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Looking back in history to help inform and improve future race relations

Daily reports of disturbing racial incidents and what appear to be deepening racial divisions within the country leave many looking for answers. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently spoke with Dr. Ronald Crutcher, a classical musician and president of the University of Richmond, about confronting the complexities of racism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Daily reports of racist incidents and deepening racial divisions within the country leave many looking for answers.

    We turn now to special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who profiles a leader who is looking back in history to help inform and improve future race relations.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    This is one of Dr. Ronald Crutcher's favorite ways of communicating, dating back to the '70s and his days as principal cellist with a German Orchestra in Bonn.

    Dr. Crutcher has long used his musical talent to create harmony. But harmony is also a key component of his efforts as the president of a university, which, like many institutions, is beset with issues of racism and division.

    Here at the University of Richmond, that came to the surface a couple of years ago when a student-driven organization unearthed a number of racist images in past yearbooks. Dr. Crutcher has said he saw the issue as a call to action, one he hoped would help not only his university confront the complexities of racism, but hopefully come up with lessons for all educational institutions and even the larger society.

    Dr. Crutcher recently published his book "I Had No Idea You Were Black: Navigating Race on the Road to Leadership."

    Dr. Crutcher is a friend, and he asked me to write the foreword.

    As the title suggests, it details how you formed your ideas about race on the road to leadership. And, at the moment, you see your job as responding to what you describe as whiplash. What do you mean by that?

  • Dr. Ronald Crutcher:

    If you look at the way Americans live these days, we live in segregated societies and in segregated communities; 91 percent of whites have only other whites as part of their social network, 83 percent of Blacks, and 63, 64 percent of Hispanics.

    So, when students come to college and university campuses, basically, they're coming from these communities. Many of them have had some experiences interacting with people who are come from a different culture, race from them, but most of them haven't.

    So we, as universities, have to realize that these students have no experiential basis from which to build relationships across racial differences or, for that matter, religious or political or ideological differences as well.

    And that manifests itself in lots of different ways.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    But you have also written that colleges and universities have traditionally served as crucibles for learning how to live and participate constructively in a democratic society, but no more. Why is that?

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    Students self-segregate, even on very, very diverse campuses.

    Therefore, when they come into the university, we have to engage them in ways that help them to learn how to have conversations with people from different races, from different political perspectives, and how to have full-throated conversations in a way that focuses on listening to what the other person is saying, so that you can have a deeper understanding about why they hold that view, in other words, true, authentic interactions, as opposed to superficial.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    There was a student organization at your university that unearthed a number of racist images, and you said that you saw it as a call to action.

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    I took it as an opportunity, as a relatively new president, to develop a commission, which I called the Commission on University History and Identity.

    And the goal of that commission was to go back, look at our history, look at those archives, and tell the full story of the University of Richmond, the story of those individuals who were enslaved and were hired out to the University of Richmond.

    As a university that was founded in 1830 to educate White Baptist ministers in the capital of the Confederacy, I think it's critically important for us to understand our history and to know our history, all of our history, as we move forward into the future to develop what I call a skilled intercultural community.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    When you begin to bring together Black kids, white kids, kids of color, all colors, and start to have these uncomfortable conversations, how do you comfort them? How do you deal with that?

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    You know, what we have to do as universities is develop cultures of trustworthiness, so we can have these full-throated conversations, some of which are going to be uncomfortable.

    But I think, if we don't steel our students and prepare them, help them, if you will, exercise that muscle, we will have — we will not have served them well when they graduate.

    And I will be honest with you. I have not always been in that place myself. I had a conversation with a parent who had given us some large gift, and was sitting down with him to thank him. He was trying to demonstrate to me that he had raised his children not to see race. And he said: "We have raised our girls not to see color."

    Well, I felt I needed to be honest with him. And I said: "When you tell me that you raise your daughter not to see color, you're saying to me that you raised her not to see who I am. I mean, I'm a Black man. You can't miss that."

    And so — and he looked at me. And he looked at me rather quizzically. But he said: "That's a very good — I had never thought of it in that manner."

    When you have people from a variety of political persuasions, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, it doesn't mean everybody has to link arms and sing kumbaya. But what it means is that people have to learn how to be in community with each other in a way that — where they demonstrate empathy and the ability to listen and hear.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How hopeful are you that we, particularly in the United States, can overcome this challenging time any time soon?

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    I could not get out of bed every day if I were not a glass-half-full person, if I didn't have that perspective.

    I have to remain hopeful. But I will say this. I don't think we will have dealt with this in our lifetime. It's like cancer, if you will. We have never found a cure for it, but we keep finding ways to prolong people's lives.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Whose job is it going to be?

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    It's everybody's job. It has to be everybody's job.

    We have to work together as a campus, Black, brown, Asian, low-income, first-generation, whatever across the whole spectrum. Otherwise, we won't find a cure for this disease of systemic racism.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Dr. Crutcher, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Ronald Crutcher:

    Thank you so much, Charlayne. Take care.

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