Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Reporter shares insights on race

Michael Winerip discusses the series of articles he worked on as a reporter and editor.

Michael Winerip spent a year of his life writing and editing a series of articles about race in America for The New York Times. Every day, he discussed, mulled over and worried about race.

Partway through the year, he told Gerald Boyd, then managing editor of the newspaper, that he was weary of the topic.

“He just gave me this smile and said, ‘Now you see how I feel.’” Winerip recalled during a recent appearance at Lehigh. “I, as a white guy, had a choice to think about race because I’m the majority. He, as a black man, did not have that say, that choice.”

The 15-article series went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and, in 2001, was compiled into a book titled How Race is Lived in America.

Winerip drew from the series and book for most of the lecture he delivered during his Lehigh appearance on March 26. The reporter of 35 years perched on a stool as he retold events that reflected views on race in America. His unaided voice filled the lecture hall in Lewis Lab as he spoke to a crowd estimated to be more than 70.

The plantation incident

Winerip's Pulitzer Prize-winning work examined the issue of race from rural Louisiana to Harlem.

Some of Winerip’s stories were from his days as a reporter in rural Appalachia, while others focused on his year-long assignment in the Harlem police narcotics department. One of the discoveries his team made was that sometimes, the clearest indication of racism is silence.

While editing How Race is Lived in America, Winerip worked with other reporters to determine what angle they should pursue and whether an event or statement had racial implications. One of the writers he assisted was Ginger Thompson, who was spending a year in a rural Louisiana town where a descendent of a plantation owner had turned the family home into a national park.

The town, Natchitoches, had a history of racial tension, and an uneasy peace was bought by not discussing skin color and slavery. The mansion, slave quarters and grounds attracted tourists whose money the town desperately needed. And while the woman who formerly owned the plantation enjoyed telling her family’s story, she didn’t dwell on the fact that her family owned slaves, contending that her ancestors treated slaves more humanely than most.

So when a park ranger hosted a reenactment of slavery at the plantation, Thompson expected an outcry from the former owner and townspeople. Both Winerip and Thompson hoped the reenactment and its response would provide a focus to the article Thompson was writing.

But the reenactment was performed without incident, and the former owner and townspeople were pleased with the portrayal.

Thompson was not. She called Winerip in a panic. Reporter and editor wondered if they had wasted months on something that wasn’t a story.

In subsequent interviews with those involved, Thompson learned that the reenactment had been watered down to appease the town’s white residents. No one was upset because the black actors had portrayed slavery in a falsely positive light.

“Nothing happened, but at the same time something extraordinary happened,” Winerip said. “One hundred fifty years after slavery ended, it’s still too sensitive of a topic to deal with honestly. The black actors felt that they had to tone it down so that they didn’t upset the white people. That’s racism in America today.”

Although separated from Natchitoches by a 22-hour drive north and east, Harlem’s police department had a similar silence. During his year reporting from a New York City narcotics unit, Winerip observed that race underpinned every decision in a police officer’s life. The police radio describes suspects based on their skin color. Racial tension can be observed in the neighborhoods the cops patrol and in decisions made by their own department, he said.

Yet, “cops do not discuss race. It’s too risky,” he said. Members of the racially mixed department needed to trust each other, and couldn’t afford to disagree.

Joining the discussion

Students listened intently as Winerip talked.

Unlike the actors on the plantation or Harlem’s narcotics department, Darius Callier ’11, vice president of Lehigh’s Black Student Union, decided not to be silent about his perceptions of racial tension on campus.

Race, he said, is “something I live with everyday. It affects me every day.”

He wrote a letter to the student paper, The Brown and White, criticizing the Greek system for not welcoming minorities. In response to Callier’s letter, Brian Weisser ’10, president of Phi Sigma Kappa, and his house decided to join the discussion over race by co-sponsoring Winerip’s lecture along with the Black Student Union and other university organizations.

Weisser and other members of the Greek community hoped that Winerip would spark conversations among Greek and non-Greek, and among students of diverse backgrounds, and that these conversations would clear away prejudice and misconceptions on both sides.

After Thursday’s lecture, Callier said that his critique was not meant to encompass the entire Greek system. In fact, he said he likes the members of Phi Sigma Kappa and considers Weisser a good friend. Members of both the fraternity and the Black Student Union attended the lecture.

“I’m really glad Darius and his organization are willing to still reach out and work with us,” Weisser said.

Other sponsors of the lecture included the Asian Cultural Society, the Progressive Students Alliance, the College Democrats, The Patriot independent student newspaper, and the Office of Student Auxiliary Services.

While the lecture did not change Callier’s sentiments, he appreciated the efforts of Weisser and his brothers, and enjoyed the discussion.

“I thought it was really good,” he says. “It’s interesting to hear a white person’s perspective on race.”

--Becky Straw

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2009

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