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How Race Is Lived in America


Yet Boyd, too, was trapped by the silence of race. At an awkward “group therapy” session at Behr’s home on the Upper West Side, he revealed that he’d worn a dashiki at college—and the sharing stopped there. (“How racism hurt Gerald was not a comfortable subject to Gerald,” Behr said.) And he was deflated when a female reporter blurted, “Gerald, you make me feel very white.”

After fourteen stories on page one, the team hit the lecture and talk-show circuit. Suddenly, Boyd had license to vent the frustrations he’d smothered inside his tight Windsor knot. Race was “the American nightmare,” he said. Black people gave it so much weight “that you can’t be yourself, you have to try to figure out how whites want you to be. And it doesn’t change based on how much success you have.”

In a roundtable published in the Times Magazine, he was eerily prescient: “Race is out there, time and time again. And if you’re not careful, it’s going to reach out and slap you and knock you down in some way, and you’ll never be able to get up from it.”

In 2001, after outflanking Bill Keller to succeed Lelyveld, Howell Raines picked Boyd to be his managing editor, a move questioned by many white people in the newsroom. Some saw it as a ploy to score points with the Times’ diversity-minded publisher. (According to Raines, they got it “totally backwards.” He says that Frankel told him that Sulzberger was “troubled” by his pick; the publisher worried that he’d be squeezed to name Boyd as Raines’s successor down the road.) Boyd felt the static in the air; he knew that some saw him “through the prism of race, and that vexed him,” Robin Stone said. But he’d gotten to West 43rd Street by shoving qualms to the side, putting one foot in front of the other, and looking fiercely dead ahead. Self-doubt could not worm into his mind. As Greg Moore, now the editor of the Denver Post, observed, “you can’t operate on [that] level if you have the least bit of doubt about your ability to belong.”

Raines broke the good news over dinner that July at The Four Seasons, and gave his new partner a memento: a Tiffany silver fish-head key ring. Interviewed by his own paper, Boyd said, “I hope tomorrow, when some kid of color picks up the New York Times and reads about the new managing editor, that kid will smile a little and maybe dream just a little bigger dream.”

It would be hard to overstate Boyd’s importance as a role model—dating back to the eighties, when minority journalists would rush to their TV sets to watch him grilling Ronald Reagan. His success at the Times was feted for its own sake, but also for the opening it might augur. Boyd understood his place in the chain. To Paul Delaney he wrote, “I know I got here by standing on the shoulders of giants like you and I will always be grateful. I only wish you could have gotten here first.”

Five days into his new job, September 11, 2001, Boyd was getting his hair cut when he heard about the first plane. Still in his barber’s smock, he dashed outside, beat Raines to work by 40 minutes, and took the logistical lead from there. Raines, who’d been seven floors removed as editorial-page editor, “didn’t know where the bathrooms were,” Behr said. It was Boyd who “really knew the city and the newsroom, and Howell relied on everything that Gerald brought to the table.”

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Times flourished. But as the crisis faded, and Raines zeroed on what he saw as the newsroom’s “smug complacency,” Boyd was caught between an imperious boss and a staff on the edge of revolt. He responded in the spirit of martial law. “You didn’t want to get on his bad side, because it was hard to get off,” said a former Times correspondent who’d had cordial relations with Boyd. “He’d get his revenge.” Those who knew Boyd cut through his curtness to the gentler, more reasonable man within, but others got what Behr called “the quickie Gerald,” a persona that wasn’t pretty.

Boyd had long bent to older men at the Times, going back to Bill Kovach. His deference ran deeper than loyalty, to the orphan’s eagerness to find a father. Boyd kept insisting that he wrestled Raines in private and had the scars to show for it. Behr wasn’t convinced: “I didn’t see the evidence, and I knew what going up against Howell was like—it was horrible.” She sighed. “Gerald was so damn faithful to that relationship.”


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