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Revisiting Pulitzer Nominees That Touch On Issues Of Race

<em>Washington Post</em> writer Eli Saslow won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the prevalence of food stamps in post-recession America.
J. Scott Applewhite
Washington Post writer Eli Saslow won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the prevalence of food stamps in post-recession America.

This week, Columbia University handed out the Pulitzer Prizes, which are widely considered among the highest honors in journalism. The occasion gives us a good excuse to shout-out some of the finalists and winning entries that touch on issues of race and culture. (Fair warning: These stories are very good journalism done in the service of illuminating some deeply dispiriting realities.)

Speak No Evil

The Chattanooga Times Free Press project "Speak No Evil" — a finalist for the Local Reporting category — delved into one of the River City's most vexing dilemmas: the way dangerous criminals go unprosecuted and homicide cases go unsolved because witnesses don't come forward. The reporting team found families of victims struggling to find closure for their loved ones' killings who had declined to speak even when the identity of their attackers was an open secret in their neighborhoods. And they found cases of repeat offenders whose violence seemed to escalate as they skirted prison time.

"Police think gangsters are irrational, that the neighbors stopped calling with tips because they lost their moral compass," Joan Garrett McClane wrote. But the reality she and her colleagues found was far more complicated. The city's aggressive policing of black neighborhoods made law-abiding citizens feel that they were being targeted by the police. After a few high-profile, racially charged incidents of apparent police brutality, the community's faith in the police force had completely eroded. And since the city had no resources to protect witnesses, there was a very real threat that cooperating with the police or prosecutors could put witnesses in mortal danger.

"I know who stole my chain. I know who robbed my house. I know who hit my sister. Rather than calling 911, people are resorting to private violence," David Kennedy, the noted Harvard criminologist, told the Times Free Press. "When the young man knows who killed his friend, he doesn't think the police are on his side."

There are lots of fascinating, unsettling things intersecting in the Times Free Press story, which is a great introduction to these issues as they play out across the country. It's worth a read — particularly the first of its three chapters.

The Child Exchange

Megan Twohey's expose for Reuters — a finalist for the Investigative Reporting category — zeroed in on a disturbing shadow economy in which parents who've adopted children from overseas go online to offer their children to new caretakers after they decide they can no longer handle raising them. Some of the children have special physical needs or psychological challenges that compound the significant challenges of navigating a new culture. These "rehomings" are done outside of official channels and with no oversight, making the children moved around this way especially vulnerable to exploitation.

Twohey writes that there are no local, state or federal laws overseeing this practice, and the State Department doesn't keep track of the statistics. The state of affairs troubles child welfare advocates and officials in the countries where many children come from.

The investigation highlights the story of Quita Puchalla, a Liberian girl who was first adopted by a Wisconsin couple before being "rehomed" with an Illinois couple: Nicole and Calvin Eason. As this list from Twohey's report indicates, the Easons had quite a history:

The Reuters investigation details six previous incidents in which Nicole Eason had taken in children this way, surfing Internet forums under the screen name "Big Momma." In one incident, Eason picked up a child in a hotel parking lot just off the highway. The man who went with her to get the 10-year-old boy she was picking up would later be sentenced to federal prison. His crime: trading child pornography.

Waiting For The 8th

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow won the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for his series on the prevalence of America's food stamp economy at a time of deep cuts to the federal anti-hunger program. One entry zoomed in on the city of Woonsocket, R.I., where one-third of the population received food stamp benefits. Woonsocket's economy stirred to life each month like clockwork around the time when food stamp benefits were disbursed.

Saslow also told the story of Raphael Robinson, a D.C. resident whose family relied on the program, even as Robinson vowed to get off of it. Her family's routine plays like the story of Woonsocket in miniature, a monthly cycle of boom and bust. "The family's refrigerator is usually dark and barren by the time the 8th arrives," he writes. "But then their food stamps come through and they head to the grocery to stock up."

So many of our conversations about poverty — and government anti-poverty programs in particular — tend to be racially coded. Saslow's explorations are a different spin on the demographics of the welfare economy than we often see, and go a long way toward humanizing that economy's many players.

The Internal Enemy

The way Americans tell our story is as a steady march of expanding liberty, and, particularly in the early days of the Republic, as a challenge to the idea of a nation-state ruled by nobles and sovereigns. But to the enslaved Africans in America at the time, the new America was their oppressor and jailer. Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, tells the little-known story of 3,000 enslaved Africans who escaped from Virginia and fought the War of 1812 alongside the British against the Americans.

"It was an extraordinary set of human dramas, the resourcefulness of people who were seeking freedom, stealing boats in the middle of the night to go out and find British warships and offer their services,"said Taylor, a historian at the University of Virginia.

The defection of thousands of slaves led many in Virginia's planter class to worry that they were presiding over an enslaved population that might revolt at any moment.

Taylor tells the stories of families who escaped to freedom by aligning themselves with the British, and argues that the American victory in 1812 laid the groundwork for the sectional divisions that eventually came to a head during the Civil War half a century later.

A Dreadful Deceit

Jacqueline Jones' book on the construction of the concept of race in America was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. Jones recounts the lives of six people who lived at different times in American history who have been mostly overlooked but whose lives illustrate the way race has been used as a tool for exploitation.

One of them is Eleanor Eldridge, a black woman who amassed a good deal of wealth in the 1800s. Her success might have flown in the face of the prevailing stereotypes of blacks as indigent and lazy. But as Jones told our colleague Rachel Martin last year, Eldridge was instead seen as a threat by whites in her Rhode Island community:

What were some of your favorite stories about race, ethnicity and culture from news outlets over the past year? (Not counting the ones from Code Switch, of course.) Tell us below in the comments.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.