A DIFFERENT WORLD
NOVEMBER 2, 1995
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, we continue our ongoing look at race in America. We do it with the second part of a discussion among our six regular essayists: writers Roger Rosenblatt, Anne Taylor Fleming, and Phyllis Theroux, Jim Fisher of the "Kansas City Star," Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune," Richard Rodriguez of the "Pacific News Service." It picks up on a point Richard had made earlier about the connection between poverty and race. I asked him if he believed race problems would disappear if everyone had enough money to live.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: (San Francisco) Those people who seem, in my estimate, to suffer most from the question of racism right now are the very poor who can't defend themselves and who are at each other's throats over jobs.
JIM LEHRER: Does a white person who also is in poverty also suffer?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I think--
JIM LEHRER: Equally?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I don't know, equally. How do you measure these things?
JIM LEHRER: I don't, I don't know.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I, you know, I grew up in a family of some poverty into a middle-class stability. Were we victims of racism? Did we think of ourselves in that way? I don't know. I mean, we--I like what Clarence said, which is that Americans seem to get along very well at some individual level. I take the opinion that as things are getting darker and more violent in some way they're also getting better in the sense that I think people are aware of one another. Yet, you know, I remember Los Angeles in 1992, the great riot, there was a sense that the city was falling apart. It was my sense, rather, that LA was finally forming as a civic whole not out at--not in some moment of well-being and everyone liking each other but rather in the experience of people acknowledging that they live in the same--they lived in the same city, being afraid of that, but realizing the loss of innocence was that they didn't live in separate suburbs, separate freeway entrances--exits, that they all shared the same destiny, that in some way all of this anxiety Americans are feeling right now I think comes from some sense that we are in the same boat. And I think that's a very positive thing.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way, Anne?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Half and half. We're having this conversation because of the O.J. Simpson trial, it occurs to me. I mean, that's where all this is coming from. It was that stunning moment when I was sitting there and listening to the verdict and I thought, I mean, oh, my gosh, they have been watching a different trial, "they," okay, and--
JIM LEHRER: "They" meaning the black people of America.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And everybody I knew felt the same. And then there was the retaliatory white racism that I heard from nice liberal people in the days after saying, boy, they, they didn't get the DNA, they didn't do this or that, and suddenly it was there on the table again. In that sense, I'll agree with Richard that it's hopeful but it is an ongoing wound. And I think we have to talk about it again. In that sense, I disagree with Jim. We have to keep saying it is a problem, compounded by poverty, it is a power relationship, all of these other things, but it is--it is there.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Richard.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Anne, at the center of the O.J. Simpson trial is O.J. and Ms. Barbieri now dating. At the center of the O.J. Simpson polarity are the children of O.J. Simpson who, who belong to two races. You know, the fact is that the O.J. Simpson trial occurred in the largest Mexican city in the United States, where the majority of people in Los Angeles are mixed race citizens. The fact that America is in to this vanity now about how we are splitting apart, when, in fact, all the evidence is that I--I get--
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We're coming together because we're talking about it, not because--not because we're not.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I'm not even sure this is at some level of rationality. This may be at the level of passion and, and instinct, that--I mean, the other day I was talking to a skinhead who, whose favorite food is burritos. You know, at some level we are melting into one another, it seems to me.
JIM LEHRER: You were nodding.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, I think it is at the level of passion, as Richard said, but I think from this passion can probably be wrought something more orderly. If television brought us this case--and I think Anne is absolutely right--it brought us the issue through the trial by this kind of crazy melodrama.
JIM LEHRER: By the reaction to the trial.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: By the reaction to the trial, but by also the exploitive nature of showing the trial and all the attachments to the trial. It seems to me that television, which is, after all, our town meeting now, could do something to correct it. Phyllis said something very interesting. What are the occasions, what are the occasions in which you may talk to one another? Well, television gives us that occasion. We've got some very hard questions to ask of one another, the multiracial questions that Richard raised, the question of the individual versus class thinking Clarence raised, the question of pain, the question of anti-semitism among blacks, the question of, of--
JIM LEHRER: See, we've already talked about from one point of view here, which is racism toward blacks.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: But there are many folks, many Jewish-Americans that say wait a minute, that's only part of it.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And the prejudices of everybody, and all this. It seems to me that television, we in a small way, in other places and perhaps we in a different manifestation in another--at another time, really owe it to ourselves to do this. There's no other way to make the kind of contact that Phyllis was searching for.
JIM LEHRER: Let me--Jim, you said you don't see any of this out in your part of the world.
JIM FISHER: Oh, it goes on.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Do you feel hostility toward you as--from blacks or other racial cultures because you're a white man? No?
JIM FISHER: I was--I don't want to say I laughed, but I thought it was amazing, the Million Man March, and I think the Million Man March may have more effect than the O.J. trial. But I kept thinking back that day, and I didn't--I was--just kind of a wry humor--here was 400,000 young black men and all that connotes in the media is kind of hush--you know, or not hush, but this kind of tense--they're coming tomorrow, they're coming tomorrow, and you know, what is Farrakhan going to do and all this stuff--and I kept thinking, you, the NewsHour sent me and a photographer and a sound man and a producer up to Sturgis, South Dakota, five years ago, and we had 300,000 bikers.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
JIM FISHER: And, I mean, if you want to talk about fearing these people, they're just folks. You treat 'em- -I remember when I went in the Marine Corps, we--we went down the Eastern shore of the United States, we picked up blacks in New Haven, we picked up a whole bunch of Jews in Jackson Heights, we picked up more blacks in Washington, we picked up a whole bunch--if I can use the word--"crackers" in Virginia, in North Carolina.
JIM LEHRER: You can.
JIM FISHER: Sgt. Stewart H. Floyd, Platoon 363, 5th Battalion, came to us that first day and he says, in very, in words I cannot repeat, there'll be none of that. And I think that's--
JIM LEHRER: Who says there will be none of that, Phyllis? Who--
JIM FISHER: Nobody.
JIM LEHRER: --does what the sergeant did? Nobody. Who's going to do that?
JIM FISHER: Well, I just think--
JIM LEHRER: All right. Go ahead.
JIM FISHER: --that the Republicans aren't doing it; the Democrats aren't doing it; I mean, somebody just seems to knock it off.
CLARENCE PAGE: They're benefiting from it. The political system is benefiting from the race card, Jim.
JIM FISHER: Yeah. They--
JIM LEHRER: Whose responsibility is it to say knock it off?
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Every single person here. I mean, it's one thing to sort of talk as, as people from the media, and that's a legitimate role and a very important one, but--
JIM LEHRER: You mean us?
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Whatever "us" is.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: But when we go home, who--you know, what is reflected in our personal lives? What are we specifically doing? Just like everybody else--and you know, the other thing--
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: --is that I was thinking about the O.J. trial and the trial before that, and--not the trial but the hearing with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas--and I thought to myself then about that particular hearing. It seemed to me that whatever we suspected before those hearings took place was what we thought actually happened after they were over. In other words, we may not consider ourselves racist or prejudice, but what we thought or suspected was what was confirmed.
JIM LEHRER: It goes back to the day that Anne was talking about.
PHYLLIS THEROUX: Sometimes I begin to think is it possible to really see the truth--if you're a died-in- the-wool feminist, are you going to think Anita Hill--are you capable of changing our minds? And it occurred to me that our minds might be open but they're full of a lot of stuff.
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, yeah. We do see life through a bigger prism of race than we want to realize; so do the media. And I don't want to be one of those who blames the media for this whole conflict. The conflict was there. The media had put it into everyone's living room. There were two shocks here, Jim. Of course, there was the O.J. Simpson verdict, which I agree is going to pass as far as a national shock. But there's also the shock of the reaction too and the fact that when you look on TV--
JIM LEHRER: That's what Anne is saying.
CLARENCE PAGE: Right. We saw so many blacks reacting one way and so many whites reacting another. What we didn't see on TV was whites who thought O.J. was not guilty and blacks who thought he was guilty.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: They were hard to find.
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, you know, the fact is they didn't make as good of a story, and, you know, I'm reminded of the old saying, we've all heard the saying that a conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged. Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities said a liberal is just a conservative who's been arrested. The fact is we see life through the prism of our experience. Black Americans tend to have received more police abuse--
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Absolutely.
CLARENCE PAGE: --and to have experienced it, and therefore have an entirely different view of our criminal justice system than most white Americans. Most white Americans have quite the opposite experience. Now, I've talked to whites who have had bad experiences with cops who were suspicious of, of Mark Fuhrman from the beginning, and, you know, you don't have to be black to think that way or white to think another way. But we do tend to see it through that, that lens. And to a certain degree, we should. I mean, there is a racial gap in the country, but we also have a lot in common as well.
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, a racial gap?
CLARENCE PAGE: A racial gap of perception.
JIM LEHRER: Of perception.
CLARENCE PAGE: Of two different experiences, two different ways of living. At--the Kerner Commission said, you know, there were two nations, obviously, and, and Richard and the rest of us have talked about this before. We are more than two nations now.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. At least.
CLARENCE PAGE: We have a number of experiences growing up together.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, Anne.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, there has still been a deafening silence, for example, in Los Angeles. We ask, what can we do, and we say that, you know, we need to speak out. But the police chief, the mayor of Los Angeles, has still not been heard from.
JIM LEHRER: Police chief.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Willie Williams is a black man.
JIM LEHRER: --is a black man. And the mayor is a white man.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And the mayor is a white man. I mean, I would have been on the airwaves the next day. I, I think there is no moral leadership on this issue. If they would stand up and say, look, this--racism in this police department will no longer be tolerated, we find the Mark Fuhrmans, they're out of here, it's over, the police chief of LA said, this, this is, we're going to--this has to come from the ground up, it's not my responsibility, in so many words. What I'm saying is I think that in order to make the pitch that everybody is comfortable with now, which is responsibility. Everybody's supposed to be responsible for themselves, I mean, from Clinton on to the right, this is the man--
JIM LEHRER: This is the Million Man March.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This is that, and that's fine, but I think in order to say to people you have to be responsible, we also have to say to those people who've had those experiences in those streets of Los Angeles, which I can attest to, is by God, we hurt for you, we know that this police cop is racist, we will not tolerate it, as the citizens of your community, as your sisters and brothers.
JIM LEHRER: You the least bit hopeful, Roger?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm hopeful if we can get the experience and remind ourselves that there is still a general experience available to us, that is the experience of the country. The trouble--the only down side of individuality when it comes to thinking about these issues is we've become not just single issue politics people, we've become single identity people. So I'm black or I'm a woman, or I'm this, or I'm that, and I'm not part of a larger construct, which we used to think of as the country.
JIM LEHRER: Richard says as a matter of fact we are, we just haven't--we--we haven't figured it out yet.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think--I think he's exactly right. I think Richard is saying that there is a reality to be perceived which actually coincides with the ideal.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you all very much. Good to see you all.