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"How Race is Lived in the Media: The New York Times' Muddled Series Misses the Mark,"

by Makani Themba November/December 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

When the New York Times launched its yearlong project, “How Race Is Lived in America,” there was great fanfare. 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 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 the space 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 he was taken for a stable hand on his own ranch and another time as a chauffeur at a Four Seasons Hotel. Pieces by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Loretta Sanchez stood out for their important points on institutional racism and its impact. And, of course, corporate media’s favorite race man, Ward Connerly, got to assert his claim to Irishness.

Yet, what’s most telling about the series is what 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 of 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. Stories on advancement in the armed services, a Houston mayoral race, a white quarterback at a historically black university, and conflict over the legacy of a Louisiana plantation 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 vignettes, 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 14 ways to ask him “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 old racial stereotypes and avoid presenting anything new.

A particularly disturbing piece, “Why Harlem Drug Cops Don’t Discuss Race,” 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. In each case, the Times missed the opportunity to provide a deeper analysis of the real trends unfolding – an 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,” write 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 cannot be captured as a series of portraits. It must be painted as a landscape so we can begin to understand how we fit within it.

Imagine if the Times, instead, looked at race and public education. Instead of asking students why they don’t party together, investigate tracking and discipline policies in an effort to uncover why they don’t graduate together. Racial disparities in health care (done ably by its competitor Newsday), race and urban sprawl, racial bias in immigration policies, and even equal access to services are among the many “stories” about race crying out to be investigated. Surely the paper that went through more than 30,000 documents to bring down a corporate titan like Columbia HCA could do a better job investigating this even more pressing social issue.

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 is director of a new Applied Research Ctr. Project, The Transnational Racial Justice Initiative (145 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011, 540/857-3088), which is attempting to leverage the upcoming UN World Conf. on Racism, Xenophobia & Other Forms of Intolerance to build capacity among US organizers to address structural racism. Her latest book is Making Policy, Making Change: How Communities Are Taking Law Into Their Own Hands (Chardon Press, 1999). mthemba@igc.org
 

Notes:

Several months ago, The New York Times ran an extraordinary six-week series (June 4-July 16) of 16 articles, “How Race Is Lived in America.” (They are available online at www.nytimes.com, using the series title.) While it represented a massive and unusual allocation of resources by “the newspaper of record,” and told some fascinating and revealing stories, it failed in basic ways to probe the historic and structural roots of “the American dilemma.” The following critique comments on that failure; we’d be happy to hear from other readers on the subject.

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