As I said a moment ago, race is not an easy topic. If you are white, race can be difficult because you have to grapple with the sense of feeling guilty or that someone is trying to make you feel guilty for an ugly past. I remember watching at a documentary on the murder of Emmett Till with a young white kid who told me afterward that it made him want to pull his skin off. This is a child born three and a half decades after Emmett Till died and yet, watching those white people on screen in the middle 1950s saying all those vile, hateful, stupid things, made him, personally, feel bad. Feel indicted. We have to recognize that and be sensitive to that. We have to evolve some way of talking about race that allows white people of good intention to feel as if they can be part of the solution and not just a new iteration of the problem.
It is easier for black folk to discuss race, but even with us, there can be some hesitation. It you are black, race can be a difficult subject because like sediment at the bottom of the pond, it stirs up so many feelings of anger, shame and boiling frustration. It can be easier just to not deal with it, easier just to leave it alone. We have to find some way of pushing to the other side of anger, of using it not as a fuel for bitterness, but as a fuel for determined, focused action.
Make no mistake, those are hard things to do. And instead of helping the nation find ways to do them, our industry has instead entered, I think, into a kind of conspiracy of silence where race is concerned. In this, we are not unlike many of the readers we serve.
I had a reader tell me once that I must stop writing about race because the subject is impolite.
I get told all the time that if I didnt talk about race me, personally race would not be a problem in this country.I am frequently instructed that I create racism and become a racist myself by writing about race.
I think what these people mean to say is that they wish I would not violate the conspiracy of silence. By mutual, unspoken consent, we have decided that we will speak of these things only when doing so becomes unavoidable, only when we are pushed to by drama, tragedy or sideshow, only when the circus comes to town. The problem is, that is precisely when emotions are apt to be most high and voices most shrill. That is precisely when people are most likely to retreat into their bunkers of fixed opinion and yell across at each other and no one ever hears a thing that is said. No understanding is ever broached, no reconciliation even remotely possible.
By acceding to this conspiracy of silence, we as journalists and I would also indict the school system in this have helped create a generation of socio-historical idiots where race is concerned. You may think that description is a little harsh. I would ask you to spend some quality time talking to some of my many earnest readers who insist with a straight face that conservatives fought for civil rights in the 1960s and died to stop slavery in the 1860s. You may just change your mind.
This socio-historical idiocy flourishes in a nation where what happened yesterday is no longer recalled and what happens today, still, right now, is considered taboo. It should tell you something that according to a 2010 study by Public Religion Research Institute, 44 percent of all Americans believe bigotry against whites is a significant problem even though, by every objective standard education, health, wealth, life expectancy it is not. It should tell you something when the re-election of the nations first African-American president is greeted by calls for secession and revolution. It should tell you something when the number of hate groups in this country spikes by nearly 70 percent since 2000 amid claims that white America is threatened by genocide.
It should tell you that the silence we have embraced is poisonous.
So it is not enough to cover the Trayvon Martin trial. We should have already been writing about the forces that made that trial a sensation, meaning this abiding perception that black equals criminal. We should have been asking local police chiefs and district attorneys how it is that African Americans commit, say, 15 percent of drug crimes in a given jurisdiction, yet account for upwards of 70 percent of those doing time for drug crime.
It is not enough to cover the beer summit that ensued when a black professor was arrested on his own front porch. We should have been writing more about the disparities in educational achievement that make an African American man on a college campus such a rarity in the first place.
It is not enough to write about the sliming of Shirley Sherrod. We should have been writing about what seems to some of us an organized attempt by elements on the political right to stir racial resentment, to give those resentments moral and intellectual cover, and to use them as a lever of political power.
It is not enough to write about the opening of the Martin Luther King monument on the Washington Mall. We should have been writing about the erosion of progress toward the Dream he famously articulated there.
In other words, we need to draw the through line, so that when President Obama is called uppity or people pretend there is some controversy over where he was born, there is no question where that is coming from. We need to provide context so that when a district attorney seeks to try six black children for attempted murder after a schoolyard fight, people are already equipped to understand the rage that boils in some of us who have been down this road too many times before.
This matters. Virtually every domestic issue that you cover crime, poverty, the economy, the environment, education is impacted by race. So helping our audiences understand what race means, what it is and how it still works, could not be more vital.
This is true all over the country. It is especially true and especially critical here in Florida. For the last few minutes, I have talked about race in the way we have traditionally talked about it in this country, as a bipolar phenomenon: blacks on one side, whites on the other. But as anyone who can read a demographic chart knows, the bipolar is fast becoming the tripolar as Latinos and other Hispanic Americans make ever greater inroads in terms of numbers, cultural influence and political power.
I am aware, yes, that Hispanic is not a race, but an ethnicity. I am also aware that both those words, when you break them all the way down, are pretty scientifically meaningless, except to the degree they quantify our tendency to want to slap labels on those who are not like us. So let us just agree to agree that the nation is changing, that in the future, race will be even more complicated than it has previously been and that in Florida, the future is now.
Almost one in four of the 19 million people who call this state home identify as Hispanic or Latino. In Texas and my home state of California, the ratio is even higher: nearly 40 percent. South Central Los Angeles, where I grew up, was once regarded as the largest African-American community west of the Mississippi River. Thats changed. I attended John C. Fremont High, which had maybe two Mexican kids when I graduated almost 40 years ago. We were the Pathfinders, and our mascot was a scout with a big Afro and an Afro pick sticking out of his back pocket. The school is now predominantly Mexican American. The mascots now are a man and woman with pale skin and dark features wearing coonskin caps, their fists raised as they burst through the page.
The times, as Bob Dylan once sagely noted, they are achangin.
The question is, is our industry changing to meet them not just technologically, but culturally. Are we representing diverse cultures in our pages and on our websites? Are we speaking honestly about the changes, challenges and opportunities those cultures represent in terms of politics, education, criminal justice, health and labor. Do we understand that the conversation we have refused to have does not get easier from here on out because some of the participants hablan Espanol. To the contrary, it becomes more complex and more critical.
I will tell you the truth: there are days when I come uncomfortably close to despairing of my countrys ability to ever come to terms with itself, heal itself, on the subject of race. My assistant Judi, who handles my email and is thus on the front lines of the sociohistorical idiocy I mentioned, periodically blows her top at some of the ignorant things people say. She sent me an email once that said, I dont understand why you dont just hate white people.
Judis white. Shes about my age. And I suspect she feels what I feel: that sense of betrayal unique to those of us who came of age in the post civil rights era thinking that all this stuff was fixed, all this stuff was over, all this stuff was past, that it was finished for us by Martin Luther King and the generation of marchers who followed him toward the Promised Land. I went to college in the 70s, roomed with a white guy, discovered Simon and Garfunkel, watched All In The Family on television, thankful all that idiocy was now distant enough and safe enough to laugh at.
The ensuing 40 years the bulk of my life have been a bitter process of watching the backlash take form and discovering just how naïve and mistaken I was.
One of the things that gives me hope, that helps to keep despair at bay, is embodied in this room, in the profession that you and I are both lucky enough to pursue. As I said, much has changed over that 40 years. One thing has not. I still believe, cutbacks be damned, furloughs be damned, economic downturn be damned, that we do honorable and vital work and that if you seek the truth and then tell it without fear or favor, you commit an act of unalloyed good.
The civil rights movement would not have been won without Martin Luther Kings incandescent leadership. It would not have been won without that army of marchers and boycotters and nonviolent protesters. But it also would not have been won without the pens and typewriters and cameras of reporters who turned the nations eyes to the injustices flourishing in places like Little Rock, Selma, Montgomery, Nashville, Greensboro and St. Augustine. It is said that newspaper images of the unrest in Birmingham so embarrassed John F. Kennedy and undermined the nations ability to condemn Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on human rights issues that Kennedys brother Robert sent an envoy to Alabama to mediate the dispute.
This is what our words and pictures can do. In the civil rights years, they shattered stereotypes, they shredded preconceptions and they destroyed self-deluding fantasies. Sometimes, I dont think we really appreciate just how dramatic a change that was. We are talking about wrongs that had endured for generations, yet they were rendered inert in just 13 years, in part because our professional forebears saw a story that appalled them and told the world about it.
That is the power we wield.
So what appalls us now? Government spying, government lying, rapacious banks and terror threats are likely somewhere on your list, and with good cause. But I would ask that you also spare a little bit of moral indignation for the fact that, not 50 miles from here, a black child, walking through a gated community wearing a hooded sweatshirt and khaki skinny jeans carrying nothing more dangerous than iced tea and candy can somehow be inflated into a thug and a threat. Or for the fact that you could stalk and kill that child and be acquitted of any wrongdoing in the same state where Marissa Alexander is doing 20 years for shooting a wall. Or for the fact that some of us can look at this and assure themselves, assure us all, that race has nothing to do with it.
I ask that you see this as a story and a priority and a moral imperative. I ask that we use our great power to batter down selfdelusion and socio-historical idiocy. I ask that you reconsider the price weve paid for our conspiracy of silence and that you do it before the next circus comes to town.