles. A story on advancement in the armed services (June 7, 2000), a Houston mayoral race (July 13, 2000), a white quarterback at a historically black university (July 2, 2000), and conflict over the legacy of a Louisiana plantation (June 22, 2000) were among the articles that portrayed whites having to overcome challenges due to unfair or insensitive practices on the part of African Americans in power.

Racism directed at people of color was, by contrast, cast as problems of personal attitudes and bias. In more than a dozen vignettes on race relations and their impact, little attention was paid to the larger factors that shaped the lives of people of color as they "lived race." The July 16th edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine that ended the series was chock full of personal memoirs, touching stories and moving testimonies from friends who maintain their love "across the divide." In nearly every piece, racism was a mere obstacle, an inconvenience to be transcended by the colored strong and good. Those who paid attention to race were "racists," stuck in a dysfunctional past. Those who claimed to ignore race were cast as high minded, colorblind. It all fit neatly within The Times "race is personal" framework.

In this odd Times' parallel world, only African Americans hurt others because of their race; and a white man, Werner Sollors, is considered racially "outnumbered" as a professor at Harvard (he teaches in the Afro-American Studies Department). A gawking, wide-eyed q&a with former Urban League President Vernon Jordan found fourteen ways to ask 'how does it feel to be black and hang out with a bunch of rich white guys?' Perhaps this, the most telling piece of the series, speaks volumes about how race and class are conceptualized -- at least at The Times.

The focus on individual stories also meant that not a single advocacy organization, independent piece of data, or researcher was quoted in the series. As it has been the trend with the Times and other mainstream media outlets, those that have studied and tracked these issues for decades were simply ignored. As a result, How Race Is Lived In America managed, in some cases, to reinforce some old racial stereotypes and avoid presenting anything new. A particularly disturbing piece, Why Harlem Drug Cops Don't Discuss Race (July 9, 2000), featured plenty of Dominican bashing. One lone Dominican-born officer was quoted fending for his country of birth. Another article on the racial dynamics of a southern slaughterhouse played up fears of immigration in a vignette of a white man losing out on a roofing job when a contractor chose to hire "cheaper" Mexican immigrants instead. In each case, The Times missed the opportunity to provide a deeper analysis of the real trends unfolding, analysis a paper with its considerable research and data resources could've certainly mustered.

"In the very tangle of experiences, rendered in these individual voices -- lies the most naked picture of ourselves," writes the series editors in its closing segment. How Race Is Lived In America was indeed both a tangled and poignant portrait of race; one that left us little hope and even less understanding. That may be because race can not be captured as series of portraits. It must be painted as a landscape so we can begin to understand how we fit within it.

Now the series is over and folk are already betting on it for a Pulitzer Prize. Given the Pulitzer's bias toward big papers and sappy, emotional reporting, the bet is (unfortunately) likely to pay off. For all those reporters at ethnic papers, alternative papers and a few mainstream ones that really cover race -- the papers that the Pulitzer committees almost never see -- it must seem like a real slap in the face.

And it will likely get worse. If the prestigious New York Times perched in the multicultural Big Apple missed the story, what can we expect from the dozens of copycat pieces sure to follow? We can only hope they find their own way. That they drop the typical approach to race as opinion and personal testimony and be reporters. Really reporting on race requires that we ask questions, step out of the white box of privilege and dig beyond the obvious.

Perhaps our best hope for now is that The Times series will inspire others -- to show them how it's done.

Makani Themba writes on issues of race, media and policy at the Applied Research Center. Her latest book is Making Policy Making Change.
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