Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82, goes behind the work that earned him one of journalism’s highest honors.
In April 2019 the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing was awarded to New York Times essayist and editorial board member Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82. In his 10 prize-winning pieces, Staples delved into the pervasive history of racism in the United States, bringing readers face to face with disturbing, largely overlooked chapters of black American experience—whose legacy, he contends, we’re far from overcoming. The editorials, the Pulitzer board said, were “written with extraordinary moral clarity.”
They were also painstakingly researched. Staples brings a historian’s chops to his work, writing opinion pieces anchored in facts that might otherwise have gone forgotten except by historians. At UChicago he studied psychology, teaching for a few years before joining the New York Times Book Review as an editor in 1985. Five years later he was named to the paper’s editorial board. His columns have been nationally syndicated, and Staples’s 1994 autobiography, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (Pantheon), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. In April he was named a fellow of the Society of American Historians.
Since receiving the Pulitzer, Staples has continued to publish columns that bring to light lesser known stories of racial injustice in this country. His conversation with the Magazine has been edited and condensed.
Your approach to newspaper column writing is distinct and powerful. How do these pieces fit into the larger arc of your career? Do you see a greater need for people to remember such history in the current political moment?
I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, two decades ago to report on the state-sponsored commission that was investigating the most destructive episode of racial terrorism in US history. The bloody conflagration now known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre unfolded when the city empowered a mob of white vigilantes who murdered black citizens at will while reducing to ashes 38 square blocks of the prosperous African American community known as Greenwood. For 50 years afterward, the blood-drenched event that troubled the city’s sleep and defined its history was banished to the very margins of public awareness.
White families whose fathers, uncles, and sons had participated in the carnage enforced a civic silence. African American parents and grandparents kept quiet out of fear that speaking of the great evil might resurrect it. The white Tulsan who finally published a detailed account of the episode in 1971—enduring death threats along the way—was still living in the city when I stepped off the plane in 1999. He said something during one of our interviews—“History is the only education. Everything else is just training.”—that resonated with my inclinations as a writer and left a deep impression. The story of race and racism in the United States is obscured by layer upon layer of willful forgetting. Writing about this problem is by definition a forensic act.
How have your readers reacted?
Readers are hungry for historically grounded explanation. They cannot get enough of it.
A piece you wrote last October drew the most responses of anything you’ve written. What did readers say about it?
My essay “How Italians Became ‘White’” showed how the United States racialized southern Italians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for being darker skinned, and they were ridiculed in white supremacist terms in the New York Times itself. The essay attracted a strikingly diverse readership, reaching somewhere between two and three million people. College-educated Americans who had no idea of the role racism plays in American immigration policy were surprised by the historical references—particularly the examples of anti-Italian and anti-black racism culled from the pages of the Times. Neighbors in the historically Italian section of Brooklyn where I have lived for more than 30 years stopped me on the street to discuss it.
Here and elsewhere these columns tell uncomfortable truths about the history of the newspaper in which they’re published. Did you have full support to talk about that?
There are no comfortable truths about the pervasiveness of racism in the United States. As the great-grandson of a black Virginian who narrowly missed being born a slave—and who died only a decade before I was born—I am irrevocably committed to speaking truth on matters of racial justice. Many years ago, during an argument with an editor, I enunciated what turned out to be a guiding personal principle. Before I dishonor the memory of my great-grandfather and my enslaved forebears, I said, I will quit this job and go wash cars.
Your essays bring to life figures like Frazier Baker and Madison Hemings (see “The Legacy of Monticello’s Black First Family”), to name just two, and transport us to their worlds for a time. Can you reflect on the importance to your work of bringing individual human beings and past moments to life in this way?
I take particular joy in helping to restore the dignity of figures like Madison Hemings, who was reviled by historians for saying what he knew from firsthand experience: that Thomas Jefferson was his father and the lover of his mother, Sally Hemings. The work of the historian Annette Gordon-Reed is inspiring in this way.
One of the striking things about the Pulitzer and post-Pulitzer pieces as a set is the extent to which they reflect and recommend reading deeply and widely. Why is that important to you?
Journalists often write swiftly under constraints that limit them to few if any citations. I get the time and space I need when working on major essays. I make full use of hyperlinks. I see citations as public service; they allow readers to find original source materials and make up their own minds about my arguments.
Are there ways in which your PhD work in psychology at the University has influenced your work as a journalist?
My reading in the philosophy of science—and the works of philosophers like Edmund Husserl, Michael Polanyi, and Paul Ricoeur—has shaped my ability to see beyond the surface of the world.
Which writers and journalists influenced your work the most, early in your career and now?
In stylistic terms, I was heavily influenced by the novelist Saul Bellow, EX’39, who was situated on the Committee on Social Thought when I was in my 20s. (I remember seeing him on campus soon after he was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize.) I was fascinated by the way he grafted familiar people and news events into his novels, particularly Humboldt’s Gift (Viking, 1975), The Dean’s December (Harper & Row, 1982), and a few others.
Is there anything you’ve been reading lately that you would recommend?
Not long ago, I published a Times essay about Seneca Village, the 19th-century African American settlement that was destroyed to build Central Park. This essay is of a piece with articles I have written over the last two decades illuminating the largely forgotten story of African Americans who lived, worked, and died in early New York City. Twentieth-century Manhattanites who grew up thinking of New York as a “free” state were stunned when construction workers unearthed the African Burial Ground in 1991.
The event forced people to reckon with the fact that Gotham was an epicenter of the slave trade in the United States and a hostile environment for free black New Yorkers who saw it as a duty to assist fugitives from slavery like Frederick Douglass, who touched down briefly in Manhattan before fleeing into New England. The black Manhattanites who established Seneca Village in the 1820s were fleeing the murderous hostility they experienced in Lower Manhattan. I am reading deeply into their lives to get a sense of their fears and aspirations. Leslie M. Alexander’s African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861 (University of Illinois Press, 2008) is a good place to start.
How did you react when you found out you had won the Pulitzer Prize?
How have you changed as a writer and journalist from the beginning of your career to today?
I am more concise—sentence by sentence and in compositional terms.
What advice can you offer aspiring journalists?
Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can.
You’ve written that the only real hope of getting beyond racism in the United States is to talk about it, particularly about subtler forms of discrimination that persist today and that are the most deniable as innocent or accidental. How do you think we’re doing in that regard?
The country is in denial about the pervasiveness of racism. That denial is reflected in the way the traditional news media speaks of obviously racist behaviors euphemistically, using phrases like “racially charged,” “racially insensitive,” or “racially inflammatory.” Several years ago, I wrote an essay based on federal data showing that black preschoolers were far more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for essentially the same behaviors. I concluded the piece by writing something like, “This is how racism works at school.” I stepped out of the office for a moment and returned to find that white editors had changed “racism” to “race.”
This sanitized formulation implied that the crushing mistreatment visited upon African American schoolchildren had descended from the heavens and fixed itself in place without human complicity. The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva critiques this kind of thinking in his widely cited book Racism without Racists (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). The white editors who changed the wording in my essay were operating under the familiar presumption that the term “racist” should be reserved for sheet-wearing Klansmen. I countered that, in terms of effect, there is no discernible difference between the conduct of a self-declared white supremacist who deliberately sets out to crush a black child’s life and the behavior of a self-declared liberal who achieves the same crushing effect while subscribing “unconsciously” to racist views of blackness.
As we complete this interview, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a sharply greater toll on African Americans and Latinos than whites in the United States. What light does your work shed on this inequity?
Inequality is the defining feature of life in the United States. As the Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote recently in the New Yorker, the pandemic has given a murderous twist to the old African American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia.” The disastrous COVID-19 death rate among black Americans reflects the structural racism that disproportionately confines them to the lowest rungs of society. They are more likely to experience joblessness, hunger, and life in crowded substandard housing—making them more susceptible to infection.
It is widely understood that racist stereotypes inform medical education, medical treatment, and public health policy itself. As I pointed out in my essay “Slandering the Unborn”—part of my Pulitzer nomination—racist stereotypes dominated the public discourse during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. News organizations embraced the fallacious view that mothers addicted to a cheap, smokable form of cocaine were giving birth to a generation of children who would be less than fully human. These women were thus deemed criminals from whom the unborn were said to need protection.
As I say in the essay, “The myth of the ‘crack baby’—crafted from equal parts bad science and racist stereotypes—was debunked by the turn of the 2000s.” By then, however, the discredited notion that cocaine was uniquely and permanently damaging to the unborn had been written into the legal code and used to advance the view that the fetus was a person with rights superseding those of the mother. In other words, a racist idea first brought to bear against African American mothers had been generalized and applied to women as a whole.