How Race is Lived in America

Book Excerpt: How Race is Lived in America
Pulling Together, Pulling Apart

by The Correspondents of The New York Times
Introduction by Joseph Lelyveld

Published by Times Books 
April 2001; $27.50US; 0-8050-6740-X

An epic work of journalism that brilliantly illuminates America’s daily experience of race

Black, White, and Jewish
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In 1999, the New York Times embarked on the most ambitious journalistic project in its history. Starting with one central question — What are race relations like today? — a dedicated group of editors and writers began work on an intense, demanding form of narrative journalism, finding compelling stories in fifteen communities around the nation and following their subjects for up to a year until their stories played out. The result, How Race Is Lived in America, captures the raw emotions and candid words that often churn just below the surface and presents an uncommon view of the country’s private and public discourse on race.

Whether it’s the struggles of a biracial partnership in a high-tech start-up, the tension-filled merger of a white church with a black church in the South, or the simmering resentments of a multiracial slaughterhouse workforce, the powerful and intimate stories in this book follow real people leading complex lives, often but not always side by side. Aqeelah Mateen, one of a trio of young friends in Maplewood, New Jersey, finds herself torn by racial identity as she approaches adulthood. Sergeant Maria Brogli suspects that the black undercover officers on her Harlem narcotics squad fear being accidentally shot by white officers. Achmed Valdés, a white immigrant from Cuba, wonders why his best friend from Havana has gotten himself mired in Miami’s black community. As each shares hopes, fears and assumptions, an intricate and poignant understanding of race relations emerges.

Throughout these chronicles, which are enriched by an extensive poll and commentary from the journalists and citizens, it is clear that America has not become two distinct nations — one black and one white — as was feared a generation ago. America is now an inescapably multiracial society, discovering day by day how perceptions of race affect the fabric of human relationships. But deep divisions and frustrations persist, in minds and hearts if not in the laws of the land.

This landmark book offers a personal yet panoramic view of real-world conflict and aspiration, pain and resolution — a portrait of a country torn apart and brought together by its attitudes toward race.

Contributing New York Times Journalists include Ira Berkow writing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Dana Canedy from Akron, Ohio; Timothy Egan from Bainbridge Island, Washington; Amy Harmon from Atlanta, Georgia; Steven A. Holmes from Fort Knox, Kentucky; N. R. Kleinfeld from Brooklyn, New York; Charlie LeDuff from Tar Heel, North Carolina; Tamar Lewin from Maplewood, New Jersey, Mireya Navarro from Houston , Texas; Mirta Ojito from Miami, Florida, Kevin Sack from Decatur, Georgia; Janny Scott from Baltimore, Maryland; Ginger Thompson from Natchitoches, Louisiana; Michael Winerip from New York, New York; and Don Terry in an autobiographical essay. Joseph Lelyveld is executive editor of the New York Times.

“This is reporting at its best. This is how sociology should be, a comprehensive view in depth on a major social problem in America. This will be a benchmark for all future inquiries" 
–Daniel Bell, professor emeritus, Harvard University

"How Race Is Lived in America expands the boundaries of daily journalism. Resolutely avoiding stereotypes, clichés, and official wisdom, the New York Times team has gotten to the rich and complicated heart of the most persistently difficult theme in our country’s history. It stands not just as an outstanding portrayal of race relations, but as proof that with time, persistence, and a willingness to listen, reporters can convey not just the sayings and doings of important people, but a true sense of American life. "
–Nicholas Leman

“The range of reality uncovered is extraordinary.”
–Charlie Rose

“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.”
–Jack E. White, Time

The following is an excerpt from the book How Race is Lived in America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart
by the Correspondents of The New York Times
Published by Times Books; April 2001; $27.50; 0-8050-6740-X
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times

Shared Prayers, Mixed Blessings




Howard Pugh, head usher, is on patrol. May the good Lord have mercy on any child, or adult for that matter, who dares to tread across the lobby of the Assembly of God Tabernacle with so much as an open Coca-Cola in his hand. Because first he will get the look, the alert glare of a hunting dog catching its first scent of game. Then he will get the wag, the slightly palsied shake of the left index finger. And then the voice, serious as a heart attack and dripping with Pensacola pinesap: “Son, this is the Lord’s house. And they just shampooed that carpet last week.”

It goes without saying that Howard Pugh knows what is going on in his lobby. So when Pugh, a white man with a bulbous pink nose, spots eighty-one-year-old Roy Denson slipping out of the sanctuary, he doesn’t even have to ask. He just knows. He knows because he has seen Denson flee the 10:30 service time and again, and it is always when one of the choir’s black soloists moves to center stage.

This time it is Robert Lawson, a soulful tenor with a fondness for canary-yellow suits. As he begins to sing, the Pentecostal faithful gradually rise. First a few black members clap and sway. Then more join in. Finally, the white members are moved to stand, and before long the two thousand-seat sanctuary is washed over with harmony. Stretching their arms toward the heavens, the congregants weave a tapestry of pinks and tans and browns.

But to Denson’s ears, Lawson’s improvisational riffs sound like so much screeching and hollering. And so he sits there seething, thinking about how he joined this church fifty-six years ago, how he followed it from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, how he hung the Sheetrock with his own hands, and how the blacks are taking over and the whites are just letting it happen.

He gets angrier and angrier, listening to these boisterous black folks desecrate his music, until he simply cannot bear it. "I ain’t sitting there and listening to that,” he mutters on his way out. “They’re not going to take over my church.”

And there waiting for him is Howard Pugh, at sixty-five another white man of his generation, always with the same smart-alecky question. Never mind that Pugh and his wife, Janice, have themselves become uneasy about the direction of their church, that they have been quietly contemplating a walk of their own. “Now, Roy,” Howard Pugh begins, stroking his seafarer’s beard, “what are you going to do when you get to heaven? Walk out of there, too?”

Back inside, the ecstatic singing has ended, the speaking in tongues has melted into a chorus of hypnotic whispers and the members of the Tabernacle have been invited to roam the sea-foam carpet, welcoming visitors and greeting one another.

They embrace, the white people and the black people, with long, earnest hugs. Eletia Frasier, a Guyanese immigrant, kisses all who come her way, whether she knows them or not. Brad Jackson wraps his thick white arms around Eugene Glenn, a slender black man, and jerks him cleanly off the ground.

Ruben Burch, a six-foot-seven black man whose blue usher’s blazer is a tad short in the sleeves, saunters down the aisle with an irrepressible grin. During the Sunday fellowship, Burch makes a point of approaching older whites to gauge acceptance. Will they offer hugs, or merely handshakes? Will they linger, or recoil?

Halfway down the aisle, he encounters Madge Mayo, the spry eighty-five-year-old widow of a pastor from the Tabernacle’s segregated days. She stands four-foot-nine and keeps her luminescent white hair in a tight bun.

There was a time when Mayo could never have imagined hugging a black man, and even now she is not sure she approves of the integration of her church. But she has been touched by the bigheartedness of the Tabernacle’s black members. And like so many of the whites who have stayed, she reasons that all believers are going to the same heaven, so they might as well get used to one another right here on earth.

Mayo sees Burch heading her way and trots a few steps toward him in her shiny black pumps. They smile fondly, and he bends at the waist to embrace her. She pats Burch on the back and presses her cheek against his, passing his test.

It is a moment that would probably chafe some of his relatives, who feel that he and his wife, Vanessa, are compromising their blackness by attending “the white church.” But the Burches feel blessed by the blendedness of the Tabernacle.

“Man,” Ruben Burch reflects later, “thirty or forty years ago I would have been hung for just touching this lady.”

Praying Side by Side

Sixteen miles east of downtown Atlanta, a vast granite monolith known as Stone Mountain looms over DeKalb County. Up on that mountain in 1915, the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan was born. And virtually in its shadow, the Tabernacle, all brick and glass and sharp angles, sits along Interstate 285 in the thick of the Atlanta sprawl.

Nearly fifty years after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scolded Christians for making 11 A.M. Sunday the most segregated hour of the week, the Tabernacle is the rarest of religious institutions: a truly integrated church in a nation where 90 percent of all congregations are at least 80 percent one race. It is, to many of its eight hundred members, a slice of heaven on earth, a church whose spirituality is magnified by its multiracial character. What better evidence of God’s presence, they reason, than the sight of whites and blacks praying side by side?

And yet, the Tabernacle is not some liberal church like the one nearby that took down its white stained-glass Jesus and replaced him with a black one. It is deeply conservative, socially and theologically. What draws the Pughs and the Burches and so many others is the intensity of their Pentecostal faith, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can move in the lives of all believers, regardless of background.

Pastor Roger W. Brumbalow’s mission statement, displayed prominently in the lobby, challenges the congregation “to be a multiracial, multicultural maturing body of believers,” and, indeed, the church is blended in almost every way. Fifty-five percent of the members are white, 43 percent are black and the rest are Asian or racially mixed. Perhaps a third of the blacks are foreign born, and the church flies thirty-six flags to honor their homelands.

The Tabernacle has had trouble integrating its eight-member pastoral staff, a legacy of the Assemblies of God’s history as a white denomination. Its first black associate pastor resigned in the fall of 1999 after two years. In the following twelve months, Brumbalow, who is white, filled two openings with white associate pastors before finally hiring a black youth pastor. The board of deacons, by contrast, has been integrated since 1994 and became majority black after elections in March 2000.

The choir is thoroughly mixed, and its praise-and-worship-style music falls comfortably between the traditional country hymns of white Pentecostalism and the thumping gospel funk of the modern black church. Pastor Gary Smith, the music minister, jokes that his choir would be faultless “if we could just get the whites to clap on time and just get the blacks to be on time.”

The congregation does not mix only in the pews. Blacks and whites visit each other in the hospital, share motel rooms at retreats and attend potluck dinners at one another’s homes. They come together in kitchens and living rooms, forming circles of prayer around an ailing old man or a hopeful young couple, then laying hands on the supplicants’ foreheads and shoulders. Visiting one another’s suburban homes, with their manicured lawns and large-screen TVs, these accountants and teachers, nurses and software consultants discover the common threads of their middle-class lives.

Yet for all the utopian imagery, for all the hope and faith that the congregation has moved beyond race, the life of the church is still driven by race in countless ways.

Most everyone has made accommodations of some kind. The whites, mostly native Southerners, have been forced to confront their racial assumptions and cede some control over church governance and liturgy. The blacks have ventured from the safe harbor of the African American church and, in many cases, have suppressed lifetimes of racial resentment and distrust.

The little compromises can be detected any Sunday. They show in the frustration of some black members with the regimentation of the morning service, which opens with exactly thirty minutes of singing and usually lasts precisely two hours.

“There are times when we’re praising God and then they just cut it off,” complains Robert Lawson. “You can’t do that. You can’t put God in a box.”

Some whites, meanwhile, dart glances at black churchgoers who they feel may be worshiping too exuberantly. They search for delicate words to explain.

“In a lot of cases, the blacks are really more committed,” says John F. Kellerman, a former deacon.

“More outgoing,” agrees his wife, Grace.

“Where the whites are more reserved, you know,” he says.

Behind such concerns, though, is the question at the heart of the Tabernacle’s future: Is the church simply enjoying a fleeting moment of integration on the way to becoming predominantly black? With the church growing rapidly and blacks joining at twice the rate of whites, the Tabernacle could tip, like those neighborhoods where blacks move in and whites eventually flee.

The Tabernacle is a work in progress. But how far is it willing to go? And how much are the Burches, the Pughs and the others willing to concede in order to realize St. Paul’s declaration that “you are all one in Christ Jesus”?

Making “Colored” Friends

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in January 2000, a racially mixed crowd gathers at Howard and Janice Pugh’s house for a catfish feast. They segregate quickly, of course. The men decamp to the garage, handicapping the Super Bowl and admiring Howard Pugh’s skill with the deep-fat fryer. The women settle in the sun room, swapping tales about the cold snap and the flu bug.

When the group comes together for dinner, everyone laughs knowingly at Eugene Glenn’s stories about his sixteen-year-old daughter’s interest in buying a car and lack of interest in finding a job. Before long, the joshing turns to the male love affair with the channel changer and, eventually, to Howard Pugh’s vigilance in the church lobby. The guests tease their host about how he was spotted letting the youth pastor’s wife cross the carpet with an open can of soda.

“You’re slipping, Howard,” taunts William Turner, a black deacon.

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “I’m getting soft.”

As much as anyone, the Pughs have been transformed by the church’s integration. Having lived most of their lives with little exposure to blacks, and little interest in gaining any, they now count blacks from the church among their closest friends.

“My feeling before I got to know them was that there really wasn’t that many good blacks out there,” Howard Pugh explains. “After being around them and working with them, shoot, I don’t even think about them as colored anymore.”

Of course, Howard Pugh’s “colored” friends would prefer he use a synonym. But in his mind, his choice of words marks some progress. “Hey, I’ve come a long way,”‘ he says. “I don’t say ‘nigger’ anymore.”

“That’s right,” his wife chimes in, “they should see where you’ve come from.”

Where they both came from were country churches in the piney woods of northwest Florida. When Howard was an infant, his mother would slide him under the bench so he wouldn’t get trampled while they danced in the spirit. Janice was abandoned by her parents and raised by a grandmother who enforced a strict Pentecostal code: no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no makeup, no short pants.

They found each other twenty-one years ago via CB radio and began courting over a cup of truck-stop coffee. Pugh, a widower, could be gruff as an Alabama trooper. But he was also giving and good-hearted and a fine provider. She was pretty and sweet and recently divorced. She kept a Christian household and had no problem letting her husband be head of it. Even today, she cooks and cleans and lays out his clothes.

“All he has to do is put them on,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah,” he grins, sunk into his recliner, his toy poodle, Pepe, in his lap, “all them guys at the church comes up to me and says, ‘Boy, your wife dresses you nice.’ “

After working for years in pulp mills, Howard Pugh brought his bride to Atlanta nineteen years ago and started a lucrative business pouring concrete in the ever-expanding suburbs. With its sizable black middle class and political structure, the city was a shock.

The Pughs had come up in a strictly segregated culture. Howard Pugh remembers having little childhood exposure to blacks, and during the civil rights movement he couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. As far as he could tell, blacks had the same opportunities as he and other poor whites, even if they did have their own neighborhoods and schools.

“I just wanted to stay on my side of the fence and for them to stay on theirs,” he says. “I never abused them. But they pretty much knew that I was white and they were niggers and we just ran our own way."

Janice Pugh, forty-six, says she was never taught prejudice but recalls her grandmother’s warning to avoid the black side of town. Her view of black men, she says, came from movies that portrayed them “raping a white woman or something.”

In Atlanta, she had to confront her fears. “You’d turn the TV on and it’s a black mayor and a black city council,” she says. “I’d say: ‘Howard, where did you bring me? Are there any white people here?’ "

When the Pughs joined in 1992, the Tabernacle was perhaps 10 percent black. They had never worshiped with blacks before. But the black folks tended to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, separated from the whites by a demilitarized zone of empty pews. “We came at a good time, " Janice Pugh recalls. “There weren’t so many of them that it was overwhelming. We could adjust.”

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