- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2000

Someday, scholars of the early second millennium will pore over the 2000 New York Times series, "How Race Is Lived in America" 14 epic-long daily installments and a whole Sunday magazine and unlock the mysteries of the 21st-century-American mind. But why wait?

One could begin by actually reading the series six, seven and eight-thousand-plus-word slices of life about Americans selected by skin color, such as one Billy Wimpsatt, "who embraced hip hop as a boy to slip the bounds of his whiteness…" Then again, maybe not. An easier way in is an illuminating conversation, "Writing about Race (and Trying to Talk about It)," among New York Times writers and editors that appears in the series' finale, last week's "Talking about Race" Sunday magazine.

Here writers on race are identified by race, before such sections as "Lives: Memories of Race" (this includes "Learning Whiteness" and "Black Like Her"); "Consumed by Race," a statistical comparison of what black and white Americans buy (did you know that 51 percent of white Americans and 49 percent of black Americans buy frozen waffles?); and "Outnumbered: Standing out at Work." Get the picture? Relentlessly, endlessly, it's all in black and white.

Back to the key moment of the journalists' conversation. "So," says one editor, Soma Golden Behr, to another editor, Gerald Boyd. "Do you have racial fatigue?" Mr. Boyd: "Oh, yes. Especially after this project." (Just imagine the "racial fatigue" of the reader whose brain is now gummed up with racial preferences for bottled spaghetti sauce.) The conversation continues as another editor, Michael Winerip, pipes up: "Well, as a white person, I got racial fatigue from this project… . I was angry about how much I had to think about it. And I was tired of thinking about it." Mr. Holmes: "What angered you about it?" Mr. Winerip: "Trying to get to the bottom of it. Was this moment racial or wasn't it racial?" The meaning of Mr. Winerip's question is plain to one who has sampled the series. It pertains, simply, to whether one is permitted to overlook skin color in one's relationships, or not. What has probably made Mr. Winerip's head ache is the exhausting and dispiriting nature of a journalistic exercise in which writers and readers alike are forced into a state of acute racial consciousness in seeing and depicting other Americans, not to mention themselves, in the starkest and most superficial terms the color of their skin.

Take Janny Scott, a reporter on the series, who has come to deem her upbringing in a "totally white suburb" a "moral failing." A moral failing? Even worse, Ms. Scott continues, is the fact that her sole childhood encounter with a nonwhite person was with a black woman who used to appear at a local market to raise money for her church. According to Ms. Scott, this "shows how benighted my childhood was." What is truly benighted is the Q&A; with Vernon Jordan in the magazine.

First question: "You just spent the Fourth of July in Jackson Hole, right? Were there many other African-Americans out there?" "When I go to Jackson Hole I'm not thinking race, I'm thinking relaxation," Mr. Jordan reasonably replies. Then, in a string of race-related questions about golf, Mr. Jordan is peppered with: "How does someone who grew up in the first public housing project in America … end up so passionate about a 'white' game?" "Is there a difference for you between playing with a white caddy and a black caddy?" White game, black caddy, racial fatigue is this how we get to a colorblind society? In the end, one is left wondering how it can be that this is the kind of reasoning that passes for enlightened thinking.

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