Obama fuels national conversation on race without trying
What exactly would that look like?
With his blessing, I tried calling a wide swath of people to ask exactly that question -- notables ranging from historian John Hope Franklin to civil right activist Al Sharpton, educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. and pundit Tavis Smiley. Unfortunately, none of these people -- most of whom I had interviewed for other stories -- would find the time to talk about this subject.
It was an idea I held in my pocket for quite a while, and after Obama's election, I got the idea that perhaps we were already having this national conversation, but unofficially and in smaller groups. So I put together this column that ran in Sunday's Perspective section as a lengthy meditation on how Obama's election may be changing how we see race issues.
I managed to cobble together an interesting stable of sources, including multiracial actress Rae Dawn Chong, NPR host Michele Norris, and Nick Adams, author of the satirical book "Making Friends with Black People." What seems obvious, is that simply by virtue of who he is, Obama is forcing people of all ethnicities to think differently about race identity, prejudice, stereotypes and diversity.
Here's a few interesting quotes:
Rae Dawn Chong, actress: "I’m actually a little bit worried about what’s going to happen in media. Is the white establishment going to make the wagon train tighter around their concerns? It’s going to be curious to see what happen now that we have a mixed-race president -- in terms of what’s put on television and what’s onscreen. I remember when directors like Spike Lee emerged, there was in the (movie) industry a real sigh of relief –- they have their own projects, so we don’t have to worry. In the afrocentric (films), you always had to be pushing the cause . . . But I’m not a blacktor, I’m an actor . . . I don’t bludgeon you with my culture. Being a misplaced sister, I suffered at the hands of it -- I was branded within the community, and it made me sad."
Nick Adams, comic and author, Making friends With Black People: "I want to caution black people from celebrating too much. He's president, but he has the same position Ronald Reagan had and Clinton did before him. He’s not going to walk through the hood handing out $100 bills. We have to do what we always did -- be vigilant and keep the pressure on him to do what we want him to do."
Carmen Van Kerckhove, diversity educator and consultant: "The conversation that I’m seeing really seem to come down (the question of) 'Have we reached the post-racial society or not?' There’s this danger of assuming that racism has become a non-issue. It’s important for us to celebrate this moment. But victory isn’t incontrovertible proof of any kind of sea change. Throughout history, there are people who have reached amazing levels of success, despite tremendous obstacles, just because one individual has beaten the odds."
Michele Norris, co-host, All Things Considered, who spoke several times with a group of racially diverse voters in Pennsylvania during the campaign: "(After the election), white people noticed that black people or people of color in general carried themselves with more pride and had higher expectations for themselves. Inside that room and outside, I have heard comments that go directly to that . . . young men talking about how they’re not going to wear their pants sagging. I got in trouble on Chris Matthews' (syndicated MSNBC show) by quoting a barber saying people were coming in and getting their dreads cut, because they wanted something different . . . The message he gives the young people now is, 'No excuses.' I looked at some of the people I knew supported John McCain and they were beaming, too. I get the sense that the conversation which started in that room will continue.'