Wisdom Watch: William Raspberry Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry talks about the future of schools, life, work, and the meaning of it all in this week's visit with a wise elder.

Wisdom Watch: William Raspberry

Wisdom Watch: William Raspberry

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Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry talks about the future of schools, life, work, and the meaning of it all in this week's visit with a wise elder.


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

The recent Supreme Court ruling on how public schools can use race as a factor in enrollment has raised many questions about the future of diversity in schools. Some people worry that 50 years after those - the court ended school segregation in the Brown case, that the country is headed backwards. Others argue that it's time for a new approach.

For a wise perspective on the issue, we turn to somebody who's been thinking about this for years. In today's Wisdom Watch conversation, William Raspberry, a columnist for the Washington Post for nearly four decades. His writings on some public policy issues earned him a Pulitzer Prize, among dozens of other honors.

Raspberry retired from the Post, but he's still deep in the game. He's an adjunct professor at Duke University, and he's leading an education initiative in his hometown of Okolona, Mississippi. We'll talk about all of that. William Raspberry joins us here in the studio. Welcome.

Professor WILLIAM RASPBERRY (Journalism and Public Policy, Duke University; Former Columnist, Washington Post): Pleased to be here.

MARTIN: Mr. Raspberry, you graduated high school, as I understand it, in 1952?

Prof. RASPBERRY: That sounds right.

MARTIN: Okay. So it wasn't long after that that the Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools. Did it mean anything to you at the time?

Prof. RASPBERRY: To be frank, I thought in Mississippi in 1954, that they were blowing smoke. I thought it would never happen. I thought segregation wasn't far too deeply entrenched in that part of the world ever to change. And I was quite pleasantly surprised, astounded, at how rapidly some aspects of it did change.

MARTIN: Did anything change for you?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Yeah. I went away to Indiana to go to school. So I wasn't there during that period. I left right after high school in 1952.

MARTIN: Well, you mean, you know, it was one of those sort of border kind of places…

Prof. RASPBERRY: Borders, absolutely…

MARTIN: …you know, some places. I remember - how were you - were you treated? Did you feel like you could - could you walk into any restaurant you wanted to and eat where you wanted?

Prof. RASPBERRY: No, I couldn't. I mean, that was one of the tricky things about those years in Indianapolis. In Mississippi, you knew you couldn't go to any restaurant that was white. In Indianapolis, you didn't go until you were either accepted or rebuffed.

And it was extremely awkward that this - there were many facilities, the Riverside Amusement Park where they said we reserved the right to refuse service and all of that stuff. There was even a drive-in restaurant where you sat in your car and were refused service.

So it was quite crazy. So I, you know, I wound up with the NAACP Youth Council and other organizations protesting all these craziness. So that was my intro to the movement there.

MARTIN: What was fascinating to me is to go back and read an essay you wrote - it's a book of essays about some of our pioneering African-American journalists. Remember that you were always a skeptic - not always, but, for years, you had been skeptical about whether forced bussing plans were, in fact, the most important policy goal. I was just wondering how you came to that. I mean, what are the - some of the things people are talking about today, you've been talking about for years?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Yeah. It seemed to me, at the time, that desegregation, this validation for the people who brought the suits - that is for civil rights leadership, for the lawyers, for all those people who were well educated and substantially middle-class already, integration was sort of a final validation of their humanness, which is fine, and I believe it's true. And it was a good thing to happen. But they also made a mistake of supposing that integration would fix what was broken about poor black children in the inner cities.

And it was clear to me that it couldn't and wouldn't. And it was fool hearted to think that it might, and the parents of these children who were being crippled understood that. When they went to, principally to the NAACP and sought relief from some of the horrendous practices that they were subjected to - rotten falling down buildings, poor curricular, all these other things -whatever complaint they brought got translated into a desegregation suit, and the remedy was bussing.

And it seems to be that we were headed pell-mell now down the wrong road - not that desegregation is wrong. But I never believed that you could cure people who are damaged by the American culture simply by submersing them in a situation in which they were the overwhelming minority. It didn't make sense.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think now? I mean, the data shows that schools are still hyper-segregated for the most part. What do you think now? Especially now that for - some argue that the court has kind of dealt the final blow to Brown. I mean, they've said that integration matters, but not actually use race to achieve it. What do you think now?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Specifically regarding the court's decision, I'm really so torn. It's clear to me that the conservative majority on that court does not care about outcomes for the poor minority children who are the subject of all our debates about these things.

So I'm prepared from the beginning to say, you know, a pox on your house, except that if the decisions had gone the way I would have preferred them to go, it still wouldn't have meant anything for exactly these same children because that's not where the problem is. The problem with these children is not their lack of white seatmates. The problems run much deeper, and we won't get to them as long as we keep pursuing white kids as the remedy.

MARTIN: I thought the argument, though, was that what the civil rights community was aiming for is they thought that political isolation of these kids made it easy to not care for them, not give them the resources that they need.

Prof. RASPBERRY: It is. And I - we had what was - amounted to a hostage theory, that you can't discriminate - you won't be able to discriminate against our kids if you can get them in the same classroom as yours. But it turned out, in part, that that wasn't quite true, but in part that discrimination against these kids by the time they were into public schools was not really the important problem that they faced. And we have never quite shed a view that somehow, if we can fully integrate them, everything else will work out.

There's another assumption we are making right now, that somehow what ails these children is an inadequate or incompetent school administration, and if we can get the administration mechanics right, education will happen. And we're just as mistaken and misguided to believe that.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with award-winning columnist William Raspberry about life after a Supreme Court's decision on the segregation in public schools. So what is the answer?

Prof. RASPBERRY: That will take at least four or five minutes. Let me tell you what one piece of the answer is. One piece of the answer is to recognize in our policies what we all know in practice and fact, which is that the public schools do reasonably well in educating children who come to school prepared for learning. They do very poorly with kids who don't come to school prepared for learning. So what do we do? We try to fix the schools. We try to fix everything else except the preparation of the children who come to our schools.

I think they got tired of watching this happen and just shrugging my shoulders. As I kept looking for a way to be more personally involved, which is why I wound up three years ago, four years ago, started something I called Baby Steps, which is a program I started in my hometown of Okolona, Mississippi, as you so correctly pronounced, which is designed specifically to teach the parents of preschoolers what they can do at home to get their children ready for learning and for life.

I begin with the assumption that these parents love their children as much as you and I love ours. And they do their best for them, at least the best they know to do for them. What they haven't been able to give them - because they haven't had it to give - is a sense of the magic of education, that schooling well done can change the trajectory of their children's lives. They don't believe that.

MARTIN: How does your program work?

Prof. RASPBERRY: What we do is quite directly teach parents what they can do at home to make their kids smart. It really, at bottom, is teaching the skills that middle-class people and, of course, parents - pass along almost without thinking about it.

MARTIN: Like what?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Talking to their children all the time…

MARTIN: Talk to their children.

Prof. RASPBERRY: …all the time about…

MARTIN: Describing things, reading things.

Prof. RASPBERRY: …describing things, reading every night to their kids, asking open-ended questions, talking about stuff and not threatening to knock them halfway cross the room if they don't shut up. We also found that there are some really serious health issues with these kids and their parents. This is - it leads the nation in obesity.

MARTIN: And also - it's also infant mortality.

Prof. RASPBERRY: We've got high infant mortality, high rates of hypertension and diabetes - all these things that are behavior-related disorders. So willy nilly, we're finding ourselves teaching health and nutrition to parents, trying to do to do it in a way that doesn't accuse them of being bad people, like we just did - let's go walking Okolona. We had a lot of fun, just getting all these people - to slim and the overweight as well - walking, you know, five, six blocks around downtown.

MARTIN: That sounds exciting. You don't sound like a guy who's retired. You're supposed to be retired.

Prof. RASPBERRY: I'm supposed to be retired. I tell you. I'm still teaching for one more year, at any rate, at Duke University. The truth is I will still be writing for the Washington Post but for this.

MARTIN: I can't let you go without talking about your career in journalism for just a couple of minutes. I know you had such an amazing career as a journalist. Why did you want to be a journalist to begin with?

Prof. RASPBERRY: To begin with, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I had four different college majors. I wound up working for a newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, because one summer I needed a summer job and couldn't find one and finally landed one on a newspaper. It was the first time I gave any thought to newspapering. And it's the first time I ever had a job that I thought this is it. This is what I want to do. I'd done a little bit of everything. I'd been an English major, a Math major. I was headed off to seminary, yeah, at one point. I thought I'd be a priest because some of my - some of the people who'd liked me and whom I'd admired has told me that, you know, maybe you could be a priest. Maybe you could be an engineer.

MARTIN: Hard to imagine.

Prof. RASPBERRY: But this is the first time I've ever thought this is what I want to do. And I fell in love with journalism after the fact.

MARTIN: And you talked your way into a job at the Post by getting a job as a Teletype operator?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Well, I - that was the job that was available in the newsroom. Well, there were something they called copyboy, and I didn't want to be called boy at that point. I'd, you know, been through Mississippi and Indiana. And I'd been two years in the military. And I didn't want to go back there. So I looked for a job I could get in the newsroom, satisfied that if I can find my - if I could get into the newsroom, I could arrange to be discovered. And, in fact, it happened. I found a mentor - as we'd call them these days - and things clicked.

MARTIN: How did you get the column? That was a big deal. I mean, it's still a big deal. There aren't that many - but, of course, we're in time now in the newspaper business is shrinking, and so, of course, many of the well-known names are retiring or they're folding, you know, columns, you know, sort of for cost reasons. But how did you get the column?

Prof. RASPBERRY: So the column came - again, I sometimes think of myself as chance, you know, in being there. I picture myself as walking through the woods, an apple falling into my pockets. I don't plan these things. The column became available because George Lardner, who started it and worked it really hard for a year burned out, got tired of it and wanted to go and cover Capitol Hill. And they tapped me and asked me if I'll do it. And I said no at first because I thought I wouldn't have enough ideas.

MARTIN: That's funny. Bill Raspberry thought he wouldn't have enough to say. Hm. Try to picture that. But somehow you figured it out. There's so many things to talk about, but I have to talk about what it was like for you then being one of so few black reporters - we were black then, we weren't African-American yet - in the newsroom. Something poignant that you said in an essay that you wrote - a little sort of short memoir that you wrote in a collection of essays about pioneering black journalism.

You said you began to ask yourself whether you are in the position of a slave being present when a runaway was brought back and whipped, or when somebody planned an uprising or a slave revolt, and you were there. Were you the slave who would go back and tell the master? You certainly didn't want to be in that position, neither did you want to be in the position of pretending to work for a white employer when, in fact, you were working for the black movement. That is some pretty strong language. Was that really that bad?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Young reporters are not nearly as conflicted, I think, than as we of necessity were. Remember we - there weren't the patterns for us to follow. We had to make our own pattern. And the question always was whether you'd been integrated into a general journalism - which would have been a good thing - or whether you were infiltrating on behalf of other interests. I mean, the two lists that (unintelligible) talked about is - I mean, it became very, very real at that point. And what made it more real was walking into a meeting of the black Muslims at some point and having the minister stand up and say, I know there are some people in here who are spying for the white man.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, Malcolm X called you out at one point, didn't he? You were in fact at a meeting with the famous, you know, Malcolm X and he said there's a spy here or something - a mole or something of that (unintelligible), right?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Absolutely. And you are and you aren't. You're a journalist doing a job by one set of lights. But by another light, you're finding out information that will be conveyed in the man's media. And it's a hellacious kind of dilemma for a young person who's not fully formed in his own head that you have to sort it through, with no models - there weren't people you could go and talk to. How did you handle this when you came along?

I mean, it was great, good fun. I mean, I just took to journalism as like a duck to water. So, I mean, I don't mean to make it sound worse than it was, but it was - this little piece of it was very, very anguishing.

MARTIN: The whole are you black first or are you a journalist first?

Prof. RASPBERRY: Exactly. Who are you?

MARTIN: How do you answer that question?

Prof. RASPBERRY: I'm me first. And it's the only satisfactory way I could answer that. I mean, if you ask me am I an African-American first or a male first, or a Mississippian first or - I don't - I'm me first. I'm all of these things. I'm black, I'm short, I'm old, I'm Southern. I'm reasonably sensitive. I'm a husband and a father and a pretty loyal friend. And I'm all these things mixed up, and I have given trying to separate them out into who am I the most. I'm mostly me. And I feel pretty good about that.

MARTIN: And I think that's plenty. Bill Raspberry, thank you. William Raspberry, former Washington Post columnist, now an adjunct professor at Duke University and the leader of Baby Steps, an education initiative in Okolona, Mississippi, his hometown. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. RASPBERRY: It's a joy, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. But remember, TELL ME MORE is always on. The conversation continues on our blog. We love to hear from you. If you have wisdom to share about how diversity does or does not work in a school system in your area, or the state of racial integration in general, please tell us more. Visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can talk about this program or a previous one.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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