Racial Discussions In America: How Do We Have Them?

The events surrounding the resignation of former U-S Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod has provided a new point of discussion in our ongoing national dialogue about race. But has America found the right language to have that conversation? Host Michel Martin talks with playwright and former MacArthur “genius” fellow Anna Deavere Smith, and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity about how Americans talk about race in politics, media and personal relationships.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, most young people have cell phones, but is there a downside to talking and texting too much? It's the latest in our Tell Me Mobile technology series and we'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, in just three days Shirley Sherrod has gone from obscure government employee to publicly vilified to racist to recipient of apologies from everybody from a cabinet secretary to the NAACP president to the conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly.

Just to recap, her talk at an NAACP event in March was displayed on YouTube by a conservative activist edited to suggest she had an anti-white bias. She was forced to resign, and then when the fuller context suggested the point of her speech was in fact the opposite, apologies ensued. It's been an intense three days of water cooler conversations about race and racism.

But for all the talk about race and racism, one might get the impression that people still aren't really listening to one another. So we thought it would be helpful to talk to two people who have spent a lot of time listening and, to some extent, talking about race. So we've called Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He's at NPR member station WOSU in Columbus.

Also with us, the noted playwright, actress and professor Anna Deavere Smith. She's with us from California. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Professor ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (Center for American Progress, Actress, Playwright): Nice to be here with you.

Professor ANDREW GRANT-THOMAS (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University): Thanks for the invitation, Michel.

MARTIN: So Anna Deavere Smith, I'm going to start with you because I think many people will know that a good deal of your work focuses on race and racial confrontations. "Twilight: Los Angeles" dealt with the 1992 Rodney King riots and the aftermath. "Fire in the Mirror" was about the 1991 Crown Heights conflict between black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn. So when you saw the sort of Shirley Sherrod situation unfold, I'm wondering if it seemed like here's a play I've seen before.

Prof. SMITH: Well, no, it's a little bit different because I think this is about race but it's also about how we get information now and how that information is quickly distorted. Because if you look at the video, you really don't have to go very far at all. I mean, a couple of seconds more shows you about where she was going.

So one of the things that I've learned about race is, when I tried to write bigger stories about race relations, someone said to me, well, you could never have all these people together anywhere except in an airport. And that caused me to create a way of making plays that allows me to represent many, many different people's points of view because no single part of the story tells the whole story.

And I think my surprise and disappointment about what happened with this particular story is that, you know, only one fragment of the story was shown. And we've certainly seen this happen over and over again. And it's not going to get us anywhere in terms of race relations because we can count on race being inflammatory if we only hear one part of the story and not the entire relationship.

MARTIN: Well, part of it is that the intention was to be inflammatory by the person who initially promoted this. I mean, Andrew Breitbart, who's the operates the conservative website BigGovernment, and who has been involved in kind of provocative media incidents before, his intention was, as he told one interviewer, to discredit the NAACP 'cause he was angry at them for criticizing the Tea Party movement as racist. So the question I would have, Anna Deveare Smith, is what do you think this incident shows?

Prof. SMITH: I think what the incident shows is given that fact, before actions are taken, we have to really get people to find out what really went on.

MARTIN: Andrew, let's bring you into the conversation. We called you because you've been studying race for some time, but your work also focuses on getting people to discuss these issues in a way that is mutually beneficial, socially productive, if I could put it that way. So I'd like to ask, first of all, what's your reaction?

Prof. GRANT-THOMAS: Well, part of it you've already touched on. I think we can distinguish between, on one hand, we're at the ends of this racial dynamic that weve just seen. So the end being a very political one, right? To undermine, to demonize, to cast a suspicion on for political gain. The interesting thing about race and about racial dynamic is, you know, why is it so potent? Why do we so often see the manipulation of racial fears and racial resentment?

And I think in this case, especially white racial fear and white racial resentment for political gain. Why is that such a powerful tool? It's certainly one, you know, that's facilitated. I mean, the effort to use that as a political tool is made easier and sharper in this age of 24-hour news cycle. But the question is why this resorts to race and this equation of race and racism is not new. And why does it continue to have the kind of potency it does in our discourse?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In light of the Shirley Sherrod controversy, she's of course that Agriculture Department employee who was fired and then offered apologies because of an edited portion of a speech that was displayed on YouTube that suggested she had an anti-white bias, we're talking about how we talk about race and why race is still such a potent issue in this country.

And we're speaking with Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and the acclaimed playwright, author, performer and professor Anna Deveare Smith.

But, Andrew, one of the arguments that some of these conservative activists are making and have made in recent weeks is that animus toward white people is not taken as seriously as they think it should be. And I wanted to ask if you think that's and I'm mindful of this because, you know, one person's kind of cynical complaint is another person's deeply held grievance. And so, I wanted to ask you if you think that's a legitimate issue to bring up.

Prof. GRANT-THOMAS: You know, there are two of ways of looking at this. For one thing, I do think it's certainly true that, you know, we live at a moment where the largest racial and ethnic groups in this country feel they have a reason for - they do feel some racial grievance, right? They have some basis, many people feel, for racial resentment. That may be, you know, if not unique, I think, the degree to which that that sentiment is felt and is widely felt may be unique.

So, now you think about Latinos and the immigration debate and the fact that six out of 10 Latinos in this country are immigrant or the children of immigrants. You think about whites and the fact that, for example, the white male unemployment rate is higher now than it's been in 30 years. So, you know, to move to your question, is there reason to feel that sort of, you know, are these accusations of reversive racism legitimate? Are they founded in fact?

On one hand, there's no question that, you know, if you look across virtually any arena, so, you know, look at some of the big debates we've had around social policy, various social policy arenas like health care, like (unintelligible) closure, like unemployment and, you know, the need for job creation. There's no question that people of color and especially African-American and Latinos are catching hell, right? Are catching bigger hell on those counts than whites are.

At the same time, again, it's true that whites, like all of us, are catching more hell than they have for a very, very long time. And then, actually, except for those, you know, early Reagan years, 1982 and 1983, unemployment for among whites has never been as high as it is now for as long as people have been recording unemployment rates.

And on top of that, layered on top of that fact is this stagnating wages for the vast majority of workers in this country across racial categories. So things are more difficult now for everyone, including for whites, than they have been. So many, many whites are saying, I certainly don't feel privileged. And in so far as I feel that others are, you know, enjoying unearned privileges that I don't get and that I need.

Yes, that's, you know, ground - fertile ground for racial resentment. But I do want to emphasize at the same time that nevertheless, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and certainly some groups of Asian-Americans in fact are suffering even more.

MARTIN: Anna, what about you? What is your take on this whole question of the through line for some of the stories in recent days and another story that's been heavily promoted by the conservative media involves a Justice Department lawyer named J. Christian Adams who says he resigned because he felt that the department wasn't taking seriously enough a voter intimidation case where well, he, basically his argument is that the Justice Department isn't taking seriously enough anti-white bias. So this Shirley Sherrod case isn't the first example of this that we've seen in recent weeks.

And as a person who because of the work that you've done, you've made a point of talking to all groups in a conflict. Okay, I'd like to ask you, what is your take on this? Why are these kinds of complaints coming up now and how do you feel these kinds of complaints should be handled?

Prof. SMITH: Right. Well, I think what Andrew Grant-Thomas has just illustrated is a very, very thorough and good way of looking at it. And actually it refers back to something that Ms. Sherrod said. It is about race, but it's also about she didn't say it this way about rich and poor. And many people who have done race work have tried to guide us to look at the race problem in light of social class.

And I think that this is an opportunity for people to unite across racial boundaries in terms of what a tough economic moment this is. And it doesn't help any of us to use race as a dividing force at the moment. So I think it calls for a kind of leadership that causes people to see what they have in common. And what they have in common right now is quite a struggle.

MARTIN: What do you think, Anna Deavere Smith, of how this event kind of began, ended and concluded. We've talked a lot about how it began. What about how it is concluding? That the Cabinet secretary apologized, the NAACP apologized. And I'm wondering, what do you think that says and what does that mean?

Prof. SMITH: I think it's sort of how we got into it is how we got out, which is the rapid nature of what the media can do in terms of exposing stuff, right? So the same kind of media ability that we have in terms of taking Sherrod's comments out of context, that same mechanism turned it around quickly. Now it could also mean that we'll forget it quickly and we shouldn't forget it quickly. We should learn from this that we cannot take parts of things and think we have whole.

MARTIN: Is there anything else? Yeah, Anna, go ahead. Yeah.

Prof. SMITH: You said something earlier, Michel, that I thought was really interesting. You said everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have, it has to do with the race you don't have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that's what we don't know enough about right now.

MARTIN: Anna Deavere Smith is artist in residence at the Center for American Progress and she was kind enough to join us on the phone from her travels in California. Andrew Grant-Thomas is the deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He joined us from member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Prof. SMITH: Thank you.

Prof. GRANT-THOMAS: A pleasure.

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