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How Race is Lived
Questions deserve answers
By Steven Martinovich
How Race is Lived in America doesn't pretend to be a methodical look at the role race plays in America today, a fact that New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld readily admits in his overly self-congratulatory introduction. That fact is both a benefit and a hindrance to what was an impressively large project launched by the Times. That project was a yearlong examination of the role of race by fifteen reporters that culminated in a six week stretch of stories in the Times with an eye to answer the question: What are race relations like today?
Judging by this book, not terribly good. Although the reporters ostensibly covered fifteen very different situations, everything from the set of a miniseries to the views of cops in Harlem, How Race is Lived in America reads like fifteen minor variations of the same story. Even the stories that purport to be positive leave the reader decidedly depressed about race relations.
Take, for example, Steven A. Holmes' look at drill sergeants at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Focusing on Staff Sgt. Harry Feyer and Staff Sgt. Earnest Williams, who are white and black respectively, Holmes separately manages to get the men to reveal their honest feelings about each other. Feyer refers to his co-worker as his "battle buddy" but wondered why Williams didn't trust him more. Williams' answer why was fairly clear.
"Williams confided he thought little of Feyer as a soldier and even less of him as a leader," wrote Holmes, in a passage that must have made for some uncomfortable reading in the barricks when the story ran in the Times.
Feyer and Williams worked closely together every day. Each was responsible for the other. Their desks were only three feet apart. They only lived 200 yards apart. Neither had ever stepped foot in the other's home. So much for the colorblind army.
Repeating throughout the stories are two constant themes. One, whites are tired of hearing about slavery and racism and want to move past America's ill treatment of African-Americans. While they are sympathetic to the day-to-day struggles that people of color face, they believe that things are different today and people are more enlightened. Those beliefs are in stark contrast to the opinions of blacks, or at least those in this book. Blacks believe that not enough discussion has taken place about America's past and that it is hard to trust whites because of the constant slights - both real and imagined - that blacks must suffer with. After fifteen essays hammering home the same points, it's hard to come out at the end with any positive feelings about the future.
There is also another reason for the sameness of many of the stories: they deal mostly with whites and blacks. The Times reporters apparently forgot there are other races living in America. Washington Governor Gary Locke, the nation's first Asian-American to hold that post, makes an appearance to boast how he uses his race as a political tool while Hispanics only make cursory appearances - and only then to spotlight the problems blacks face. Native Americans fare even worse with a solitary appearance in a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina and only then to act as nearly invisible players in a drama that involves whites, blacks and Hispanics.
That concentration on whites and blacks means that How Race is Lived in America seems more like a carefully crafted message to whites rather than a considered look at the state of race relations. That's where this book fails. By not attempting to cover a wider spectrum of people - did we really need actor Charles S. Dutton to explain his feelings on black-white relations when fourteen other people have already done so? - the book never really answers its question. We are instead left with fifteen stories that make for interesting, if rather uncomfortable, reading but in the end seem to lead to nowhere.
Despite those significant weaknesses, How Race is Lived in America can serve as a useful reminder that although most believe the world is improving, there is a significant amount of people who aren't as happy with the state of the world. Whether their grievances are real or imagined, millions of people believe that they continue to be disenfranchised because of the color of their skin. How Race is Lived in America can't tell you how deep that the state of this dissatisfaction is and nor does it pretend to have any real answers but it at least airs opinions that most of us - and that means people of all colors - keep well below the surface of our public thoughts.
If you can manage to ignore the Message that the Times editors felt needed to be hammered into readers - particularly the white ones - and it's unpardonable overlooking of issues that don't deal exclusively with whites or blacks, perhaps you can take away the need for greater honesty between people. That alone might be worth the discomfort you'll feel while reading this book.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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