Big Story, Little News

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If there is one thing the New York Times established in its gargantuan series "How Race Is Lived in America," it's that Americans of every color are still bedeviled and bewildered by race. If there's a second point the series made--in 14 installments published over the past six weeks, a national opinion poll and a special issue of the Times Sunday magazine that appeared last weekend--it's that even with the extraordinary journalistic resources of the nation's best newspaper at your command, it's difficult to say anything really new about that age-old and immutable fact.

The Times deserves plaudits for trying to get beyond conventional racial wisdom. It deployed a team of more than 30 black, white, Hispanic and Asian-American reporters and editors for the project for more than a year. As befits the Times when it's gunning for a Pulitzer Prize, the stories they produced are superb. Two of them--a riveting examination of the oppression of black and Hispanic workers in a North Carolina pork-processing plant and a nuanced portrayal of how two close Cuban friends, one black and one white, are torn apart by apartheid American-style after they immigrate to Miami--are masterpieces.

And yet, after you've sifted through more than 100,000 words of well-told, occasionally fascinating anecdotes about the perplexed, confused and frequently angry ways blacks and whites (as well as a few Asian Americans and Hispanics) talk--or more often don't talk--to one another about racial matters, what have you really learned? Mainly, in the words of Soma Gol-den Behr, one of the editors who supervised the project, that when it comes to race, Americans "have done some of the easy things and now we're in for the hard stuff." That's worth repeating but not exactly news to anyone who has been paying attention to the issue. It's basically the same message the mainstream media (including TIME) rediscover every few years and bring forth as a revelation.

As Behr's partner, deputy managing editor Gerald Boyd, explained to me last week, the Times set out to examine the uneasy relationships between minorities (mostly blacks) and whites who relate to each other as equals, a goal it accomplished brilliantly. But that approach by definition excludes an examination of how powerful white institutions, such as banks and insurance companies, influence the way race is lived by redlining ghettos and charging blacks more for their burial policies. It also precludes looking at how race is lived by those who seldom come into contact with peers of a different group, like affluent denizens of Manhattan's Upper East Side who wrap themselves in a Seinfeld show-like all--white cocoon or impoverished blacks in inner-city neighborhoods who know few whites besides cops, teachers and social workers. To some readers, leaving the story of those kinds of people out of the series seemed to teleport the problem to somewhere out there in the hinterlands, away from the paper's own racially troubled backyard.

But these are quibbles. No newspaper series can be--or should be--expected to cover a tangled subject like race in all its dimensions. And perhaps putting race on the Times's front page will ignite a more open and honest dialogue across the color line than we've had in a long, long time. It's a subject we need to talk about for as long as we've got something to say.