OCTOBER 30, 1995
Jim Lehrer speaks about the current state of race relations in the U.S. with regular commentators Roger Rosenblatt, Anne Taylor Fleming, Phyllis Theroux, Jim Fisher of the "Kansas City Star," Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune," and Richard Rodriguez of the "Pacific News Service."
JIM LEHRER: Richard, how would you define the problem of race in this country right now?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: (San Francisco) How would I define it?
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. How would you define it?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, it seems to me that part of the problem is that we don't understand exactly what race is in America. We don't understand how already inter-penetrated we are as people, how, how married we are to one another, that we insist on seeing racial categories and, therefore, entire communities as static and separate, that on the one hand. And on the other hand, I think we don't really understand exactly how much the issue of poverty accentuates racism. And it seems to me that, you know, for all of this talk in the post-O.J. Simpson verdict days about how the races have to get together and talk it out, it seems to me that what is this talk--the real question is, what is this talk going to do when--at a time when America and the U.S. Congress seems willing to severe an entire portion of the society, I mean the poor, from the civic body?
JIM LEHRER: But that doesn't have anything to do with race, you say?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I say it does. I say the questions of poverty are central to questions of race. And as long as we're willing to separate ourselves from the poor, it seems to me questions of racism are going to persist.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Clarence, it's more of a poverty question than it is a racial problem that's going on in this country now?
CLARENCE PAGE: I used to. I think it's more complicated than that. I wish it was that simple. The fact is over two thirds--in the course of my lifetime when I was a kid, two thirds of black Americans were living in poverty, today a third of black Americans are living in poverty. My family is a good example of it. My generation has risen up out of it. We are college-educated, and we're professionals, and yet we still complain. And--
JIM LEHRER: What do you complain about?
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, we complain about prejudice. There's a difference between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is something that's just now a manifestation of xenophobia. Everybody is subject to prejudice, even white males. Just ask them. Just ask Rush Limbaugh, or whatever, but racism is something different. Racism is a power relationship. And it is a--it's a--a judgment first of all that links character to skin color. It's a--it's something that--that still affects black Americans who are in the professional class, who still find that they kind of have to prove themselves day by day in corporate America, and in, in the corridors of power. And some people say, well, that's because of affirmative action. But it's not. Before we had affirmative action, you know, as I told you once before, I--I got started with the help of an affirmative action program called Urban Riots. You know, when we had riots in the '60s, suddenly the white media were looking for black journalists. Even so, people were whispering, "Well, he was just hired to cover the riots, right?" Eleanor Roosevelt wouldn't be interviewed by male reporters, so the "New York Times," other major media, hired women reporters for that job, and they too were, were discriminated against in the sense that, well, they're just hired because of so and so. This is something that goes beyond poverty. Poverty only complicates questions of race; it doesn't explain them.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Anne?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Yes. I think I would tend to agree with Clarence. I would agree also that certainly poverty is a compounding factor. But you can't have lived in Los Angeles as I do and live through this trial and not--
JIM LEHRER: The O.J. trial.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The O.J. trial, to mention the unmentionable.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Richard already did. It's all right.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: He did. He broke into it.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And not know that racism is very much extant in large places, in, in powerful places like, for example, the police force in Los Angeles, in a way that is inexcusable, in a way that one wished in the wake of this that the mayor had stood up, the police chief had stood up, even the President had stood up and said, look, this will not be tolerated. What it seems to me that we often have in this country is an "either/orness," either racism is extant everywhere and, and it's oppressing everybody, or it's not a factor anymore, and everybody should just pick themselves up by the bootstraps and go on with their lives. My feeling is, again, it is more complicated. I think we have to say that it is still a major ongoing wound in this country. We have to look at it. We have to keep talking about it.
JIM LEHRER: But, Roger, is it--is it an attitude? Is that what it's all--is that what a--I'm not talking about--I didn't ask about racism. They've moved it into racism--but the problem among races, whether they're black or white or brown or, or Asians or whatever, is it a matter of attitude?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: It probably isn't solely a matter of attitude, Jim, but I was surprised and, and hurt, in fact. I think most whites were, at least white liberals were hurt by the recent events starting with the O.J. Verdict, by the amount of pain that derived from certain attitudes.
JIM LEHRER: On the part of the blacks, or on the part of the whites?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, the attitude on the part of blacks that reflected an attitude on the part of whites. The thing that I was struck with, and this becomes an interior matter--I think all these questions eventually become individual matters which rescue them in a way so that we don't think of one another in terms of categories--was the complacency that I had been experiencing in myself since the mid 60's. When I was in high school and when I was in college, I did civil rights work. I thought when the voting rights laws were passed in '64 and '65, that was roughly it. Everything now would be sort of polish on it, and we don't have to worry really about this subject, it would all settle itself. Then that kind of complacency, combined with a sort of coldness about the, the underclass in inner cities committing crime, and a kind of cheering for the upper third that Clarence mentioned, that they've made it sort of confirmed this--you know, made the complacency seemed justified.
JIM LEHRER: So if Clarence was doing all right then, that means there's no longer a race problem?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Precisely. That's what I was thinking.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That--or no longer a race problem. At least, we're headed in the right direction, not much of an undercurrent of trouble. And I happened to be out in the, in Nebraska of all places in terms of the number of African-Americans out there, and I was talking to a young woman in her late twenties who--a young black woman who worked in educational television out there--she was the ideal of the American success story, everything that one would want of somebody she was. She was impressive in every possible way, and she was beloved in the community. And I said, "Does this"--this was two days after the O.J. verdict--I said, "Does this make any sense to you, this cheering at the verdict and so forth?" And she said, When I walk down a street in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I walk down a street in this town, I know that the people know me, I know that they admire me, and yet I think to myself, they are thinking, "stupid, inarticulate," and I were black--if I were man, rather, they would be thinking, "stupid, inarticulate, dangerous." And that kind of thing I think brings you to your knees.
JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you, Jim Fisher? You just came from--you live in that part of the country.
JIM FISHER: Yeah. I don't know if we're just not talking this thing to death. We go--you know, the O.J. trial is going to take its place with Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was convicted in the 1920's--and not convicted--he was found innocent--but in Lizzy Borden, who was found innocent, and you think about how we are today, we consider those people guilty, but they were innocent. And I wonder if it's just not we need to talk to each other, and nobody's really talking. But I don't know how we can talk to each other.
JIM LEHRER: But before we get to that, I mean, what is the--what do you see from your--from your perspective as a newspaper columnist in Kansas City, Missouri, as somebody who travels for a living all through the small towns in Kansas and Missouri, Nebraska, that whole area, is there a race problem out there, and if so, where?
JIM FISHER: I see people getting along.
JIM LEHRER: Getting along.
JIM FISHER: I--
JIM LEHRER: Why do they get along?
JIM FISHER: I think it's lack of crowding. It's not that you haven't--you haven't pushed somebody in one part of town and pounded them up next to each other so that there's no place to move. There's a little town named Dalton, Missouri, half and half, black and white. The mayor's black. Everybody gets along. I mean, and I think one of our problems is crowding. It's not crime, and it's not drugs, and it's not pollution, although that's part of it. But we have become a--we've become a society which everybody goes inside at night, and I know this is Pollyannish and we should, you know, it'll never happen again, but everybody goes in at night. And an old farmer told me once in the 40's, he said, "The blue light came on behind the window," television. Then maybe radio a little bit before that. But people watch television; they don't go down to the general store; they don't go to the park. And in, in big cities, and I think they still do more of that in small towns.
CLARENCE PAGE: May I interject something real quick? Malcolm X came from Nebraska. Let's remember that.
JIM FISHER: There were riots in Nebraska.
CLARENCE PAGE: Exactly. A lot of times what seems to be racial peace on the surface--
JIM FISHER: I'm talking about small towns.
CLARENCE PAGE: I came from a small town, Jim. I agree with you, but all I'm saying is that, that we must remember that beneath the surface of racial peace, I think we get along better as individuals than as groups, is what i'm saying. I think a lot of individuals, Americans, they get along much better than ever before as individuals. We're making more contact day to day than ever before, but still outside the work place we're not making as much contact as we should.
JIM LEHRER: Why is that, Phyllis? What's the group problem, as you see?
PHYLLIS THEROUX: I don't think that there's really--we have not yet figured out why we need to talk to each other. I mean, for instance, if you have a tax problem, you're going to find a tax attorney or, you know, somebody from H&R Block. I really think that one needs to have a serious need to talk to black Americans and black Americans need to have a serious need to talk to white Americans. I'm in a small town right now.
JIM LEHRER: Outside of Washington.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Yeah. Outside of Washington. And the people there, black and white people in this small town, have always prided themselves on getting along very well. But it was a racist society because I think it's just in the water, and I started--
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, that it's a racist society, and it's in the water? What does it mean to you? How do you see that manifest itself in your small town?
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Well, let me--I want to take a positive track to that answer or to that question. About three years ago, we started a women's dinner club in Ashland.
JIM LEHRER: Ashland, Virginia.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Ashland, Virginia. Of black and white women from two different churches that had met each other through a project. And it was only about six months ago that the subject of race was finally raised because we finally felt comfortable enough to do it. And at that point, a lot of the--well, not a lot--there are only about six white women and six black women--one of the black women said, If I was not in this group, I would still be calling you Mrs. Theroux or Mrs. Whoever, among the white members, and she began little by little to talk about what it was like to be black in this small town when she was growing up. And it was news to all of the white women there, and they were horrified.