How Have Discussions About Race Changed? During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama argued in a speech that "race is an issue that ... this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." In the months since, controversies over Shirley Sherrod, Henry Louis Gates and immigration have raised doubts about the progress of the national conversation on race.
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How Have Discussions About Race Changed?

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How Have Discussions About Race Changed?

How Have Discussions About Race Changed?

How Have Discussions About Race Changed?

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During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama argued in a speech that "race is an issue that ... this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." In the months since, controversies over Shirley Sherrod, Henry Louis Gates and immigration have raised doubts about the progress of the national conversation on race.


Maria Hinojosa, host and managing editor, Latino USA
Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer prize-winning syndicated columnist, Miami Herald
David Gergen, professor and director of the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

It has been 639 days since Barack Obama was elected the first African- American president of the United States, and then, as now, America is redefining itself racially, a process fraught with as much peril as hope.

In March, 2008, then-candidate Obama addressed the nation on the need to confront issues of race without delay. It was a politically risky speech, coming in the immediate aftermath of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy.

BARACK OBAMA: But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America, to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through, a part of our union that we have not yet to perfect.

And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.

COX: And yet more than 18 months into his presidency, issues involving race persist, raising the question of whether we are moving forward or backward, or perhaps both.

NPR, Host:

one black, one white, one Latino. Joining us from her home in New York is Maria Hinojosa, host and managing editor of NPR's LATINO USA. From studios of member station WBUR in Boston, David Gergen, professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He worked in every presidential administration from Nixon to Clinton and has been a CNN commentator. And joining me here in Studio 3A is Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. Welcome to all three of you.


DAVID GERGEN: Thank you.

MARIA HINOJOSA: (Host, "Latino USA") Good to be here.

COX: Let me say this to our listeners first, because we want to hear from you as well. How does race play out in your daily lives, and what are your experiences? If you have ideas that will help shed light on how we view and interact with each other, we want to hear your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We will be here for the next hour.

Let me begin by putting this question out, and I will ask the same one to the three of you, and I will begin with you, Maria. Why is race uncomfortable in 2010?

HINOJOSA: Why is race uncovered?

COX: Uncomfortable.

HINOJOSA: Uncomfortable. Hmm, because I think actually what the president said is right. We don't like to talk about it. For a lot of people, it's something uncomfortable, and I think about, for example, what happened in my own life once, when I was - my kids were in private school in New York City, and an issue came up with one of the other parents.

She's African-American. She was actually a corrections officer on Riker's Island. But she had her daughter in this private school, and the conversation came up around kids playing, like, make-believe with guns during recess. And some of the kids were playing like this.

Well, it turns out that her husband was a livery driver in New York City, a cab driver, and he was shot and killed by a gun. And so there was kind of this uncomfortableness. And what I did was, I was like, you know what? We just need to talk about this because we're dropping off our kids at school together, and we're assuming that they're going to figure it out. We need to talk about this.

PITTS: Everybody was so taken by the fact that we just put it out there. And we went there, and we talked about - about race in a way that was very kind of personal, very kind of to our families. And it was like it was a safe space.

But I'll never forget the fact that people just thought that that moment was something extraordinary in their lives because we talked about it. And I think that we, we don't really have the tools do that because we don't really see it happening a lot, a lot of jokes, but we don't really see smart people sitting around talking a lot and often about this issue.

COX: In an honest way. David Gergen, what do you say? I'm assuming that you agree with me that race is an uncomfortable topic in 2010. Do you?

GERGEN: Yes, I certainly do. And I think it's perhaps more uncomfortable now than it was only a couple of years ago when Barack Obama was running for president.

I think most Americans understand in terms of black-white relations we made enormous progress from the days that Martin Luther King was protesting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the days that Barack Obama was inaugurated as president on the other end of the Washington Mall. And there have been significant gains.

But Tony, the gaps that remain are so vast - in achievement, in schools, income levels, in obesity rates that we've been reading about recently, and so many other different ways. And the conversation has now expanded about race.

I think now we also, when we talk about race, we talk about minorities. Hispanics have come into this conversation because they're such a force and such a large, growing force in the American population. And it's made the conversation even perhaps more complex.

And there - even as we're in a time of great promise, I think there's a growing recognition in the country that we have so many of these gaps to overcome, that unless we do that, the country could be imperiled.

COX: Do you think for you, Leonard Pitts, that race is an uncomfortable topic?

PITTS: It is not uncomfortable for me, but it seems to be uncomfortable for a lot of people who read me. And I think that a good part of the reason for that is that there is no - we have not evolved safe spaces, where people can have these discussions, where if you are white and of good will you can have an honest discussion about the things you understand, the things you don't understand, without the fear that someone is either going to reflexively call you a racist or try to impose some guilt on you or that you're going to feel some guilt, you know, conversely that you don't necessarily want to feel.

It's really difficult for people to let down the barriers and let down the guard enough to really have these discussions, and that's the - you know, that's what I think I'm hearing said in different ways, you know, my comments and the other two comments that preceded mine, and yet at the same time there is no discussion that is more important for us to have.

If you look at pretty much all the major domestic issues that we are concerned about, if you look at the environment, if you look at education, if you look at crime, all of these things, there is a strong racial component. There is a racial component that underlies all of these things. And yet we have this sort of see-no-evil attitude.

A lady told me once, in chiding me about talking about race, that it wasn't polite. And that struck me as such an odd choice of words. It's as if I had done something, you know, ill-mannered at the dinner party. Race is one of those things that you just don't discuss.

COX: The elephant in the room.

PITTS: It is the elephant in the elevator.

COX: This is TALK...

HINOJOSA: But if you have...

COX: Go ahead, go ahead, Maria.

HINOJOSA: But if you have - see, I think that that's - and I agree with you, Leonard, and I think that the thing is that as a journalist, you know, I talk about anything to anyone at any time. That's kind of my modus operandi.

PITTS: politics, you know, whatever.

Or they see when I'm - they see what's happening when - on Broadway, they'll see the interaction between an undocumented Mexican immigrant and how he's treated by a particular person, and we talk about that. Or I'll engage with that person.

PITTS: Am I exposing them too much? But then it's like you know what? It's not like - it's not like overwhelming. It's not like a lesson. It's how I live. I live a kind of organic diversity in my experience, and I want my children to understand that they do, and that part of that means you can, in fact, talk about who you are, talk about, you know, the fact that your godmother is African-American, but, you know, your (unintelligible) is Mexican. No problem.

We talk about it. But I agree with Leonard, where it's that we don't really have, like, we don't have a model for how to do that. All we know is that it's something hard, difficult, taboo. So we don't go there. We don't even try.

Although I want to say that, you know, having been now to 49 of the 50 states, you know, we have to give props to a lot of people who are actually out there doing it and living it and talking about it. So, you know, when we talk about race, it's always from this place of, like, how bad it is.

There's also a lot of places that are doing things right and a lot of people who are doing things right as well.

COX: Hopefully we can get to some of that. What I'd like to do, let me say to the three of you, because we haven't had a chance to talk together before we got on the air - I'm going to be asking you some question that are a little personal, and I don't want you to be put off by them. But I'm hoping that we can have as honest a conversation as we can, and that includes me, in terms of sharing things.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, by the way. If you'd like to join this conversation about race, you can reach us, 800-989-8255. The email address is

PITTS: Are whites, in your opinion, who are non-racists, are they afraid to say the way that they really feel about race and being white?

GERGEN: Huh. I think there is a sense among whites that there are politically incorrect things that should not be said that worry them, and they don't know quite how to deal with it. And I think we have seen this - two national incidents over the last, you know, 12, 14 months, with the Skip Gates here in Cambridge, with the white cop, and then the incident most recently with Shirley Sherrod.

In both cases I think that there was a tendency to be afraid to talk, and some people said too much. You know, they were too - in the Shirley Sherrod case they were too quick to condemn. But in both cases I think we saw the difficulty we have of being sort of honest with each other about some of these issues.

And I must say to Maria, I think the country is having a hard time having a conversation about the Hispanic population. We see the Arizona immigration law that, you know, that many on one side have condemned as being unfair and singling out Hispanics in totally inappropriate ways.

And yet we see, and you look at national polls, and there's a lot of support for it. We haven't had an honest discussion, it seems to me, about the fears that some whites have about where the country is going and the sense that Hispanics have.

In Arizona itself I think there's a poll out there that showed about 70 percent of Hispanics oppose that new Arizona immigration law, whereas among whites the support was about 67 percent, so...

HINOJOSA: (Unintelligible)

COX: David, let me - let me stop you both there, only because, only because we have to take this quick short break, and we'll come back, and we'll pick up on that very point that you are making.

We are having an honest, open conversation about race, and we'll get to more of your calls in just a moment. How does race play out in your daily life, and what are your experiences? 800-989-8255, that is the phone number here at TALK OF THE NATION. The email address is I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington.

Many Americans don't often talk about race, especially with people who are from a different ethnic background. Today, we're going to try to have that conversation. Our guests are Maria Hinojosa, host and managing editor of NPR's LATINO USA; Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald; and David Gergen, professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

If you would like to join the conversation, tell us, how does race play out in your daily lives, and what are your experiences? If you have ideas that will help shed light on how we view and interact with one another, we want to hear your story.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address, And to join the conversation, just go to the website, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David and Maria, I know that I'm coming back to you, but we got an email in the interim, and I want to share it, and maybe it will shed a little light and spark the conversation even more. It comes from Valia(ph).

PITTS: I believe it is uncomfortable for older people. I'm 28, Hispanic and have black, white, Asian friends. We do not see our color. If anything, our parents put colors into our heads and race in our heads as well. What do you think of that, the two of you, Maria and David, and also you, Leonard?

HINOJOSA: Well, what I was going to say is that the conversation around Arizona is - just to finish that, button that up, David, and you're right, there's - there is, for the Latino population, a sentiment, if you just turn on the Spanish language media, you see it and you hear it, you feel it in all - there's a sentiment that right now this is a population that is under attack.

Now, what happens to me is that that breaks my heart. Not as a Latina. It breaks my heart as an American, and that's what I think is so hard about this. And, you know, again, I think what we need to understand is that when you talk about race, and that's why I appreciate what the email was just about, I think so often times, as I said with the kids in my kids' school, you know, the parents were like, oh, let the kids figure out how to deal with diversity. We don't have to talk about that.

It's like, no, actually we do. We do have to talk about it. But you have to be prepared to open up the conversation. And you keep saying, Tony, if you have an idea of something that works, you know what? Again, as a journalist, what I do is I talk to people.

It's so basic, and we can talk structurally about what needs to happen. We can talk about, you know, class division, and we can talk about many different aspects of how race expresses itself in our country. But you have to talk, and you have to, I think, allow yourself to be put into an uncomfortable situation, and that's it.

COX: But it raises the question, and David, I'd like to get your answer to the one about whether or not this is something that old people have a problem with, and the younger people don't, and then I want to get to the calls because we have a lot of them that are lined up. What's your thought on that?

GERGEN: Tony, I believe very strongly that we have too much people in this country thinking us versus them, and we've all got to see we're all in this together, because the future of the country is tied up.

I think this question the email raises is fundamental, about the old versus the young. There's an excellent new article by Ron Brownstein in the cover piece in the National Journal this week on the generational mismatch, and it's called "The Gray and the Brown."

And what Brownstein points out is that if you look at the younger population, below the age of 18, 44 percent of that population in the country today is minority. And it's growing. It's going to be over 50 percent by 2023.

Whereas if you look at the older population, over 65, 80 percent of it is white, and there is a mismatch and a gulf here about how to see, how to even think about the role of government, diversity, all these issues.

The younger generation is very different and extremely important for all of us that this younger generation - we close these achievement gaps, we work very hard on the education of minorities.

It's extraordinarily important for the future of the country we close those achievement gaps. I'd like to come back to that at some point. But I do think there's a generational gulf here that we not only need to talk, as Maria has said, as Leonard has said, we also need to act. We need to close achievement gaps.

COX: I'm going to come to you in a minute, Leonard, because I want to get one of these calls. I know you're over there, and you have some things to say. Trust me, you will get the opportunity to do it. But let's go and take a call from Cincinnati. Is it Cello(ph)?

CELLO: Yes, sir. Hi, Tony.

COX: How are you?

CELLO: Excuse me?

COX: I said, how are you?

CELLO: Oh, I'm great. How are you doing?

COX: I'm doing great. We'd like to hear you comment.

CELLO: I'd like to compliment Leonard Pitts for a moment, if I can. I appreciate his articles. He's one of my most favorite journalists.

PITTS: Thank you.

CELLO: I'd like to go into how some of the issues of viewpoints kind of aren't really addressed for each ethnic group.

COX: Well, can you give us sort of a brief one? Pick the main one.

CELLO: An example is the Arizona bill. I've been hearing recently about most Arizonans like the bill. I hear it on the news almost nightly. And I don't know who they're talking about, as I was telling your screener. Who exactly are the people who support the bill? I'm sure it's not the Hispanics that support the bill.

COX: Well, it would be - thank you for that call very much - certainly some of the people who are residents of the state of Arizona have made it clear that they are the ones who are in support of it. Who are they? The presumption is that it's primary white people that we are talking about in the state of Arizona. If you've ever gone there, that would be a reasonable assumption to draw.

Here's another call. This one is Jason in Maryville, I think it's Maryville, Tennessee. Jason, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JASON: Yeah, I'm here. Good to be on the air. You know, I think one of the biggest problems that we have is the respect of our own race, to start with. You know, you have, for instance, white people, and I'm a white person - you know, we go to our friends, and we're out together, and you know, you hear people say, you know, how you doing, my white honky and stuff like that.

And then you've got black people, which I have as friends as well. They use the N-word amongst themselves, you know, what's going on, my N - you know. And I think the other races see that, and they, you know, figure why should we respect their race when they don't respect it theirselves to start with. And...

COX: Well, Jason - you have one other quick point you want to make, because I want to get to another call as well.

JASON: Yeah, yeah, real quick. With Latino, you know, I - there is nothing at all wrong with them being here and working and doing stuff. I think one of the biggest problems is, is that it would definitely help if we had documentation and was able to make sure everybody was citizens, you know (unintelligible) but there's nothing wrong with them being here at all working and providing for their family.

COX: Thank you for that call, for both those comments. Leonard, you've been very patient. Here's a question for you. Just try to move the conversation along a little bit, and then we will go and take some more calls and talk again with David Gergen and with Maria Hinojosa.

PITTS: Do you think that private conversations about race are different between blacks than they are between whites and that they are between Latinos?

PITTS: You mean blacks talking to blacks about race and whites...

COX: Yeah.

PITTS: Oh, of course they are. Of course they are.

COX: How would you know?

PITTS: I think there is less - I would know what they are - well, I would know from personal experience, because I'm been among African- Americans, hearing African-Americans talk about race in ways that they never would among whites. I've had many whites confide to me via email and the Internet on the column the way that they talk about race with one another versus the way that they talk about it in public.

I get told things that I know would never be said in public by people, which tells me that we're talking about basically two sets of discussions going on. But I wanted to go back to the - I believe it was the email person who said - or the person who sent the email, that said that essentially this is a problem of the old, and the young people sort of have it all figured out.

And that amused me greatly because I remember thinking the same thing when I was a young person.


PITTS: When I was in college, and I, you know, for the first - I grew up in segregated Los Angeles, and I went to college, and I suddenly had all these white friends. You know, I think of them as sort of these good-natured, shaggy-haired white guys, and we were all beyond all of that.

Race was something that our parents were hung up on, but we were concerned about things that were - and here's a '70s word for you - relevant - okay, and race wasn't one of those things. We were so far beyond it.

And frankly, I look back on that from the vantage point of 20, 30 years later and think, one, how naïve I was, and two, how, you know, we have really not moved the goalpost.

We've moved, we've made changes, but we really haven't moved it as far as we would like to think we have. And I think that it's sort of dangerous to sort of leave this or to embrace this idea that the kids will work it out because what happens is that the kids invariably grow up to be us.

COX: Well, that's true, and let me come back, let me circle back around to you, David Gergen, on this question, because Leonard says that he has ins in white people's conversations, and so he can, he can - he's told things. I'm teasing him a little bit, but I know that he means what he says, and it's true.

But what's your perspective on how whites talk about race when they are with one another? And I will say before you answer that, there is a, oh, a stereotypical perception that I think black people have that white people, when they are talking amongst each other, that they're talking about us.

GERGEN: I don't think, I don't think that - white conversations among whites-only kind of thing, I don't that it turns to the question of blacks or Hispanics as much as people may think.

But when it does, I think the conversation as a general proposition, as a general rule, is far better today, far more respectful today than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

I grew up in - I'm white and I grew up in a segregated South. And I remember the conversations back in the '50s and '60s and that they are very, very different today. And it's regarded as really poor taste in almost all white groups that I know to make racial slurs a one way or another, just as in poor taste to make gender slurs. Does it happen? Yes, it does happen. Do people harbor these sort of deeper feelings and questions in their mind? They do harbor them. I think they are more careful about how they express them and you don't - and people are - it's really - you know, when get down with your closest friend, you may say something that you don't say something over dinner with a group of eight or 10 people.

COX: Let me read a couple of emails that we got. And then, Maria, I'm going to come to you and ask you a different question. We hear a lot - this comes from David. We hear a lot of talk about where the country is headed. Please encourage your guests to discuss exactly what this means. What are white people afraid of and why? And number two, please have your guests discuss the role of the Internet in allowing people to vent their feelings about race.

Here's another one. This is from Parker(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin. My question is addressed to those of you who have commented on the lack of safe spaces in our society for discussion about race. What do you mean by safe space and who should be creating them and how do you create one?

And here's another one. This is from Drew(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Oftentimes I find that it is difficult to distinguish between issues of race and issues of class. How much of this is simply the haves versus the have-nots?

And the very last one, and then to Maria, to you. This isn't to you. I'm coming to you right after I read this. This is from Twitter. Do you invite conversations about race? Why or why not? I used to, but I don't anymore. I'm Caucasian, which seems to inherently imply that I am a racist.

Maria, you're Latina. Do you feel left out of the race conversation at any time in this country when the focus is on black and white?

HINOJOSA: Well, you know, it was weird because when you said that, Tony, you're a Latina, do you feel left out? And I was like, heck no, I don't feel left out.


HINOJOSA: You know, I don't feel left out. But at the same time, yes, I think that too often we - when we talk about race, it becomes this black-white scenario. And the fact is, is it's much more complicated. I mean, I think even ourselves, even the terminology that we use, that has been used just in the past few minutes, it's terminology that we need to question again. It's, you know, for example, the term minority. I've never used that term in my family. I've never - I try not to use it on the air, on my show. I try not to use it when I'm doing television scripts, because that word doesn't say anything to me anymore. And I certainly don't want my kids growing up thinking that they're a member of a minority group. And certainly now, it's like, what are you talking about minorities? It's like we're all just one huge minority - or it's different. Those terms don't apply anymore.

And about the issue of youth - just coming back. I mean, again, I think that that - and that's why I'm talking about this, because of course, even as I'm talking about this, I'm like, well, you know, I see this issue from so many different perspectives, but I really want to be sure to bring in the Latino issue. But I see it from so many different perspectives. But to bring in the issue of youth and, you know, this assumption that it's working out. Right now in Staten Island, okay, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty...

COX: Let me stop you only because - and since you're already a host, you know all about what I'm about to do.


COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay, Maria. So finish your point, and then we'll go - and then we'll move on.

HINOJOSA: Okay. So in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, over the past several months there has been a rash of hate-crime assaults against Mexican workers. This is not Texas. It's not Arizona. It's not Alabama. It's New York City. And until this story - and we're doing an investigation of it ourselves on LATINO USA, but until this story broke on an English language newspaper, no one knew. We knew. People who understand that community knows. So - and who is doing the assaulting? And this is what - it's so hard for us to talk about. You know, I'll take off my American, my - how much this hurts me as an American. I'll put on my journalist hat.

COX: And don't forget now, we've got to get to some calls as well, so...

HINOJOSA: Okay. Who's doing this? Young African Americans. So talk about what we need to talk about and what I believe is the front burner issue that we're not talking about, is African American and Latinos. It's hugely important.

COX: All right. We will try to explore that some more. Let's get to some calls and then we'll circle back to hear more from David Gergen and Leonard Pitts as well. The first one, this is James calling from Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome, James.

JAMES: Hi. I think, you know, just looking at race with a little bit more complexity, a lot of it has to deal with the business of otherness and this country's roots, starting with a Puritanical kind of base. The others came, they were judged in a negative light. And the complexity of race could be opened up more with the president acknowledging that he's bi-racial, and there's nothing wrong with that. And acknowledging his mother would be acknowledging more of himself as a whole.

Blacks were originally defined by 1/32nd or one drop. The definition of tainted blood is a negative way of defining oneself, and this continues to play out not only as - just look at blacks that have continued to define themselves to this negative definition.

COX: James, thank you very much for the call. Let's take another one. This is Nick in Grass Lake, I believe that is Michigan. Oop, wrong one. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on, Nick. I'm coming right to you. Just got to find the right button. There you are. Are you there?

NICK: Hi. Am I there?

COX: Yes, you are, Nick. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NICK: Thanks for taking my call. I guess this, in a way, it's related to what your last caller just said. I'm an anthropology graduate student. One of the most important things we're taught is that the notion of biological race is something that we've sort of constructed to support this idea of otherness, that there isn't any clear line between, you know, a white person and a black person. The race essentially doesn't exist. And it's something that seems very hard for people to swallow because it's so engrained in how we talk about things. They think it's something that might be important to talk about and insert into sort of the discourse surrounding all of it.

And one of the things made me think of this is because I have a - for lack of better word - a mixed race nephew. And his family, when he talked about things, it's very much with this sort of a dichotomy in mind. And they - his mother had expressed to me her gratitude for Disney making a movie - I think their most recent, "Princess and the Frog" or something...

COX: Nick, I've got to stop you only because time - the clock is running out on me. I appreciate your call. And we're going to try to get to all the others. We are going to continue this conversation in just a moment. We are talking about race, what has changed, what hasn't since the election of President Barack Obama, and how does race play out in your lives and what are your experiences. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address, Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR news.


COX: Right now we're talking about race, specifically how we talk about race in America and how that has or has not changed in the last 18 months since the election of President Obama. How does the question of race play out in your daily lives? What are your experiences? If you have ideas that will help shed light on how we view and interact with each other, we want to hear your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Leonard Pitts, we started this conversation actually with a clip from President Obama's speech in 2008 during the Jeremiah Wright controversy. And I think a lot of people thought that this may be - some people did, I know - the beginning of a changing paradigm with regard to race in this country. Here is another clip from the president in that same speech. And in this one, this is what the president said about what he saw in the white community.

OBAMA: Most working and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor.

They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away, and in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudice, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.

COX: So here's a caller, Leonard. We'll listen to what she has to say and then we'll talk about it. David, I want to bring you into this as well. This is Emily from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Emily, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Emily (Caller): Hi.

COX: Your - what's your comment?

EMILY: Well, I'm a pizza delivery driver and I'm white. And I'm in my early 20s. And I've been doing this for about a year now. And I've delivered to people of all these kind of races. And I've had, you know, I've had some Hispanics scrape together quarters and dimes to give me a good tip. But maybe one of it every 15 deliveries to an African American will actually give me a tip.

And I have friends, African American friends, who say that their parents will actually put away the tip money if they see a white driver coming up.

COX: All right, thank you for that call. So she's got this sort of reverse racism thing that's bothering her. As an African American man, how do you feel and how do you respond and what do you say to white people who feel like black folks are racist toward them?

PITTS: I would say that some of them certainly are. I mean, here's the thing that we seem to forget. Racism or bigotry or whatever you want to call it is not the unique property of any one species of God's children. You know, we all have this lizard-like capacity to dislike people based on the fact that they look differently than us, than they love differently than us, that they live some place that we don't live, that they are - speak differently than us, whatever, whatever.

The only difference and the thing that people fail to understand is when - when my white readers talk to me about how - black racism against them, one of the questions that I always want to ask them is, and can you tell me how that has impacted upon your quality of life in the large scale? Nine times out of 10, they cannot. If you ask a black person how white racism has impacted upon their life, they're going to talk about the police that pulled over for no reason. They're going to talk about the loan they didn't get. They're going to talk about being racially profiled in the store, et cetera, et cetera. And this is - this doesn't mean that, you know, that one group is better than the other. What it means is that one group is larger than the other and has access to the levers of power, so that when there is racism they can encode that racism in the structure of the society. That's all that it means.

COX: David Gergen, do whites think that the idea of white privilege is a myth?

GERGEN: I think they, probably, largely do. But, you know, there's been so much increase in income among elites recently that it's really hard to, you know, to live with that.

But I want to go back to something, if I could, Tony, something very fundamental you started with a few minutes ago. And that - about - you raised a question about what is this - what's all this mean for the future of the country. I want to go to something very fundamental. Barack Obama captured, in that speech, I think, the resentments and fears and prejudices of a lot of whites, very well. He had a real ear for it, and, you know, understanding of it. And one of those fears is all about urban crime and urban dropout rates and what does this mean. And there's a sense among some whites in the country at large that, you know, that poor kids who are black or Hispanic can't learn. They're going to have current lives that are broken in one way or another and wind up in prison. And the truth of the matter is that's a myth. It's just not true.

If you go into Harlem today, you'll see what Geoff Canada is doing. You go to the Harlem Village Academies, you go to the KIPP schools, you see these kids can learn, and they can do very, very well. And it - they - if we have better schools, these kids are going to make it, and they'll be fine. But right now - you had Cornel West on your program here, recently.

COX: Yes.

GERGEN: And he talked about the prison-industrial complex. That is a very real fact that we have to deal with. What we have now is, if you're a - Marian Wright Edelman makes this point. If you're a black male, today, growing up, you've got a one in three chance going to prison. If you're a Hispanic male growing up today, in America, you've got a one in six chance of going to prison. If you're a white male growing up in this country today, you have a one in 17 chance of going to prison. Those are disparities we can't live with as a country, and they're just reversed on education with whites having, you know, having far more - far better rates of finishing college.

COX: But David, let me ask you...

GERGEN: We have to overcome these things. It's vital for the country.

COX: Let me ask you this before we take a caller. Black people think that is because of race, all right, those disparities - that it's racism and it's race - it's the racist's white power structure that is causing that imbalance that you have just described. Do white people think it's because of race - as well?

GERGEN: Yes, they do think it's partly because of race. But one of the great things that's going on in the younger generation today, is there are a lot of kids - I happen to be on the board for Teach for America national board. And we have tons and tons of young people of all backgrounds who now want to go out and teach in these urban schools, and they're making great progress. But you know who's opposing a lot of these changes and trying to block some of these changes in charter school? It's the teacher's unions. You know, it's not just the right that's been a problem here. Some of the teacher's unions come from the left. And we've got to deal with that question if we're going to overcome these disparities.

If we have a country, as we do today, with 44 percent of the people under 18 who are black or Hispanic - and that number soon is going to grow to 50 percent and higher - it's vital for the country that we end these injustices and end these disparities and bring people up. We've got to have educated African-Americans and Hispanics at the same rates as whites. It's hugely important for our future.

COX: Let's take a call, and then, Leonard, I'll let you respond. And then, Maria, I know you're still there. You're still there, right, Maria?


HINOJOSA: I'm waiting patiently. I'm waiting patiently.

COX: I appreciate your patience, because you know this is a very important topic and everyone wants to get an opportunity to contribute. So Tiffany(ph), you're up next, from Owensboro, Kentucky. Welcome. Tiffany?


COX: Hi.

TIFFANY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. First, I want to start by saying, Mr. Pitts, I enjoy reading your articles in the Messenger- Inquirer.

PITTS: Thank you.

TIFFANY: What I do want to say is, I believe that because Barack Obama is president, I feel like the floodgates of racism discussions is more open. Every one is speaking about it more. More issues are arising. My main thing is, is this really healthy for his presidency, as he is calling on a national discussion for racism himself, is it healthy for his presidency or will this be kind of like a dark cloud over him?

COX: Well, that'd be interesting to find. Leonard, do you want to comment on that?

PITTS: I actually want to go back to something that Mr. Gergen said because I think he touched on something very important. He was talking about the fact that so many people take it for granted that African- American and Latino kids are ineducable, and that this feeling persists, even in the light of empirical proof that this is wrong. I think when he says that, what he does is he hits on sort of a very fundamental truth about why we still have trouble with race in this country. We tend to make our decisions and tend to base our perceptions on caricature, which is impervious to fact.

I've been writing in my column recently, about the drug war and about the fact that the overwhelming majority of drug users and drug dealers in this country, statistically, are white. And it is so difficult to get that past people's filters, because in our minds and the popular imagination the, quote, unquote, "drug user and drug dealer" are some black kids on a corner in Baltimore.

That's not the common - or the most common picture. But we have these caricatures, these, sort of, narratives in our head that we are absolutely stuck on and invested in. And we got to get beyond those before we're going to make any kind of progress.

COX: I would think, Maria, that that also applies to the Latino community as well.

HINOJOSA: Yeah, absolutely, because what you - what's happened now, is there's kind of a talk, a tone of the talk, a tone of the conversation that - you know, I want people to be honest, right? We want people to be honest. But when somehow it's acceptable to kind of make certain racial statements about certain groups, even in the media, when people hear that kind of talk on certain networks, you know, it doesn't fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, this is what - and especially when you're talking about young people, which is what worries me.

When they kind of see, like, oh, check it out, these adults are talking this way, and they're doing this stuff, and they're throwing around these words, and a lot of these, you know, they're seen in popular culture; and they kind of think like, hmm, okay, well, we can talk this way too. And that's the other side of, you know, the openness of race, the new generation, the new demographic. The other side is almost that certain things, certain perspectives, certain ways of seeing other people, because of, in part, what's happened with the media, it's become even more a part of who these young people are - who we are as a country - and that is incredibly worrisome to me.

COX: Absolutely. Let's take another call. Let's go Antonio(ph) in Berkeley, California. Antonio, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANTONIO: Hi. Am I on?

COX: Yes, you are. How are you?

ANTONIO: Thank you. I'd just like to address - being a mixed-race individual, I'd like - if you guys could talk about mixed-race experiences, because you guys are really strictly along the lines of race and about how maybe this, like, racial group, does this. And I feel like people in the borderlines, really are kind of marginalized within each individual community and in the entire talk of race as a whole.

COX: May I ask you a question as a mixed-race person?


COX: The question I have for you, is whether or not you feel a tug or a push or a pull to move towards one half of your racial identity versus the other half.

ANTONIO: Actually, I'm tri-racial.

COX: Okay, well, then...


COX: Do you feel pulled in three...

PITTS: God bless America.

COX: ...directions, in terms of identifying with one group over the other?

ANTONIO: I think it really depends on the individual I'm talking to at the time. As a whole, I don't feel a tug or a push by my family. But certain people want me to be, like, identify more with a specific race at any given time, depending on the context - especially if I'm with them in kind of a minority setting. As if, if it's a predominantly white setting and if someone else is Latino, sometimes they'd want you - me to identify more as being a Latino rather than not.

COX: And what do you do when in you're that circumstance?

ANTONIO: It really depends on the context. If it's going to cause a lot of trouble and ruckus, I generally don't do too much. But I don't know. I try to explain it, like, you know, I identify with all of my identities...

COX: As much as you can.

ANTONIO: ...(unintelligible).

COX: Antonio, thank...

ANTONIO: Thank you.

COX: for that call. Let me ask you, David Gergen, then swing around to Maria, and then come back to you, Leonard, about that. Because when we talk about, you know, we're talking today, black, white, Latino, we don't have any Asians on our group today, not - it wasn't done maliciously. It was just - there's only so many people you can talk with at one time. We don't talk much about mixed race, even though we have a mixed race president in the White House, David Gergen.

GERGEN: Absolutely. Let me say, first of all, I really appreciate what Leonard Pitts just said a few moments ago. I've got to - Leonard, I've got to go read some of your columns. But I think you're absolutely right...

PITTS: Thank you.

GERGEN: ...about the narrative, that we have narratives stuck in our heads, and sometimes we're impervious to facts. But I do think it's imperative, and I think here's where the president - the president has been reticent, I think that's fair to say, about talking much - since his Philadelphia speech, which was brilliant and really helpful - he's been reticent to talk much about race. You know, and he's being, you know, he's sometimes being attacked from his own Democratic base about not talking enough about it.

I do think it is because he is - has this biracial background and because he is so sensitive on this issue, and he has such a keen understanding of it, that it would be constructive for him to talk more about it, to deal more fully with it, because it's out there. It's something which the country really has to pull together on. And I think, could help us understand the people of biracial backgrounds - because we have an increasing number in our society. Again, it's all - this is about all of us becoming one family.

COX: I've got about one minute, literally, left. Maria, since you're a radio person, I know you can appreciate that. I will come to you to get your quick response, and then Leonard, and then we're going to close out.

HINOJOSA: Really, with a minute, oh, my God. On this issue, you're kidding.

COX: Actually, less than that.

HINOJOSA: But I think that...


HINOJOSA: You know what, the president is also the child of an immigrant. I wish he would talk a little bit more about that so that we could also realize that that is who we are. And then, if we, again, at least open up the conversation about who we are, where we come from and the fact that we all - unless we're Native American - we were - we have come to this place - so, I think that, yeah, a conversation around that would be good. And you know what else, having more of these kinds of conversations for longer would be even better.

COX: You're absolutely correct. Leonard, you're going to get the last word, and I'm going to throw this out at you because I think - and you tell me if I'm wrong about this - if Barack Obama were to deny his blackness to say that he was white or he was something other than that, his black constituency would have a fit, wouldn't it?

PITTS: They would be in an uproar. Even, I believe, if he said that he was biracial. The thing - two things. I'll try to make these points very quickly. One, we're all biracial to some degree in this country. I mean, that's just the history. My great, great grandmother was Irish or - whatever that does for me. The other thing is that I think that what Barack Obama has done, like a lot of people of black and white heritage, is make the calculation, which side of this heritage defines how I'm treated in the world. And he's obviously made a choice that it's the brown - that it's the African-American side.

COX: Thank you all very much for an enlightening conversation. Maria Hinojosa, host and managing editor of NPR's Latino USA; Leonard Pitts, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald; and David Gergen, professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. We will try to do this again. I think it's valuable. Do you agree? You all agree?

PITTS: Oh, certainly.

HINOJOSA: I'm on it.

GERGEN: Absolutely.

COX: Absolutely. Thank you again very much.

Thank you.

COX: By the way, the Senate has voted to confirm Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court Justice. Stay tuned to NPR News for more on that story. And tomorrow, join Ira Flatow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY for a talk with Danica McKellar, Winnie from "The Wonder Years," about her mission to make math matters to girls.

I'm Tony Cox. And it is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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