Hope For Improved Race Relations

In the final installment of the Race & Politics series, listeners talk with Liane Hansen about how race affects their political positions. Early in the series listener Greg Harden, of Rochester, N.Y., said that he felt race relations would not improve. His comments motivated another listener, Leon Wynter, of New York City, to reach out to him and start an online discussion. The two remain hopeful that Barack Obama will help usher in a new era in race relations.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Throughout the month of August we've been focusing on the subject of race and politics. We've invited several of you to participate in our conversation and have heard some deeply personal stories and opinions about how the issue of race will play out in this election. Some of you were hopeful that electing the first non-white president could bring races together. Others said that the chasm between different races runs so deep that this election might just make things worse. One listener who said things won't get better was Greg Harden, a white man from Rochester, New York, who joined us for the first installment of our series. To bring our conversation full circle, we've invited Greg back to the show. He joins us once again from Rochester. Greg, welcome back.

Mr. GREG HARDEN (Caller): Hi, Liane. How are you doing?

HANSEN: I'm well. Thank you. If you don't mind, let's listen to a bit of what you had to say in that first interview.

Mr. HARDEN: You know, my son goes to a city school. And he's 10. And you know, he comes home with stories about how all the little black kids say how they hate all white people. They pick on him, and he gets beat up. You know, I've tried to raise him treating everybody equal, and I just - I don't know what to say to him.

HANSEN: Because you see that he's not being treated equally?

Mr. HARDEN: Absolutely not.

HANSEN: Greg, you were rather pessimistic about race relations when we last talked to you. What kind of response have you had to your comments?

Mr. HARDEN: Most of them have agreed with my response in some point or another. I haven't really commented back to anybody. Then I saw a post by Leon Wynter.

HANSEN: I'd like to bring Leon Wynter into the discussion. He's a black writer from New York. He's done quite a few commentaries for NPR in the past, and he says he reached out to Greg for personal reasons. He's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Leon.

Mr. LEON WYNTER (Writer; Journalist): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: What was your post, Leon?

Mr. WYNTER: I began by noting that how many of the conversations about race seem to feature something that amounted to discussions by whites of their own victimhood. And I basically said, hmm, there's something suspect about this, but if that's where the conversation has to begin, so be it.

HANSEN: Greg, what did you say to him in return?

Mr. HARDEN: Honestly, I took it on a kind of personal level. I wanted to just let him know that that's not the case. I was just trying to state the facts. I mean, my son was a victim. That's what bothered me so much.

HANSEN: Leon, what was it that made you want to respond?

Mr. WYNTER: Well, first and foremost, I think it's kind of rare in that sort of blog world that I'm a part of now that you actually get a comment back from a live person. It made me have to reply in a way that was honest and real. The thing that really moved me was Greg's response to my response. He mentioned that he had recently - he used the word converted to Christianity.

Mr. HARDEN: I have.

Mr. WYNTER: And I myself have been walking with the Lord for a little over a decade now. And it's finally come to me that if we take another perspective, one that basically is spiritual, one that starts from the premise that's actually built into the Declaration of Independence, which is "All men are created equal," it is at the core of what makes us Americans.

HANSEN: Greg, what do you think about that? I mean, you both do have something in common, and it is your spirituality.

Mr. HARDEN: I think what he just said was incredibly insightful and true. You know, there's something about talking about race, especially to a person of the opposite race, that there's fear there. You're afraid of offending them. You're afraid of getting into an argument. I think one of the biggest hurdles that we have to get over is to just be honest with one another on how we feel. That's the only way we're going to get anywhere close to, you know, one nation under God.

Mr. WYNTER: Exactly. I brought my daughter with me because part of why I connected to your comments was the fact that I have a 10-year-old child. And my daughter is black. She's growing up in a predominantly white suburban environment. And I've had the same sort of fears that basically black, middle-class folks have about, how do I explain what this is to my child? I think what children would like to believe is that, you know, yeah we had some bad stuff, but it's done. But of course, as parents you know the reality. And I guess at the end of the day I'd like to be able to say to my daughter, I put a lot of effort into actually trying to do something about the gap that still has to be closed.

HANSEN: And Greg, how would you like to respond to that?

Mr. HARDEN: I agree. I'd like to be able to do the same thing, because it comes down to the individual's reaction and response. It's up to us to get along with each other. You know, me and Leon and my girlfriend and you. As a race, I don't know if it's ever going to happen. There's too much garbage in the way, politics. I don't even know how to go about listing them all, to tell you the truth. But there's just - it seems like there's so many barricades that as a nation I don't know if it'll ever happen. But if individually, you know, we can shake hands and get along, as cliche as I may sound...

Mr. WYNTER: I would ask you though, do you see - do you get any hope when we have a person like Barack Obama who takes into himself all that we are as Americans?

Mr. HARDEN: I do. You know, I have no doubt he's going to win the election. And I hope to God that it does bring in, you know, a new era.

HANSEN: Greg Harden from Rochester, New York, and Leon Wynter in New York City. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. HARDEN: Thank you, Liane.

Mr. WYNTER: Thank you.

HANSEN: We received lots of letters about our series on race and politics. One was from Dolores Moore(ph) of Lake Worth, Florida. Here she reads an excerpt about struggling to prove she's not a racist.

Ms. DOLORES MOORE (Caller): I'm white, originally from Montgomery, Alabama, born in 1962, and my family history would give any reasonable person the assumption that I'm racist. My father's sister worked for Governor George Wallace. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church and went to a private religious school. So if anybody was ever prone to racist, it would be me. But I'm very much not a racist. Six years ago I moved to Palm Beach County, Florida. When I first arrived, everyone assumed me to be some bumpkin fresh off the bus amazed by electricity, indoor plumbing, and dare I say, shoes. Never mind my education, never mind my professionalism, my accent and the subsequent "Where are you from?" obviously meant I was an idiot and a racist.

So now, six years later, I have, thankfully, learned to hide the accent about 85 percent at the time. But the lingering assumptions about me remain. Just last week a coworker said to me, I cannot believe a white girl from Alabama is pulling for Obama. I just sighed, turned, walked away. If my support for an intelligent, articulate, positive, and progressive candidate who just happens to be of mixed race amazes them, then I'm guessing my fascination with Yiddish would just be complete mental overload for them.

HANSEN: Betsy Bowman(ph) of Somerville, Massachusetts, posted these comments on our Soapbox blog.

Ms. BETSY BOWMAN (Caller): I'm a high school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a diverse public charter school. During the primary, as the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race was heating up, a Haitian-American young woman announced probably to her class, shoot, maybe I'm going to run for president someday. I think that one of the most profound ways that this election is changing America is that young women and kids of color are seeing, maybe for the first time, that all the grand promises of this country really do apply to them. My students and I have discussed at length whether race or gender or religion should be a factor in the way we cast our vote, though most of them are not even old enough to vote. But consensus among the kids is that of course a candidate's policy positions matter most, but that race and gender matter, too.

HANSEN: Although our on air series on race and politics is over, you can continue the conversation at npr.org/soapbox.

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