Op-Ed: Black Isn't The 'New Black' Larry King recently opined, "There's a lot of advantages to being black... Black is in." Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page counters King with words of caution, writing "it is more than a little early to declare blackness to be an advantage."
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Op-Ed: Black Isn't The 'New Black'

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Op-Ed: Black Isn't The 'New Black'

Op-Ed: Black Isn't The 'New Black'

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LYNN NEARY, host.

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, and now the Opinion Page. The day after President Obama's inauguration, Larry King made the comment, black is in.

(Soundbite of CNN show "Larry King Live")

Mr. LARRY KING (American Television and Radio Host): My younger son Cannon, he is eight. And he now says that he would like to be black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: I'm not kidding He wants - there's a lot of advantages for being black. Black is in.

Mr. BOB WOODWARD (Associated Editor, Washington Post): Oh well.

Mr. KING: Is this a turning of the tide?

NEARY: Larry King on CNN's "Larry King Live" last Wednesday. Clarence Page's reaction, some compliments are hard to take. In his column yesterday, Page argues that it is more than a little early to declare blackness to be an advantage. Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a familiar voice to many of you. His piece yesterday was titled "Is Black the New Black?" He joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Syndicated Columnist, "Is Black the New Black?"): Hi, Lynn. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Well, what do you mean, is black the new black? What do you mean by that, Clarence?

Mr. PAGE: I always thought black was in. Right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

I don't know. I didn't always have the rest of the world agreeing with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: And I - but it is interesting though, you know, there's been a lot of talk along these lines lately. And I was particularly taken by Larry King talking about his son, who is white and eight years old, who wants to black, reminded me of my son who is black and he was four years old, came to the house from preschool saying he wanted to be white, and (laughing) that's a pretty common scenario that a lot of black parents have had to deal with. And I wrote this column about that and recalling how you know doctors Alvin Poussaint and James Colmer, famous black psychiatrists wrote about this and said, relax. It's normal for kids to want to be like their role models whether it's Michael Jordan...

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: Wanting to be black, or whether it is Superman wanting to be white. But it was intriguing now, of course, now that the Barack Obama era now has got people like Larry King as saying, you know, there are certain advantages to being black, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. PAGE: And I'm still waiting to hear what they are. I think Barack Obama though did, when he campaigned, turn race from a disadvantage into an advantage buy took a lot of work for him to do it.

NEARY: Yeah, but you also say that's it a little too soon to really think of being black as an advantage. Why do you say that?

Mr. PAGE: Because we aren't that post racial, you know...

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. PAGE: People talk about it; we are a post-racial society as if Barack Obama's election now means racism is over. It's not. You know, it's more complicated than that, but there's no question that Barack Obama's election does raise our ceiling of possibilities, and that is wonderful news.

NEARY: Yeah. On the other hand, as you point out, you write that if anything goes wrong or there, you know, perhaps any mistakes that President Obama made will be blamed on the fact that he is black.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, you know this is something that still haunts, especially African-Americans. You know, we all think, boy, hope he doesn't mess up because we'll never see another black president for a hundred years (laughing), and that's a very common view, which means, you know, OK, Barack Obama got elected. But he still has to be the, you know, not just a historical figure, but a guy who becomes the model of black leadership. On the flip side, I did hear one friend say, well if he does an outstanding job, nobody will want to elect a white president again.

NEARY: Yeah. I want to invite our callers to join in, by the way. Do you see advantages to being black now that there's a black man in the White House? Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-8255. The email is talk@npr.org. And you know, you - one of the things - points I think you're making in this column, Clarence, is that, as you said before we really not post-racial yet.

Mr. PAGE: Mm hmm.

NEARY: And one of the big things is we - sometimes we don't even know how to talk to each other about race stuff.

Mr. PAGE: That's the real...

NEARY: But that still something we have to learn.

Mr. PAGE: That's the real issue. You know, back when Obama gave his speech in 2004, that great speech at Democratic Convention that launched him into stardom at one time. Afterwards, he was talking with Tavis Smiley on air and said, you know, we really don't have a vocabulary that enables us to talk across racial lines. And I said, well, that is so true. Here's a guy who's a real wordsmith. You know, Barack Obama, like me as a journalist, appreciates words and language. And we really don't. It's very hard. Our language has become so loaded by our historical memories that even - you know, whether or not I'm to be called black, negro, colored or person of color.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: From get go, we're not even established on what our labels...

NEARY: Or what to call President Obama.

Mr. PAGE: What to call President Obama, yeah, which is very interesting, you know, as soon he rose to prominence, I started getting emails from readers saying, why do you call him black or African-American? Are you denying his white wife? He's biracial.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. PAGE: And I said, well I think it's wonderful, you know, that he's doing so well that white people want to claim him. Because if he was some guy who was arrested from some heinous crime, I think they'd been more than happy that he was referred to as black rather than biracial.

NEARY: Yeah. You also talk about the fact that it's hard to joke about race. It still hard to talk about race.

Mr. PAGE: Yes.

NEARY: Well, it's hard to joke about race for a lot of different reasons. One of them being, you never know when you're going to offend somebody.

Mr. PAGE: That's right.

NEARY: One person's idea of humor is not another person's idea of humor.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, humor relies on the irony of our memory versus current reality in order to work. And we all have different memories because we all have different experiences along racial lines. Look at Joe Biden, I think I offered up his example, you know, when he referred to Barack Obama as clean and articulate. Articulate is one of those fingernails on the blackboard word, especially to middle-class black Americans.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: Because, you know, why is that viewed as such a big deal? It's like its condescending. We have a white person who might say, why are you offended by that compliment?

NEARY: Uh huh.

Mr. PAGE: Just like Larry King. He wasn't trying to offend black folks. He was being a complimentary, and talking about Barack Obama's achievement when he said well, black must be in now or black is in, in his statement.

NEARY: Was that seen as offensive?

Mr. PAGE: To some people. You know, you look around the blogosphere, that great sounding board of opinions. I did quote one writer to the Huffington Post Web site who was responding to the piece who said, you know, that essentially if Larry King's son had to spend a day as a black person, he'd want to run back to his white father and all of his money again - implying that, if you're black you don't have money. I mean, we are now going to appoint where the black middle class has more than doubled in size over the last 30 years. Let's give ourselves some credit for our accomplishments. But we still have trouble getting beyond race, to talk about class in an honest way of looking at it.

NEARY: I think that person you quoted sort of said things like, you know, let this person be passed up...

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, passed up by a cab, stopped by the police, questioned about there whether or not they belong to this place or that place. You know, these are all the troupes of being black in post-'60s American.

NEARY: And they still exist.

Mr. PAGE: They still exist.

NEARY: We are not past that despite the fact...

Mr. PAGE: Yes. But a lot of it is suspicion. If I walk to a store right now and I don't get immediate service from a white clerk or if a clerk wants to give a service, kind of hovers around me. Do I say, boy, thank you for paying so much attention? Or do I say, what's the matter? Do you think I'm going to steal something because I'm black? You know, that's were memory steps in.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: And that's get in the way of our day-to-day relations.

NEARY: Alright. We're talking with Clarence Page about his column, "Is Black the new Black?" We're going to go take a call now from Michelle(ph), I believe it is, calling from Denver, Colorado. Hi.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

MICHELLE: Hi. You know, my impression is, of course, it's not an advantage. It maybe less of a disadvantage, and things are reshaping. But it certainly hasn't gotten to a point where it's an advantage. And as long as it's an issues it's a, you know, it is a disadvantage, less of one.

NEARY: Yeah. And, do you think that having a President Obama in the White House makes any difference in this regard?

MICHELLE: Oh absolutely, having him, and it's in some respects. I would be - I was very excited, and I actually worked on his campaign, and race didn't come up that much and that would really impress me. And, but having such an incredible man who happens to be black in a leadership position when its so needed. Sure, it's got to make a difference. But my God, we're talking hundreds of years of culture. And, you know, to expect that it's going to be over and done with in such a brief period of time is (laughing) mind boggling. It's like, let's think, people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: OK. Thanks for your call Michelle. I appreciate it.

Mr. PAGE: Well.

MICHELLE: No problem.

NEARY: Clarence wanted to respond, if you're still there?

Mr. PAGE: Well, one thing that Michelle mentioned there that was - that race hardly came up in the campaign. That was conscious. That was on purpose.

NEARY: And that's right.

Mr. PAGE: And there are articles now coming out from inside the campaign that talk about this in detail. Strategic decisions were made by David Axelrod and other folks in the Obama campaign and Obama himself. From the very beginning, they knew race was going to be a factor, and the best way to deal with it was not to talk about it in public - to in public say, race doesn't matter and carry along with that attitude, while behind the scenes, it mattered a lot. They made strategic decisions all along to keep race deliberately off the table because the worst thing that felt for their crossover appeal would be for Obama to come off as an angry black man, someone who was resentful about, what black folks have been through in this country. Well, that's the exact opposite of what they wanted to convey. Quite the opposite, there was a subtle message delivered that as far as your race goes, it would be redemptive to vote for Barack Obama. Just to look past his race and look his qualifications. And that support for him would confirmed that you are looking passed his race. And it wasn't until the Reverend Wright episode that Barack Obama publicly confronted race and made that eloquent speech, about 40-minutes speech, talking it all out.

NEARY: But it really hasn't since then, I mean he really mean that. No.

Mr. PAGE: After that, no. That's right.

NEARY: He said what he had to say and then he left it alone.

Mr. PAGE: He left alone. And he left it to us journalists to talk about it. I mean, the media, we can't stop talking about it.

NEARY: That's true. Well, thanks for your call, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Sure thank you.

NEARY: We're going to go now to Ed who's calling from Boston. Hi, Ed.

ED (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ED: I just wanted to say as a white person who's a jazz musician, being white is a disadvantage. Being black is an advantage.

Mr. PAGE: I hear you.

ED: I just wanted to say that it all depends upon the field because people have expectations that go along. For instance, if you're a sushi chef, if you're Japanese, I think people like that. If you were a white doing or though even black doing that, it goes against people's expectation. So, sometimes they crossed against what they want whether they know it or not.

NEARY: So, do you - as a white guy, do you feel like you're just not cool enough for jazz or something, I mean.

ED: No, its not that. It's just really - this may sound funny. But people, they like seeing black people play jazz more than white people by in large.

Mr. PAGE: Well, you know, I'm so glad you called. My father-in-law Grady Johnson is a tenor sax man back in Chicago who was played for years with the - and been very tight in jazz circles - Dizzy Gillespie, Coltrane, et cetera. I could go on bragging about my father in law. But you know, somebody could write a book, some day somebody will about race inside the jazz world. He's absolutely right. It's not just himself but just the culture of the jazz world looks at you twice if you're a white person who wants to get up on the stage and play a clarinet or anything else. And if you're a woman - same thing. Women and non whites, I'm sorry, women and non blacks have both had this extra low prejudice to overcome, and I guess now that's happened in the NBA as well (laughing) if you're a player, you know. But it is intriguing about what's happened, but I tell you if it wasn't for white people the jazz world will be hurting a great deal because, you know, it's not that - you know, pop music has crowded that out here in the U.S. compared to its appeal in Europe and other places overseas.

NEARY: All right, thanks for your call Ed.

ED: Thank you.

NEARY: We are talking with syndicated columnist Clarence Page, and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Now, let's go to Gwendolyn in Baltimore. Hi, Gwendolyn.

GWENDOLYN (Caller): Hi. My comment is that I don't think we are post-racial. I know that a nephew of mine who is biracial recently got rejected for a position that he applied for on the phone and on paper and was just going in for the formality of signing some papers when he went in in person. He looks African-American. Suddenly, they didn't have a position for him. So, there you go.

Mr. PAGE: Still goes on. That's right.

NEARY: And that's the disadvantage of being black as those of the advantage of being black.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, those other test cases, you know, you send people out, white and black, to go shopping for a job or for an apartment and those are the kind of results you still get.

GWENDOLYN: Yeah, not all the time, not that much, but they still happen.

Mr. PAGE: That's right.

NEARY: Right. Alright, thanks for you call Gwendolyn.

GWENDOLYN: Thanks. Bye.

NEARY: OK. Bye-bye.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you.

NEARY: And we're going to go to Jonathan(ph), and he's calling from Boston. Hi Jonathan

JONATHAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

JONATHAN: Great. Thank you for taking my call. I don't even know where to begin here. But I am a Republican. I want to let that be known first. I am a Republican.

NEARY: That's OK. We'll let you talk anyway, Jonathan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JONATHAN: Thank you. Growing up, I'm first-generation American. Both my parents come from Italy.

NEARY: OK.

JONATHAN: So, I don't think I've ever been subjected to any type of discrimination that I'm aware of. But it seems that today, regardless of your skin color, it all revolves around socio-economics. The wealthy, I think, respect the wealthy. The educated respect the educated. And I believe that both of those classes look down on what they're not. That's where I'm thinking all the prejudice is. I don't think it's black, white, Chinese, whatever the case is.

NEARY: You think it's about money? You think it's about…

JONATHAN: I think it's more socio-economic driven.

NEARY: Uh huh.

JONATHAN: I got to tell you. Obama speaks very eloquently. I don't even look at him and see black. I really don't. I see him as another individual, a well educated, a well spoken, and as our president. And I'm proud that he is our president because he is well educated, well spoken.

Mr. PAGE: Well, I'm glad you called too because on number one, I've written about this and other people have as well, that in many ways our society now - race is becoming less of a factor in a one's life chances. And yet, we cling to it as a political issue and the national - a topic of our national conversation, in part because it helps us to forget about class. It's like, in fact, one professor back in Chicago wrote a book that was called, The trouble with diversity: How we - the subtitle is the good part, where he says, how race helps us to forget about inequality. In other words, start talking about how racial discussions and race debates prevent us from dealing with economics and inequality.

NEARY: Exactly the exact of the issue that Jonathan starts.

Mr. PAGE: Exactly the issue. The other thing, you know, people say they look at Obama and they don't see race. You don't see race because you know him. Before you knew him, if he was just walking down the street, a guy you didn't know, you would say, isn't that a good-looking black male there (laughing) you know.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. PAGE: I mean, that's what race is about. It's about not just how you see yourself but how others see you.

NEARY: That's interesting. Like if you saw him on the basketball court, Jonathan, you might have a different idea of who this guy was.

JONATHAN: I have to tell you not really as long - whatever they do, they do well. You know, because basically when you first meet somebody, your perception is based on how they present themselves. You know, what they do, do they excel on what they do? At least, that's my opinion as an individual. That's what I look out first. And if you're a bad person, it's based on who you are not what you look like. But that's me, the way that I perceive in. I'm not saying that that's true for everybody.

NEARY: All right, well.

Mr. PAGE: This maybe another one of those language paradoxes, but one of the reasons I wrote that column was because doctors Poussaint and Colmer wanted to make the point that we all see color like, you know, Stephen Colbert might made a joke at it. But we do see color from age four we just don't put a value on it. That's up to our parents. They want to tell us that while black is good and the white is bad or vice versa.

NEARY: Clarence, it's so good to see you again.

Mr. PAGE: You too Lynn, thank you.

NEARY: Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. And we have a link to his latest column, "Is Black the New Black" at npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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