Listeners Weigh In On 'Real' And 'Perceived' Racism

Guest host Celeste Headlee and editor Ammad Omar crack open the listener inbox. This week they take on letters about racism, perceived and real.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

And now it's time for Backtalk. That's when we hear from you, the listeners. Editor Ammad Omar is here with me once again. What do you have for us today?

AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: All right, Celeste. We got a letter about a story we did on Detroit. You spoke...

HEADLEE: I remember it, yeah.

OMAR: Yep. You spoke with a young man named Drew Philp. He bought a house for $500 in Detroit. And in response, we got this letter from Sarah Arinholt (ph) in Atlanta. She said she listens to the program all the time. She loves it but, quote, "tonight is the first night I have ever felt unwelcome. I'm white. The hostile tone taken with the young man who bought a $500 house, that was one thing. But then instead of congratulating him on being insane enough to help a half-dead city get some life back, Ms. Headlee lambasted him. I don't care who buys these rundown homes. His neighbors don't care who buys these rundown homes. Personally, I would rather see anyone living in the ruins of Detroit than no one."

HEADLEE: I don't think anybody's insane for living in Detroit. I love the city of Detroit.

OMAR: Me, too.

HEADLEE: But I do feel like if you listened to it Drew Philp's response, he had the best possible response for Ms. Arinholt.

OMAR: Yeah. You can check that out online on our website, NPR.org/tellmemore.

HEADLEE: Great.

OMAR: Another letter we got,Celeste - we spoke with Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal about the late poet Amiri Baraka. There was an outpouring of sympathy when he died, but there are also some people who say he was a misogynist and anti-Semitic. We got a few letters like this one, from Paul Kane in Brooklyn. He says, quote, "I was astonished by the extremely lame commentary by Mark Anthony Neal, particularly when you were asking about Amiri Baraka's anti-Semitism." Paul says Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America" has, quote, "manifestly anti-Semitic content. Trying to dismiss this poem as simply asking questions is absurd."

He says if a white public figure made a deeply racist comment and you discussed it on air, I highly doubt your guests would parse out whether the commentator, quote, "had a moment of questionable expression. No, they'd rightly call him or her out, in no uncertain terms, for what is effectively hate speech. Were Mark Anthony Neal intellectually honest, he would've said Amiri Baraka was a gifted but bitter man. Some of his views were unjustifiable, and he should be denounced. That doesn't mean we can't learn from his life and work." And then Paul says, why is he so afraid to say this?

HEADLEE: Our listeners are so thoughtful and articulate. It's kind of amazing. Thank you so much for those comments. Keep them coming. Remember, with TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. Shoot us your thoughts. You can e-mail us at tellmemore@npr.org. Check us out on Facebook, or you can just tweet us. We're @TellMeMoreNPR. Thanks so much, Ammad.

OMAR: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today, I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Tune in, we'll talk more tomorrow.

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