In the introduction to How Race is Lived in America, editor Joseph Lelyveld describes how this book evolved from a 1999 series of
stories in the New York Times on race relations to fifteen chapters in Part I. The compilation of stories takes a cross-sectional look at race in the USA. The book tries to report "objectively" on a number of complex issues involved in narrating different perspectives from various socioeconomic segments of the population who live in relatively distinct subcultures and settings. By the end of this ambitious book, the authors conclude the reported content can be
"filtered" through many different human prisms. From the get-go, there is no attempt to
define or use consistent, social-scientific renderings of what is meant by "race," "minority," "racism," "prejudice," and "discriminatory behavior." For example, the authors, at times,
confuse "minority" with less or few in number, although sociologists assert that "minority" should never be regarded as a numerical concept. The reader is challenged to discover "deeper meanings" behind variable accounts, experiences, and references to skin "color," "stereotypes," "status"
and "inter-group relations."
Stories of compromise and accommodation flow from an Assembly of God church membership in Georgia; "black" and "white" Cuban Americans now living in Miami, Florida; and the daily ups and downs of interaction between black and white, Jewish, male writers working with
a combative black male director on the HBO series, "The Corner." One of the few female
intergenerational stories centers around an older white female plantation owner with a colonial view in conflict with a much younger black female U.S. Park Service employee's desire to preserve a history of slavery for today's public. Other chapters deal with the perceived divergent impact of race on corporate investments, male entrepreneurial vocational careers and political campaigns. Other stories focus on interracial marriages, parenting, schooling, work, SES, family, community and cross-cultural/sub-cultural relationships. One story highlights the covert, manipulative aspects of "racism" by detailing misperceptions, derogatory labels and competition for promotions between black and white male noncoms occupying the same status position
(e.g., Staff Sergeant) in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky. A contrasting story illustrates the overt, blatant hostility, hopelessness, fear and disgust which emerges from an informal "pecking-order" of positions, inequitable pay, disrespect and discriminatory treatment which is easily exploited by white management seeking greater profits in deplorable segregated work-site conditions in a meat-packing plant in North Carolina.
Especially poignant are stories about white middle-class male children identifying with
and literally buying into black "hip-hop" culture; a sober tale of a young lower-class boy
of mixed heritage (white, black, Cherokee) with a black father, a white mother, and two
older male white siblings who endures intra-family abuse, abandonment, discrimination
and forced segregation within and outside the family unit; and a news-driven story about
an upper-middle class nineteen-year-old blonde, white, male football star who is recruited
by predominantly black Southern University and a black coach in his home town of Baton
Rouge, Louisiana to play quarterback. Guess what happens? Indeed, eleven of the fifteen chapters deal primarily with white, black and other male burdens and struggles while only two stories deal primarily with interracial female experiences of growing up in a divided, culturally-diverse society.
Ironically, but not unexpectedly, the book concludes with as much confusion, disagreement,
and lack of consensus regarding "race" as was anticipated for such a complex, controversial
topic in the first place. More introspection, self-disclosure, experience, and insightful
comments by contributing reporters and editors appear in "Part II: The Conversations." The appendix provides telephone survey results of polls on race taken over the last ten years
which are rife with seeming contradictions, yet provide tantalizing numerical signs of
possible improvement and areas needing improvement in race relations. This reader started
to wonder if the earlier poll results had informed or been used in any way by the investigative reporters who contributed the original 1999 articles and stories for this book?
This book is not filled with sensational stories, that is, scandals, murders, sex and mayhem;
nor does it give equal coverage to all minorities, cults, extremist groups (e.g., "skinheads")
or special interests; nor does it argue for simplistic solutions or persuasive resolutions to
issues of race. The book is a serious read which asks sobering, at times implicit, questions
about ourselves, our identities, prejudices, interpersonal and public treatment of fellow
members of our neighborhoods, communities, states, and nation -- questions most of us can
not answer fully with one hundred percent certitude and veracity. Questions without which we have little focus and few comparative guidelines to monitor collective efforts to extend contacts, insure equal protections and understand meaningful communications with persons sharing with us
their lives, responsibilities, labor, goods, services and status honors as well as the burdens
of race, poverty, discrimination, leadership and diversity in a dynamic, changing society.