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Four decades after America's civil rights breakthrough, why can't we talk honestly about race?



Shirley-sherrod Besides the journalistic bankruptcy of certain ideologically-slanted news organizations, what struck me most about the media circus surrounding the demonization then deification of ousted USDA official Shirley Sherrod, was a sad truth.

More than 40 years after the nation's biggest civil rights breakthroughs, we still have no clue how to talk about race.

One reason for that, unfortunately, is that too many people at the front of the discussion have their own agendas -- from the Rev. Jesse Jackson grabbing for headlines by comparing basketball star LeBron James to a runaway slave, to conservative psuedo-journalist Andrew Breitbart hijacking the nation's news cycle for days with a doctored video of Sherrod.

Another reason we continually fumble the race discussion, frankly, is the news media. Outlets that aren't slanting their coverage to favor a political agenda are biased toward conflict and noise, which means the most controversial and attention-getting voices emerge whenever a race-based controversy erupts.

When the furor against shock jock Don Imus was building over his racially-derogatory remarks about a women's college basketball team, I was asked often by TV and radio hosts why Jackson and Al Sharpton were so often the spokespeople who emerged during these controversies. "Ask yourself that question," I countered. "You're the one who books these people for your TV shows all day."

Conservatives have long resented the way folks like Jackson and Sharpton grab the spotlight, so it only makes sense that someone like Breitbart would come along, twisting video images to feed the notion that modern civil rights organizations like the NAACP and ACORN are just thinly-veiled scams to unfairly benefit black people by tapping white guilt.

But if Tea Party activists feel that the media is slandering their entire group by focusing on the racist nutjobs they say are on the fringes, why would they turn those same techniques on the civil rights movement?

I'm also concerned about the way people of color are presented on some media outlets, particularly in cable news. I have griped to many TV producers about the fact that just 4 percent of black people are Republicans, but it seems at least half the black people who appear on cable news are GOP-friendly.

This fetish for black Republicans creates two problems. It leads people who don't know the facts to presume black Republicans are a bigger slice of black political life than they truly are, and it allows fringe people with the thinnest of resumes to get a national platform and crediblity, because they can be so hard to find.

Based on many years of leading seminars and writing stories about race and media, here's my few suggestions on how to make this bad situation better.

Know the difference between prejudice and racism -- I've always defined prejudice as something in the moment; you're walking home and cross the street to avoid a Hispanic man because you fear a mugging. Racism is internalizing as a core value the idea that some races are superior or subordinate to others.

Many times, when talk turns to a suspicion of prejudice, the word racism is used, incorrectly and unfairly. it is possible to make a decision based on prejudging someone else because of their race or culture, and yet not believe that any race is superior to another. But using the word racism shuts down discussion. Worse, some people think the only issues of prejudice worth discussing are those involving racism.

A single mistake does not necessarily equal racism. But a long history of prejudice just might.

Anyone can be influenced by prejudice -- Because people of color often are constantly negotiating the difference between their culture and the majority culture I do think we ponder these issues more often. But no one who hasn't spent a lot of time thinking through this stuff really understands how prejudice, race and media works, regardless of their background. So people of color have to admit they don't have a corner on understanding race, and white folks must allow that being a minority in a majority culture brings some hard-won lessons.

History matters today -- Problems with race-based prejudice aren't confined to the 1960s or the days of slavery. Recent experiments showing a black man with a college degree less likely to get hired than a white man with no degree bear that out. But in world where prejudice can affect anyone and it is rarely upfront and obvious, we all must be more open-minded in conversations about possible problems.

Prejudice is seductive and hard to overcome -- Often, we assume prejudice is about stuff that is repellent to most well-adjusted people; a noose placed on someone's doorstep or the n-word slung during an argument. But prejudices are seductive, because they help explain the world. I had a friend who told me white people smell funny when they get wet; a caller who objected to my column about prejudice and American Idol noted casually that Jews control all of Hollywood, anyway. Fighting prejudice is tough, because often the ideas are comforting, explaining the world in ways we can understand, even they are ultimately unfair and untrue.

Open, honest vulnerable conversation works best -- The main reason we have such a tough time really finding understanding on these issue, is because progress comes from being vulnerable and admitting your own mistakes. That's tough to do in the combative, conflict=-addicted world of media. But we need to find spaces where these dialogues can happen.

Because in a country with an ever-diversifying population, these issue are only going to come up more and more.

[Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:15pm]


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