Addressing and Undressing the Race Problem

A reporter's observations on the Obama speech.


As a journalist, I do not publicly endorse candidates. So, as the black South Africans who had never been allowed to vote in their lives said when the finally could in 1994: My vote is my secret.

But as I listened to all the commentary before, and after Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race, among other things, I couldn't help but think about the series of conversations I did about race for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer back in the mid 90's, called "Race Matters", before I left America to live in South Africa. As my late friend Ed Bradley used to say: Nothing changes but the date.

I had no illusions that the four or five conversations I did back then would penetrate the seemingly impenetrable barrier of race in this country, but I had to try. And yet, what so many of those I pre-interviewed and used, or pre-interviewed and decided not to use, said was that we don't know how to have a conversation about race in this country. And it seems to me that if we had that series today, if they were to be honest, people of all races would be saying the same thing.

Obama threw a lot of commentators off their stride with his seemingly heartfelt speech, framing the issue with arguments that may have had some historic references, but which offered them in a different context —not least because he is different, as he once again explained vis-à-vis his origins and upbringing. I was hoping he would also debunk the notion of "color-blindness," which drives me crazy when even well-intentioned people use it to explain they are not racially prejudiced.

I have never liked the term because, if you take it to the extreme, it means I am invisible, because I am a person whose skin is colored; so if one sees me through the lens of color-blindness, it means I am not there.

This is the same as my objection to the term "objective." As anyone could see in the day's discussion by journalists -- and journalists turned analysts -- over the Reverend Wright's comments, journalists like everyone else in society, are products of their backgrounds, their environments, their associations

And journalists, like most Americans, mostly live and socialize with people who look like them. Most black journalists -- and journalists turned analysts -- talked about their own experiences in black churches (as I, the daughter and granddaughter of black preachers sat glued to the tube) and that clearly affected their views on the issue. It was the same for white journalists -- and journalists turned analysts -- who had never set foot in a black church—though David Gergen seemed to get it a bit.

I couldn't help thinking that here was America's problem in media microcosm (and bear in mind, I did say "most"—and not all, for there were black journalist attempting to be as "objective" as the white journalists.) But as I sat in front of my television set, it seemed to me as if the issue took off everybody's clothes.

Living, as I do, in South Africa, the latest, newest country to deal with race and which has put the issue of race up front and center, I am always anxious when it bubbles up in America, which hasn't gotten it right in more than 200 years. How will America's example affect this younger democracy's efforts—a young democracy that came into being, in part, due to the coordinated, concerted efforts of Americans of all races whose own history of dealing with bigotry and racism caused them to identify so closely with the struggles of South Africa's oppressed blacks and other people of color to throw off the LEGAL shackles of racist oppression in that country.

We helped them, which means we have some basic understanding of the devastating effects of racism that is affirmed through the law. But when I entered the University of Georgia in 1961, ending 170 some years of legal segregation, the racist resistors used to say, "You can't legislate morality."