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Free Your Mind

I traveled to Houston this weekend for a conversation about politics and the presidential campaign, held at Windsor Village United Methodist Church's Power Center.

Why did I go (since I am always complaining about not getting enough sleep, or having enough time)?

Well, let's go back to August 2005 and one of the five deadliest storms in U.S. history. I went to Houston, where the city was housing evacuees at the Houston Astrodome/Reliant Park complex. One of the greatest stories we covered was not about what government agencies did (or did not do), but what individuals did — people who got into their cars, drove over to the Houston Astrodome, rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. These are people who sat up throughout the night — sorting clothes, preparing food — and called relatives in distant states to help those whose contact information had been washed away in dirty water ...

And, most remarkable, many of these are people who gathered up whole families and brought them into their own homes to get them out of crowded (clean, safe and well run, but still crowded and not very private) conditions at the Astrodome.

Many of the people I met came from Windsor Village United Methodist Church.

Certainly, thousands of people did this. Someday, someone will tell that story the way it deserves to be told. But, working at Nightline at the time, I could only tell one. ... I got to tell about Miss Grace and her family, who gathered no less than five people (whom she had never met) and brought them to her home. She was a member of Windsor Village's congregation.

We were able to stop by the church for services, where I met I don't know how many other people who were doing the same thing, not to mention family members who were sheltering 25-30 relatives in their homes.

So, when Roland Martin called to say Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell's folks were having this forum and asked could I come help out, what do you think I would say?

I do have more to share about what we talked about at the forum, and I will admit I was brain frozen on a question about the economic stimulus plans offered by the candidates.

(Why should I lie? I generally master subjects by doing stories about them (this is one we plan to get to this week. Now you know why I am never running for anything political, and why I don't play poker. ... I am great at Trivial Pursuit, though. And Scrabble. Don't try to play me. Not bragging, just a fact.)

Another issue I want to talk about from the event was a question that pained me all weekend. It's from someone who worried that if Sen. Barack Obama becomes President and does not succeed in the role, it will make life worse for African Americans by stimulating racism.

I still stand by my answer because this is something we have to stop. We have to stop permitting ourselves to be trapped by this notion that as minorities, we all have to be accountable for everything that one of us does — good or bad.

But, what I wish I had said — and what I did not have time to say — is that there is a reason people feel that way:

Years ago, when I was a young journalist starting out at The Washington Post,

another young journalist named Janet Cook was nabbed for fabricating a story. She was young, like me ... a woman, like me ... and African American, like me. It was an awful thing. It was embarrassing, totally wrong, and brought great shame to the paper.

At first, I thought about Cook's situation only in those terms — it was her misstate and awful for us as journalists — but I did not take it personally ... And then I tried to rent an apartment, with another young journalist at The Washington Post.

Being so young, and just out of school, neither of us had any credit, so we just reported our employment and education as references. The landlord demanded to see proof of my college diploma — mine and only mine (the other young journalist was white, you see). He was very clear: after that whole business with Janet Cook, he felt he deserved to know that I had not fabricated my degree from Harvard.

And, if you think these sensitivities are ancient history, you can go back to the Jayson Blair scandal. Why African American journalists were somehow expected to account for the behavior of the former New York Times reporter who plagiarized some of his work, when white journalists, as a group, were never tarred for Stephen Glass or the other massagers of truth, who are white, is something someone else can explain ...

But the point is, black people are not making this stuff up. Many of us have been made to feel that our successes are individual, but our failures are somehow collective.

My view: that has to stop.

Minorities, perhaps women, who also see this operating in their lives may not be able to stop it by themselves, but we must try not to take in the those feelings. Asking, demanding, encouraging others to stop this line of thinking is important, but refusing to internalize it ... we'll, that's our job.