Some days I thought we were crazy. We had embarked on one of The New York Times’s most ambitious projects—to tell the story of how race is lived in America. It was a project that would take more than a year, involve morethan three dozen reporters, editors and photographers, and result in a 15-part series that would appear in the Times during a six-week period that began in June.
I wondered often about what we had gotten into, in part because of the approach we’d chosen. We had conceived the series as a set of narratives that portrayed how individuals were relating across racial lines. These individuals whose lives we would enter would be black and white, Cuban-American, Mexican-American, Dominican-American, Asian-American, wealthy, poor, bureaucrats, soldiers and even journalists. Generally speaking, they were average Americans, whose lives were impacted by race almost daily, although they rarely thought of it that way. It was these daily, personal experiences that remained largely ignored by the media.
Narratives, we believed, would help readers linger and get a close-up view on how those of different races were relating.
From the start, we had opted to focus on relationships, hoping to bring new dimensions to the story of race in America. Much had already been written about race—from the impact of institutional racism to the role race played in public policy and in areas such as welfare, education, affirmative action, police brutality, and criminal justice. We wanted to offer something different.
We also wanted to produce a series that engaged readers, surprised and even challenged them. Instead of reducing our conclusions to the customary nut graf or two, we wanted to let readers decide for themselves what conclusions they wanted to draw about the state of race relations in this country. We thought race was far too complicated to handle any other way, and the more we reported, the more convinced we became that this was the case. We learned that where race is concerned, there are no easy explanations. Attitudes are shaped by a variety of influences—background, experiences, income, peer pressure, fears and families.
This made it hard.
And our approach had its share of problems. First we had to find the right people in the right situations who were willing to expose their lives and thinking to the scrutiny of a ubiquitous reporter and then to millions of people. They had to trust our reporters enough to allow them enormous access, and yet, at some point, the reporters had to push them hard to share views many were uncomfortable talking about.
At the same time, we could not rely just on what our characters said aboutrace. We had to see how they related to people of other races and see it repeatedly. Because this meant committing enormous time and resources, we knew there would be limits on what we could print and to what even the most enthusiastic reader would want to endure. Thus, each story had to be original and instructive in its own right.
We explored a variety of possibilities, and we sought a mix that included racial situations that many people experience as well as those less common. Institutions, for example, such as churches, the military, schools and the police were obvious to us, provided we could find cooperative subjects. We wanted to see how race relations were at the top of the economic ladder and at the bottom. And we wanted to see how they impacted the media and the business world and how they were experienced in areas that we wouldn’t automatically consider, such as a former plantation in the South or at an historically black college.
As Joseph Lelyveld, the Executive Editor, told readers recently in explaining our mission: “Public discussion of race today is pretty cautious and unrevealing. Race relations seem to be undergoing fascinating changes, though, and we wanted to report on the experiences of ordinary Americans, to tell the story of how race influences their daily lives.”
The choice of race as a subject of a major Times’s examination had been an easy one. Time and time again, as we discussed what issue the Times might take on, we found ourselves talking about race. And while the face of race was changing, it was still mired in a striking truth: that much as W.E.B. Du Bois had argued 100 years ago, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.”
The acquittal of O.J. Simpson brought that truth into sharp focus. Everywhere we looked blacks and whites saw the verdict in starkly different terms—in newsrooms, universities, police stations, and other workplaces where whites and people of color engaged each other. This represented a paradox and it fascinated us.
Once we decided to tell the stories of relationships as narratives, the truly hard work began. Often we struck out after spending months pursuing aparticular subject. We had worked to get access on one HBO show, only to be told months later that the main characters of our story would not be interested. We then focused on another show, this time successfully. What appeared an obvious relationship worth examining—two federal workers in a city such as Washington, D.C.—never happened because months of efforts to get access failed. Corporate America refused to open its doors, despite repeated inquiries at dozens of companies in all parts of the country. We were able to get access to the New York City Police Department, a critical story in the series, only after the executive editor and the writer of the article paid a visit to Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Access was only the first step in the process. After spending months in the field determining where and how they could get close to willing subjects, reporters filed memos on what they saw as possible angles. Then they went back into the field to determine if, indeed, their impressions and judgments about access held up. After additional reporting, they were asked to file outlines and first drafts, which became the focus of a meeting with a team of editors.
It was during these sessions that we began to shape and focus each story. “What does this story say about race?” we would ask. We also attempted to help reporters understand some nuances in their impressions that might be unfair. For example, we asked why a reporter described a black drill sergeant as “unthinking,” even though his educational achievement was higher than his white counterpart, who he discussed more positively. Or when a white reporter said that some black immigrants did not have the same “racial baggage” as American blacks, could he see how some Americans blacks might regard that characterization as derogatory?
We also used such sessions to try to understand what our reporting was missing. Why did a dark-skinned Cuban-American have such a distrust of police? Why did his friend, a light-skinned Cuban-American, have such a resentment of blacks? The black Cuban had been stopped by police who pointed a gun at him shortly after he arrived in Miami; the white Cuban had been robbed by blacks while delivering beverages in Liberty City.
We could have stopped our reporting at this point, but we didn’t. The reporters returned to the field and reported further. We then repeated the earlier process, a new draft, another meeting, more questions, and further focusing. Finally a rough draft was submitted, and after additional review and discussion, the writing and editing of the final draft took place.
We knew from the start of the project that the editing structure would be a major challenge—for both reporters and editors alike. After all, we all had our own attitudes about race and they varied considerably given our differing racial and ethnic backgrounds. (The team working on the series included seven editors, four white and three black; 16 reporters, four black, two Hispanic, one Native American, and nine white; 14 photographers, two black, three Hispanic, and nine white. The graphics team was headed by an Asian-American.) In the end, our diversity was our strength, but it generated much probing of our own views and experiences about race.
The editing model we adopted stressed that there were no right or wrong views and that the most important part of the process was honesty. So we talked and talked about what we were finding, trying at best to understand what it represented and what was behind it. And we disagreed a lot—black editors vs. other black editors; Hispanic reporters vs. white editors; black vs. white editors.
Once, for example, we spent hours arguing about what was critical to our story on hip hop. What exactly did we mean by “hip hop”? How much should we focus on a white character instead of a black character? Should the black character be representative of lower-income blacks or could he be from the suburbs? Such discussions went on constantly as we struggled time and time again with what we were trying to say and why.
Gathering information for the narratives was complicated by other factors. We suspected as we started our research that blacks and other people of color would find it easier to talk about race and their relations with whites. That proved to be the case, although talking did not necessarily mean that they were willing to share their deepest feelings. To understand how they really felt we had to observe how they related to whites and talked with family members and friends. Toward the end of the reporting, we confronted them with any inconsistencies we had seen and heard.
For the most part, whites were much more guarded. That presented a different challenge. It was only after we had invested considerable time that they were willing to open up. To capture their deepest feelings, we had to interview them again and again.
At times, our efforts to force reporters back again and again met with skepticism and even outright resentment. But by challenging some of their initial impressions, we were able to create a much more complete picture. As one reporter, Dana Canedy, wrote later of her experience in reporting a piece on black and white columnists at the Akron Beacon Journal: “I initially had a negative reaction to my white character and struggled to understand why. In the end, I decided it was because he was macho and insensitive more than anything else. This is a man who once described his wife in a column, without her knowledge, as having the libido of man.
“His views on race troubled me, too. He considered being pulled over by the police for weaving in traffic similar to racial profiling.
“So I spent a weekend hanging out with his family, riding in his minivan to his kids’ basketball games, admiring the new swimming pool in his backyard, chatting with his wife over iced tea in their living room. It worked. I came to see him as a loving father with an adorable family. And watching him shoot baskets during halftime with a young black girl on his daughter’s team, I realized that he may be naive about race, as one of his colleagues suggested, but certainly not hateful. I could respect that. After all, none of us has all the answers when it comes to race.”
Would I do it again? Right now, I’m not sure, as I recall how draining emotionally and physically the project has been.
Yet I and others here emerged with a greater understanding of the racial divide that runs through this country, including how deep and complex it remains. And we learned that it can be bridged with hard work and honesty, when and if we want to.
Gerald Boyd is deputy managing editor, news, for The New York Times, and a 1981 Nieman Fellow.