Dr. Tricia Rose, Brown University

The internationally respected scholar offers her take on the difficulty Americans have in dealing with the issue of racial inequality in the U.S.

Tricia Rose, whose specialties include 20th- and 21st-century African American culture and politics and gender issues, is an Africana studies professor at Brown University and director of the university's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. A pioneering expert in the study of hip-hop, she's written two books on the subject: The Hip Hop Wars and the award-winning, Black Noise, which defined what is now an entire field of study. The native New Yorker completed her Ph.D. in American studies at Brown and has taught at NYU and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Rose lectures and presents seminars/workshops on a wide range of issues relating to race in America.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: The reaction to the tragic shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer prompted a media frenzy, to be sure. Outrage protests and thousands of hours of opinion by pundits and politicians pointing up just how difficult it is for Americans still to deal with issues of racial inequality.

A recent Pew survey found that only 37% of white Americans believe Michael Brown’s death raised important issues about race, while 80% of African Americans said that it did.

Joining us now from Providence, Rhode Island to discuss where we need to go as a country is Dr. Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.

Tricia Rose, good to have you on the program. Let me jump right in with this Pew study because I guess I’m not fascinated. I saw these same kinds of numbers after Rodney King here in L.A. I saw these same kinds of numbers after Trayvon Martin not too long ago. So I guess these numbers by Pew don’t really surprise me.

But what do you make of the fact that 37% of white folk say this doesn’t really raise race questions in my mind, but 80% of Black folk think it’s time for a conversation about race in America?

Tricia Rose: Well, I think the consistency of this tremendous gap in perception speaks to the condition we’ve faced in this post-civil rights era, that we’re really living two different types of realities and the illiteracy about structural racism enables many whites to believe that their comfort and their privileges and their ease of travel and motion and opportunity is not actually at the expense of another constituency.

And so that is really what explains these numbers. It’s not so much one policeman or one child or one individual and who did what. It’s an overall set of experiences driven by structural racism and the illiteracy we perpetuate about it.

Tavis: Is there anything then to your point about the illiteracy that we suffer from in this country about race, anything to your mind that can be done about the role of implicit bias in matters like these?

I saw Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, white guy obviously, wrote a piece about this. I’ve seen other white columnists and authors and pundits who’ve tried to raise this issue, this notion of sort of white skin privilege. But what is there to be done about that in America? Anything?

Rose: Yeah, well, there’s plenty to be done. I mean, I think the real question is how do we generate the will to do it? But more specifically to your question about implicit bias, there’s been a lot of really interesting research about how implicit bias shapes very small interactions all the way to very large interactions.

For example, the article to which you refer speaks to, you know, doctors giving African Americans less pain medicine even when their symptoms are as or more acute.

So, you know, clearly these aren’t individuals who are harboring necessarily racial attitudes that are explicitly intentionally negative, but that a set of perceptions, deep-seated perceptions about Black people, about their bodies, about their minds, about their value, about whether or not they’re safe for society.

But I think what we really want to ask are bigger questions about the workings of structural racism. How does that whole system and process work to produce significant racial inequality?

And then we’re not in this business of sort of personal bias and we don’t end up with, you know, how I think that article ended sort of “Well, we’re all just a little bit racist and what can we do about it? I guess we’re just gonna have to live with it.”

And that’s the wrong answer and the wrong focus. There’s much more work we can do if we’re willing to confront the serious structural impediments in every aspect of life.

Tavis: I couldn’t agree more. I thought that Kristof started out in the right place and ended up with a rather flat and weak close, with all due respect to Nick Kristof, but his close could have been a little stronger.

Having said that, how much of this has to do fundamentally with a lack of respect on the part of too many fellow citizens for the dignity and the humanity of other fellow citizens?

I mean, getting into a conversation about structural racism is real, but it seems to me at the bottom of all of this is just a fundamental lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of some people by some people. What is to be done about that, if anything?

Rose: You know, of course, dignity is extremely important and we need a lot of spiritual work around how to humanize each other and treat each other properly.

But, frankly, I think a lot of people think they’re already there and that gap between what they think is going on and the beauty of their “intentions” and the reality of the conditions that structure Black life is too great to really traverse just with spiritual work.

So we have a lot of what I call anti-racist educational work. And, unfortunately, in the last 40 years, anti-racist work has been very systematically equated with sort of anti-white work, which is really not what it is. It’s anti-racist work.

Many of the most significant anti-racist workers are of all kinds of racial backgrounds and we have to really separate out peoples’ personal identities from how structures significantly impede Black life in every aspect.

That’s a tremendous amount of educational work that I think will enhance the spiritual work and prevent the kind of constant aha which is what we get here, sort of “Wow. Really? This happened? This is a big problem. Oh, what are we gonna do?” This sort of hand-wringing because we don’t have a systemic comprehension of what’s going on.

Tavis: I want to ask you an open-ended question and I do so deliberately and unapologetically because I’m curious to get inside your head. As you’ve been watching these conversations and I’ve been watching these conversations, I’m curious, Dr. Rose, as to what has been missing.

Writ large, what has been missing, to your mind, from this conversation in America about Michael Brown and the issues that are appertaining thereto?

Rose: Well, you know, I’ve been really struck by the repetition of the highly individualistic story.

So that’s to say that we understand the story by thinking through who Michael Brown was or who the officer was and what they did in the hours before, the hours after, and sort of whether or not we can assign guilt or blame and this kind of highly almost court case framework for a circumstance that is so clearly much, much bigger than that.

And that perpetual pattern of individual blame and causality and, you know, withholding judgment, it seems to me, if this were just about the family being outraged, that’d be one thing.

But people do not put their lives on the line in the way young people and old people and middle-aged people did in Ferguson just because one person was mistakenly perhaps shot by one officer. You have to understand that level of outrage, that level of suffering, that level of pain, that level of despair as something much bigger and attached to an ongoing set of conditions.

And that question, right? Wow, why would so many people be so outraged if this were just one case? That should lead the mainstream media to a more systemic structural analysis.

What are the ways in which housing and wealth and income and education and police profiling all over the country and police brutality and unjust sentencing and the general prison industrial complex and all of the other kinds of factors that really create really a suffocating kind of desperation and frustration for young men of color and especially young Black boys and girls? What are those conditions about and how do they work together to create a suffocating web?

That’s what the stories should be about because you can’t understand Mike Brown as an individual story and all of the things that have happened in Ferguson. It just doesn’t even make any sense in that context and that’s been just a shocking, shocking gap.

Tavis: What you’ve said now makes perfect sense to me, but you’re asking for a cultural competency on the part of the media that I don’t think exists. You’re asking that it connect dots that make sense to you and me and other persons of good will and conscience. But I don’t know that they’re capable of connecting those kind of dots.

Before my time runs out, though, since you’ve referenced now so many different policy implications and so many policy dots that ought to be connected, let me just speak for myself and I want to get your take on this.

I’ve been, you know, kind of steaming on the inside for the last few days at the Democratic Party’s blatant attempt to use this situation in Ferguson to get votes and to save their hides come November.

Now let me be very clear. I’ve done voter registration all across this country. I’m all for voter registration. I’m for voter mobilization. I have nothing against that whatsoever.

But it has been sickening to me, quite frankly, given what didn’t happen on the front side of this, to see the way the Democratic Party, front page The New York Times says, just attached an entire campaign to using what happened in Ferguson as a way in to get votes to make sure they don’t lose in the mid-term elections.

Now we don’t have enough time to drill deeply as I would love to drill on this particular issue, but I know you’ve seen the same story I’ve seen and you don’t have to have the same outrage I have. But what’s your read on how the Democratic Party is now using this incident as a way to get votes come November?

Rose: Well, it is obviously strategic and obviously, you know, self-serving in a way that’s almost embarrassing. But I’ll tell you where I would focus my emphasis to augment your totally legitimate outrage. An opportunism, right? Which is what I think drives that kind of agenda and makes it a little bit disturbing.

But where I would focus is the fact that they’re able to capitalize on apparent lack of leadership on the ground cultivating a consciousness among young people that this doesn’t represent the only political motive engagement, right?

So I think if we could really help use Ferguson and any number of other similar cases and situations as well as ongoing conditions to really foment an expanded grassroots movement for racial justice in the 21st century, then the Democratic Party’s voting turnout wouldn’t guarantee anything for them, per se.

We would be able to hold them accountable in local policy circumstances, regional, state and federal contexts that wouldn’t make it so automatic for them to take Black voters for granted and not necessarily deliver.

So there’s nothing wrong with that piece of what they’re doing if we have a movement that allows and channels the kinds of political energy into meaningful structural change on the ground.

Tavis: Finally, do you see anything good coming out of this?

Rose: Listen, you know, I’m sure people might be listening and watching and saying, you know, how could she be optimistic? How is that possible after all the depressing things she’s pointed out? But I have an enormous sense of hope and optimism for the future partly because I have such faith in young people.

There’s really been no social movement that took place that has a requisite level of courage and human connection and surprising levels of reaching out across surprising, you know, gaps and of odds. That means that young people are the real future here. So I’m always, always hopeful because of that.

At the same time, I don’t have that kind of “Oh, it’s all gonna be okay” hope. There’s a ton of work. We have to roll up our sleeves and we have to really stop allowing the kind of lie of the post-civil rights era that, because the law is different, that the practice is different, that the reality is different.

We have to really speak to that gap and contradiction and inspire young people to have the courage that they already have to do what needs to be done. And, of course, we need to get along, but we can’t be in the front of the line forever. You know, young people have to carry this fight forward in the front of the line.

Tavis: Brown University’s Dr. Tricia Rose. Tricia, as always, thanks for sharing your insights. Good to have you back on this program.

Rose: Thank you, Tavis. My pleasure.

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Last modified: September 12, 2014 at 3:00 pm