How race is lived in America
New York Times journalists reflect on the making of a series

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff, left, confers with Seattle-based Times correspondent Tim Egan at the Oct. 30 dialogue "How Race is Lived in America."

01 NOVEMBER 00 | The New York Times' ambitious year 2000 series on race in America was born in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1995, a panel of Times journalists told a large campus audience in Wheeler Auditorium Oct. 30.

As a jury proclaimed O.J. Simpson not guilty of murder, "every eye in the Times news room was glued to the TV set," recalled Times Deputy Editor Gerald Boyd. "Whites and blacks reacted completely differently. It was striking to us; we thought this split was important."

So was the silence about the remarkable divergence in public opinion along racial lines, said Boyd. The Times decided "to go into this silence taking place in our newsroom and just about every other workplace in the country."

For the evening event presented by the Graduate School of Journalism, four reporters and editors involved in "How Race is Lived in America" offered personal reflections on the making of the series.

Even 15 years ago, Boyd noted, a series on race would inevitably have focused on overt forms of discrimination against blacks.

Today, he said, "race remains the nation's most vexing domestic problem," but works in subtler and more complex ways.

"Race relations are being defined less by political action than by daily experience, in schools, in the sports arenas, in pop culture and at worship, and especially in the workplace, " the Times said in the series introduction.

To do justice to the lived reality of race today, the Times team decided to use a narrative form and focus on relationships, "rather than going for obvious stories generated in the news," said Miami Bureau Chief Dana Canedy.

The first piece, which appeared June 4, portrayed the challenges facing a Pentacostal church in greater Atlanta, Ga. whose congregation, once all-white, is now half black and half white.

Others pieces in the 15-part series portrayed personal interactions between Americans of different races in the military, police forces, public schools, the workplace and other settings.

Canedy wrote about two columnists - one black, one white - at The Akron Beacon Journal, a metropolitan daily that prided itself for its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on race, and for its role in promoting projects to help bring the races together in Akron. "I initially struggled. I had a strong personal negative reaction to the white columnist," said Canedy, who is black.

She was able to portray him with sympathy only after spending a weekend with his family - complete with rides in the mini van and ice tea with the journalist's wife, she said. "I realized this guy had been told all his life not to focus on differences." Her subject, she realized, was naive, but not hateful.

Reporter Charlie LeDuff worked in a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., where whites, blacks, American Indians and Mexican Americans slaughter swine on the killing floor for $7.70 an hour.

Seattle-based correspondent Timothy Egan wrote a story on three Washington State elected officials - Chinese-American Gov. Gary Locke, King County Executive Ron Sims and two-term Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, both of whom are black. Its title: "When to Campaign with Color: An Asian-American Told His Story to Whites and Won. For Black Politicians, It's a Riskier Strategy".

The second most powerful politician in the government of a largely white state, Sims consciously tried to defy stereotypes by becoming an expert in native salmon restoration, not health and human services, Egan said.

Locke, whose family came to the United States illegally during the 62 years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, "used his background brilliantly" during his campaign, says Egan. But when he criticized treatment of Asian Americans during the 1996 campaign finance scandal "he was roundly criticized" for having "played the race card."

It worked to talk about his family's immigrant experience, Egan observed. But if Locke talked about race "indignantly, in a way that made people feel bad," he felt the heat.


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail