A veteran reporter collects some significant pieces about race that originally appeared in the New Yorker, his publishing home since 1963.
The author of some 30 titles, Trillin (Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse, 2012, etc.) revisits the last half-century’s racial struggles in various regions of the country, and readers are likely to come away thinking, “so much has not really changed all that much.” The first essay, the titular piece, deals with the struggle for voting rights in Mississippi, and older readers will find themselves swept back into sanguinary events that will seem both historical and immediate. “No sophisticated study of public opinion is needed,” writes the author, “to establish the fact that in the United States, North and South, a white life is considered to be of more value than a Negro life.” Later on is a 2008 piece about the racial foundations of a 2006 shooting on Long Island. (Progress, we see, has been incremental and even barely visible in some cases.) Trillin investigates the racial aspects of Mardi Gras parades, racial turmoil at a Wisconsin university, the vast racial differences in criminal sentencing in Texas, housing disputes, racially discriminatory admissions to a Boston disco, a woman’s struggle to change the racial labeling on her birth certificate, and much, much more. Throughout, the author’s tone remains calm, analytical, and reasonable—though he invariably finds a detail or two, or comments by principals, that ascend to the level of symbol. He quotes, for example, a Texas district attorney about a case involving a man who sold a single marijuana cigarette and was sentenced to 30 years: “I don’t see that this is a very unusual verdict.” Trillin ends each piece with a brief update about the situation and the players involved.
Haunting pieces that show how our window on the past is often a mirror.