Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Newspaper Pieces between Hard Covers

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Newspaper Pieces between Hard Covers

Article excerpt

How Race Is Lived in America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart. By Correspondents of The New York Times. Introduction by Joseph Lelyveld. Henry Holt. $27.50.

Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from The New York Times. Introduction by John Darnton. Henry Holt. $23.00.

However good, most newspaper articles are destined for the same fate as yesterday's lead story-they wrap fish or line garbage cans. Sometimes, however, fate spares them such ignominy and places them between hard covers. This was the case recently when Henry Holt brought out two collections of pieces originally published in The New York Times-one, an investigation of "how race is [currently ]lived in America"; the other, a sampling of writers talking about writing. Let me begin with the former, not only because the series was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, but also because race remains a tricky, paralyzing subject. What the editors hatched up was surely an ambitious project, one that promised to be more than the "usual mosaic of dreary census, school, and income statistics, studded with pious quotations from the civil rights era of blessed memory or from academics and clergymen speaking earnestly." The result takes us to a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, a restored plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a platoon in Fort Knox, Kentucky. We meet, among others, a white quarterback who played ball at a historically black college, a white rapper on the college lecture circuit, and two young wheeler-dealers, one white, one black, as they make their way up (and down) the e-business fast track. Above all else, the series wanted to give race in America a human face, or perhaps more correctly, a series of human faces. To accomplish this, the Times assigned reporters) to cover 15 especially juicy stories, and then gave them the time necessary to watch as the are of the respective sagas unfolded.

No doubt their project will get no end of raspberries from those academics who want to reach for a pistol whenever they hear the word "race." Why so? Because, they will tell you, "race" is a 19th-century social construction, one that, at best, misrepresents, and at worst, continues to perpetuate stereotypes. For better or worse, the Times reporters were not given to ruminations of this sort; instead, they simply assumed that race continues to matter, and perhaps even more so as we increasingly live in a multicultural America where blacks, whites, Asians, and others now work together and presumably have more things that bind them together than pull them apart.

What the series was out to explore is precisely this: why, if things are so good, are they still so bad. Regular reminders of how America divides itself along racial lines seem always to be with us: the infamous Tawana Brawley case in 1987, the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, and most recently, the 41 shots that felled African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Small wonder, then, reporter Michael Winetrip was sent to find out how Harlem drug cops would react to the Diallo verdict: "Feelings ran deep. No case in recent years has hit the police closer to home." As Sergeant Maria Brogli, a white officer, put it: "There but for the grace of God . . . " To which Winetrip added: "Every officer with any sense, white or black, fears mistakenly shooting an unarmed man like Amadou Dialoo. Talk about jamming up a career."

But if this was the unspoken fear, the point Winetrip makes again and again, is that it remains unspoken. True enough, race colors everything if your beat happens to be the drug wars in Harlem, but race is also what cops don't discuss-"It's too risky. They need to get along." And get along they do, despite the undercurrent of suspicion. As Winetrip tells us, giving the moment as much melodrama as he can muster:

When the Dialoo verdict was read charge by charge that rainy February evening and it became evident that the four officers would be cleared on every count, Brogli was so delighted she felt almost as if she had been personally exonerated, and Derrick [a black officer] was so bitter he could not stop pacing. …

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