When journalist Suzanne DeChillo arrived in Maplewood, N.J., last spring to photograph schoolchildren for one in a series of front-page articles that the New York Times was preparing on race, she wasn't particularly aware of being driven by her own preconceptions. Nevertheless, she wrote in her journal, she couldn't find what she was looking for. For one fleeting moment, she thought she had it: "an image of self-segregation" in the high school cafeteria. But then a white student looking for help on a math problem came over and destroyed the photo by sitting down among the blacks gathered at the table. "People kept crossing ... the racial divide," DeChillo notes uneasily in a diary, published in this volume based on the Times series. "They crossed it for food, friendship, love, sports, concert tickets, jokes, music and answers to questions on the biology lab exam." In Maplewood, "blacks and whites mixed easily .... Isn't this what we wanted in the 1960s? Integration works."
Strangely enough, DeChillo doesn't seem particularly heartened by this epiphany. In her journal, she segues abruptly to an exhibition of photographs of Jim Crow-era lynchings that she happened to see last year and wonders direly "how any black people in America could ever trust a white person." It's hard to know what to make of this, so apparently at odds with the reality DeChillo has just witnessed with her own eyes. Yet the episode (with both its surprising turns) captures a great deal about both the strengths and the limits of the Times' race series, which was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Like those articles, the book is filled with brilliant, fresh reporting--an often shocking picture of race in America. And yet, like DeChillo, the reporters and editors responsible for the series often seem so blinkered by their perceptions that they hardly grasp the significance of what they have uncovered.
After a period of intense preparation--reading, instruction, group discussion--the paper sent 15 reporter-photographer teams out to explore what it thought would be particularly telling pockets of the American racial frontier: an integrated Pentecostal church, an Army base where white soldiers often have to answer to black officers, a historically black college with a white quarterback and a mixed-race undercover unit of a big-city police force, among others. Reporters spent up to year on assignment, and each of their 15 stories ran more than two full pages in the newspaper. Not every journalist on the project found reality more encouraging than they had expected, as DeChillo did. On the contrary, in many instances what they discovered may be more troubling. Still, whether the Times team recognizes it or not, what the reader hears again and again in these often exquisitely reported vignettes is the sound of stereotypes being shattered:
That the problem is and has always been white racism, that blacks are invariably victims, that they are right to be angry and that the nation can never escape old racial paradigms, as the series' extraordinary reporting makes clear: If only it were that simple.
In several episodes in which the Times reporters and editors expect white racism, what they find instead is the story of a black man with a chip on his shoulder. In other situations, including those that seem to show racial progress, honest reporting reveals both blacks and whites grappling with the stubborn legacy of the past, often struggling to do the best they can but still hamstrung by painful memories and lingering mistrust. In still other instances, when it looks at first glance as if race is responsible for uneven outcomes, closer examination suggests otherwise--that personal advantages and plain dumb luck often have more to do with whether an individual black or white gets ahead. Taken together, the pieces suggest that black anger and alienation are at least as strong if not stronger than white racism. And several of them argue that, as much as any legacy of the past, what holds us back today are dubious new notions-multiculturalist notions--about inherent racial differences and an unbridgeable gulf between dissimilar ways of being.
Nevertheless, despite all of this able reporting, the Times team, much like the photographer in Maplewood, hardly seem to recognize just how complex and sometimes disturbing a reality it has unearthed. The book surrounds its core of articles with more than 100 pages of diary entries, appendices, a roundtable discussion, executive editor Joseph Lelyveld's editorializing introduction and other padding--almost all of it ridden with the same tired stereotypes that the pieces smash so tellingly. The editorials, letters and op-ed columns printed in the paper at the time of the series were even more stale and conventional.