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Published: Sunday, 9/8/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

Commentary

Confessions of a post-racial journalist

BY KEITH BURRIS
BLADE COLUMNIST

On Sept. 12, at the Woodward High School Auditorium, the Toledo Community Coalition and The Blade will co-sponsor the first of several public forums on race in Toledo. Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, will speak, and this will be followed by a panel discussion and small-group breakouts.

All the candidates for mayor have been invited and most are expected to attend.

Future forums are planned on education, poverty, and juvenile criminal justice.

These forums came, in a sense, from The Blade’s gang series. The question hanging in the air after the series was “where do we go from here?” Blade Executive Editor Kurt Franck and Blade Managing Editor Dave Murray reached out to the city’s religious and community leaders, and the consensus was that we had to begin grappling, as a community, with basic social problems, and that we should begin with race.

This project, a community-newspaper partnership focusing on urban issues, is, I believe, unique in American journalism. A decade or so ago, the community journalism movement boosted newspaper-citizen interaction, but, so far as I know, nothing as hard-hitting as this series has ever occurred. These forums demonstrate deep community involvement on the part of The Blade's leadership. And courage. Because things will be said that will make people uncomfortable. I am one of those people.

The first speaker. Mr. Wise, is going to speak on “white privilege.” My first reaction to that phrase is to recoil. Could it be because I am white and have lived a highly privileged life?

You don’t hear much about “post-racial America” these days. But for a few years, a lot of people believed we were essentially past the race problem. I confess that I was one of those people. I thought the legal and legislative work — to eliminate formal segregation — had been accomplished. I thought we needed to talk less about race and work on economic development; less guilt; more jobs.

And then Barack Obama happened, which seemed, at first, the triumph of post-racial America. I believe that even the President thought this, to a degree.

I was working and living in Connecticut then, the bluest and most liberal of states. But I noticed that a certain sort of angry right-winger was not getting over the election result. The phone calls were few, but they were constant and forceful. The newspaper, I was told, was in Mr. Obama’s pocket. I had lost my objectivity. I finally asked one caller: Are you saying you never want to read the President’s name or see his face in the paper? Yes, the caller said, that’s exactly what I am saying.

Then I heard the old guys at my gym. They were openly talking trash against the President. They sounded like hippies talking about Richard Nixon in 1971 or 1972. Open disdain. No respect. And there was no elder to call them out for their loose and hateful talk.

When the President was elected in 2008, my wife and I turned to each other and said: How did this happen? It didn't quite. There was a huge racist blow back after the Obama victory, and in 2010 we got a strong Republican Senate minority and a House majority that had one goal: Obstruct Mr. Obama; if possible, destroy Mr. Obama. We still have that Congress. Totally paralyzed by resentment.

My brother moved back to small town Ohio (Zanesville) after years in Louisville, Ky., in 2012. He told me he heard the “N” word in relation to our President more than once daily.

I started to discuss the depth of these strains of hate with my friend Peter. I told him I was forced to reconsider my view that race and racism needed some benign neglect and a lot of economic growth. He laughed and said “welcome to the real world, brother.”

Peter is in his 70s and a retired music professor. He is black. He happens to enjoy the good things in life and always owns a late model BMW. He told me that vehicle gets stopped once a week — in that blue, blue state of Connecticut. He said it is very important, when he is stopped, that he show not a hint of defiance or disgust, or he could be in immediate physical danger.

Peter started to talk to me about 40 years of going to faculty meetings and parties as the only black man; about how every time he walked into a store or a barber shop in a strange town he had to assess the situation and watch his back; about going to suburban restaurants with three or four white friends and never having the waiter meet his eye or speak directly to him. When he told me about the restaurant experience, and said it happened when I was with him, I thought, “oh come on.” “He's paranoid,” I told my wife. But then I started watching and listening. He wasn't.

We aren’t over this stuff.

I heard former Mayor Jack Ford say, a few weeks ago, that we — white folks and black folks — never really talked this race business out years ago when we should have, and we need to finish the job now. That’s what this forum is about — as a prelude to where we go from here on poverty, under-performing schools, and recidivism. We still need jobs and job training. But we have to understand racism in its own right — understand our history and the extent to which it is still with us.

That’s why the President’s speech after the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman verdict was important. Whites and blacks, for the most part, had totally different reactions to that case. What I tell people is: Read the whole speech. Here is a Harvard law school graduate describing what it’s like to have women back away from him in the elevator or to hear car doors locking as he crossed the street. I have been on the other side of those locks.

I wish every American would read the whole speech.

I wish every Toledoan could hear Mike Bell describe how he decided to handle a vicious racial incident when he was a firefighter. His parents taught him to rise above the attacker — to turn and walk away with head held high, without engaging. Right out of Martin Luther King’s playbook.

I wish every American, especially school children, could see The Butler. The actor Forest Whitaker wears 50 years of suffering and hard-won change on his face at the end of that film.

Another academic friend of mine, an English prof whose specialization is American black literature, said an amazing thing to me the other day. We were talking about the President reaching out to Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who haven’t behaved in racist ways exactly, but who also have failed to show this President the respect any president is due. “It's Barack Obama’s task,” he said, “to understand those guys better than they understand themselves.”

Just like The Butler.

We aren’t finished talking about race in this country. That should not delay or preclude the practical and immediate things we need to do about schools, or blight, or community policing. But we do have to finish our conversation about race.

Please join us on Sept. 12. I will be there listening and learning. So will the candidates for mayor.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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