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How Race Is Lived in America

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As Boyd worked through his memoir, he began to understand. His blind spot with Blair had less to do with color or carelessness than with something rooted in his earliest years.

“I always had a hard time recognizing my shortcomings,” he wrote, “especially as others saw them. More often that not, my pride got in the way. The reaction was instilled in me from childhood, when I came to believe that there was no room for failure. My life had not been a quest for perfection, but an exercise in survival. And mistakes of any kind put that mission at risk.”

In terror of being wrong, Boyd could not admit that Blair was poison, or that Raines had flown beyond saving, or that he himself was squandering precious goodwill. In eschewing course corrections, he’d helped run his career off a cliff.

In February 2006, at his son’s winter baseball clinic, Boyd had a seizure. Lung cancer sneaks up on people, and the tumors had already traveled to his head. He withdrew, telling almost no one; he saw pity as the final indignity.

Boyd died at home on Thanksgiving Day, his family at his side, in a final private moment before the media recycled his rise and fall. He would leave it to others to protest an AP obituary that ran on CNN.com:

“Blair is survived by his wife and 10-year-old son, Zachary.”

there is no one like Gerald Boyd today at the New York Times. In March, nearly four years after Boyd was fired, the paper reintegrated its masthead with Dean Baquet, who returned from the shipwrecked Los Angeles Times to become Washington bureau chief. A Columbia grad, Baquet is the paper’s Tiger Woods: prodigiously talented, silken smooth, ambiguously ethnic (a Creole from New Orleans), and assiduously aloof from any struggle around race or equal opportunity.

Like Boyd in his day, Baquet is alone near the top, with no one on deck. The next-ranking minority at the paper is science editor Laura Chang; there are no black or Latino department heads or deputies in the newsroom. According to a former member of the Times’ diversity council (which termed the company “at risk” in an internal report released last year), the Blair scandal was “disastrous to the paper’s efforts to diversify its management ranks.”

Boyd had talent and heart and a fire in his belly, but he broke through only after Max Frankel took his leap of faith. Few at the Times can visualize Keller doing the same. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Keller sent an e-mail that framed his concept for “diversity hires”—one that “includes, importantly, the experience of living as a racial or cultural minority,” but also “an evangelical Christian or a Marine Corps veteran.” But this take on affirmative action—a dilution of the primacy of race—leads minority journalists to despair for their future.

“It’s a really small funnel for everybody,” said Steven Holmes, now an editor at the Washington Post. “But it’s tougher conceptually for black folks because you see so few black people out on the other side. You’ve got to fight the cynicism; you’ve got to fight it all the time. It’s exhausting.”

Above all, Boyd represented possibility. He was the breathing proof of how far skill and tenacity could take someone who’d started with nothing. At the Schomburg memorial, a young reporter named Anahad O’Connor spoke of passing the page-one room as it emptied after the morning meeting, “and at the crest of this wave of important and brilliant editors, there was Gerald Boyd, this cool, graceful, and dignified black man.”

“It was Gerald’s joy to be a pioneer, and his burden,” said Soma Behr. “That’s the way it is when you’re out front in a historic moment. He carried the banner; I think he carried it pretty gracefully.”

“I loved Gerald,” Don Terry said. “I loved the idea of Gerald Boyd and the reality of Gerald Boyd. When he died, I wept at my dining-room table.”


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