We're Going To Start A Dialogue...Again. : Code Switch Another week of racial controversies, another week of calls to "start a dialogue on race." What does that even mean? We talk to two veterans of one high-profile attempt at a national conversation on race, who have different views of its effectiveness.
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We're Going To Start A Dialogue...Again.

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We're Going To Start A Dialogue...Again.

We're Going To Start A Dialogue...Again.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RALPH NORTHAM: My fellow Virginians, earlier today, I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past.

MERAJI: This episode starts with a yearbook photo...

DEMBY: So y'all already know where this is going.

MERAJI: ...A photo from the 1984 med school yearbook of Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. And on Northam's page, there is a picture of two men, one wearing the full Klu Klux Klan get-up and the other one wearing a wig and blackface.

DEMBY: At first, Northam apologized for the photos on his page in a brief statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: I cannot change the decisions I made, nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today.

MERAJI: But the next day, he went full Shaggy defense.

DEMBY: It wasn't me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: I'm telling the truth today. That was not my picture in the photo.

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

He did admit to wearing blackface another time as a young man, when he dressed up and danced like Michael Jackson for a party. When a reporter asked Northam if he could still do the moonwalk, his wife suggested to him that that press conference was probably not the appropriate time for him to bust out a moonwalk.

MERAJI: So far, no resignation for Governor Northam - he's been meeting with black civil rights leaders. He's busy doing that. He's hoping to save his governorship. Meanwhile, people on both sides of the aisle want him out, and he's not the only Virginia official in dire straits.

DEMBY: Nope (laughter).

MERAJI: The lieutenant governor, the next in line for the governorship, he's facing sexual assault allegations. And the official next in line after him is now dealing with his own blackface scandal.

DEMBY: (Sighing) Virginia, it's for lovers. It's for lovers. It's blackface Christmas, Shereen, and it's not even October yet...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Not even close to Halloween.

But we're not going to talk about blackface again. For more on that, you can search the CODE SWITCH blog. Instead, we want to focus on something Northam said in his apology. At his press conference, he said that he hoped his political crisis could start a dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: I believe this moment can be the first small step to open a discussion about these difficult issues and how they contribute to the greater racism and discrimination that defines so much of our history.

MERAJI: And he's not the only person trying to kick-start a race conversation this week. There was the actor Liam Neeson, who's facing a backlash after he said he was looking for a black man to attack and kill to avenge a friend who was allegedly raped by a black man. He's asking for racial dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIAM NEESON: To talk, to open up, to talk about these things, you know? We all pretend we're kind of, you know, politically correct. I mean, in this country - it's the same in my own country, too - you sometimes just scratch the surface, and you discover this racism.

MERAJI: It seems like calls for racial dialogue are a part of the life cycle of every controversy or crisis in the news these days that have to do with race.

DEMBY: Yep.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I'm Cynthia Tucker. I'm a syndicated columnist. I have been in journalism nearly 40 years.

MERAJI: That is why you're here.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Some perspective.

MERAJI: Exactly. We need that. Would you mind recounting for me the number of times you've covered, in your 40-year career in journalism, calls for racial dialogue?

TUCKER: You know, I've lost track of the number of times that a white politician - it is almost always a white politician who calls for a national dialogue on race.

MERAJI: Now, when it comes to the Governor Northam blackface incident and his call for racial dialogue, Cynthia Tucker told me that it is not black people's job to explain to Governor Northam - or any other white people, for that matter - that blackface is wrong and racist.

TUCKER: I don't have that much faith in national dialogues on anything, especially race. He is calling for it in order to deflect attention from the calls for his resignation, to salvage his political career. Nothing would be accomplished.

DEMBY: So can anything really be accomplished from these national racial dialogues?

MERAJI: That's why I got in touch with Cynthia - because she's not only covered a bunch of these calls for racial dialogues over the years, she participated in one very high-profile attempt 20 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: Over the coming year, I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race. We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It's high time we all began talking with each other.

MERAJI: GD, do you recognize that voice?

DEMBY: That sounds like one William Jefferson Clinton.

MERAJI: (Laughter) That's right - No. 42. It was halfway through the first year of his second term. He's giving the commencement address at UC San Diego. It's a beautiful sunny day in June of 1997.

DEMBY: Wait. Wait. They're all beautiful sunny days in San Diego. Come on.

MERAJI: (Laughter) That's true. It was another beautiful sunny day in San Diego.

DEMBY: There you go.

MERAJI: And he announces the start of his national conversation on race in American.

DEMBY: I kind of - I don't remember this at all. So wait. What prompted this particular...

MERAJI: You were old enough to remember this, by the way.

DEMBY: Listen. Are you trying to...

MERAJI: Were you not paying attention to the news?

DEMBY: ...Put my business in the streets?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: So Shereen, what prompted this particular white politician to call for a national dialogue on race?

MERAJI: I'm not quite sure, and I asked a bunch of people that. There was a lot going on racewise in the '90s, as I know you know.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: There was the civil unrest here in LA after the Rodney King verdict, the O.J. Simpson trial. And you know, President Clinton had his own personal race controversies.

DEMBY: Right. You had Sister Souljah, Ricky Ray Rector, which was a big deal. Google those if you don't know it.

MERAJI: But President Clinton said this national conversation about race had to do with the rapid demographic shifts that were on the horizon. We were talking about America getting browner way back in 1997. Yes, it's true.

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: And President Clinton wanted us to, you know, discuss our ethnic and racial differences and have a, quote, "honest dialogue."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

JIM LEHRER: Good evening. I'm Jim Lehrer. Welcome to an hour of conversation with President Clinton about race in America.

Welcome to you, Mr. President.

CLINTON: Thank you, Jim.

LEHRER: The president's conversation will be with eight Americans, four "NewsHour" regulars...

MERAJI: Cynthia was one of those "NewsHour" regulars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

LEHRER: Regional commentator Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Constitution.

MERAJI: There was a mix of people of color on the panel, both liberal and conservative.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

LEHRER: Elaine Chao, former head of United Way of America, now at The Heritage Foundation

MERAJI: That's the Elaine Chao who today is the secretary of transportation for the Trump administration. She's married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. You may know her.

DEMBY: I remember reading recently that her boss and her husband do not like each other.

MERAJI: I also read that New York Times Magazine piece.

DEMBY: Yes (laughter).

MERAJI: Anyway, on this "NewsHour" panel with President Clinton talking about race in America, she took a very familiar conservative stance on affirmative action.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

ELAINE CHAO: If you are Asian-American, you have the toughest standard to meet. And of course, other races have other standards as well. That is a horrible example of preferential treatment and of unfair treatment based on race, and I think something's got to be done about that.

MERAJI: Everyone on the panel had a few minutes each to talk to President Clinton and one another about what they thought this country's big race issues were. And here's what Cynthia Tucker had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

TUCKER: More Americans need a stronger sense of history. I think there has to be an acknowledgment that African-Americans and Native Americans especially have suffered burdens others have not.

MERAJI: There were two African-American women on that panel, two Latino men, one Asian woman, one Native American man, one Jewish man and one black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

CLARENCE PAGE: In 1998, we are still a segregated society. Blacks and whites still live mostly separate lives.

MERAJI: That's Clarence Page.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

LEHRER: Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.

MERAJI: He was talking on the panel about housing segregation and school segregation.

DEMBY: Evergreen topics for us.

MERAJI: Yes, deja vu much? He also argued the benefits of affirmative action on the panel. And I reached out to him, too. He's still a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune, and he's on its editorial board.

PAGE: I thought we had a lot to share - and so did the rest of the panel members - over a range of topics.

MERAJI: I want to read you something from one of your columns. And this was in July 1998. It was after you were on the "NewsHour."

PAGE: Right.

MERAJI: You said, (reading) of course we were just getting warmed up. If you really want to have a productive dialogue on race, you need more than an hour. And you don't need a panel made up of educated elites. You need to mix it up with blue-collar homeowners from urban and suburban bungalows who fear racial change or view Native American rights as a threat to their property values. You need store clerks who tense up whenever young black or Latino males walk into the door. You need some young black and Latino honor students who tense up whenever they see a cop.

Then you need at least a weekend, preferably isolated in some cabin in the woods, where the screaming won't disturb the neighbors. And then you spend the first day getting to know each other well enough to get past the social niceties and political correctness and get down to some really frank gripes.

PAGE: Wow.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

PAGE: That's brilliant. Who wrote that? I think - it helps all of us to be able to get out there and listen to folks who come from different experiences than our own. That's how a dialogue gets started. But it may not be - get really honest maybe until the second or third day. Then you can begin to start talking about what do we do about it, and then you can put together the beginnings of an action plan. And talking also leads toward - it leads in the direction of empathy and understanding, and you've got to have that to really have permanent stability.

So I think that as cynical as we can be and sarcastic as we can be about, oh, here's another call for dialogue - I think it's still worth it. Or at least it's better to call for dialogue than to call for something more problematic and divisive. That's the recipe some people have for a better America. I don't think it's going to work.

MERAJI: Do you think the governor should resign?

PAGE: (Laughter) If I don't say I think he ought to resign, then I will be isolating myself from 90 percent of humanity, it seems, these days. After covering so many of these episodes of bad racial etiquette, I have maintained that our real problem here is the punitive nature of our response to these episodes. We tend to over-punish, and this creates anger and people becoming more divided and charges and countercharges of political correctness and censorship and blah, blah, blah, whereas quite often, it's just simply a difference in the way we grow up - that, you know, I grew up in a predominately black community; some other person grows up in a predominately white community. They're going to have a different set of customs and points of view than I do.

And ultimately, I would like for these episodes to be teaching moments or teachable moments, as they say. So if they go and commit the same offense or a very similar one later on, you've got a little more perspective as to whether they are a, like, serial offender or just a one-timer.

MERAJI: Well, Governor Northam did call for racial dialogue. I mean...

PAGE: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...He did sort of allude to what you're saying here - that he didn't realize it was so offensive and that we need to learn more about each other and what offends us and what doesn't offend us.

PAGE: Everybody agrees we ought to have racial dialogue - just ask them (laughter) - just like everybody agrees that they are personally not racist. You know, we need dialogue. But how do you do it? How do you have an honest dialogue? A lot of people who call for dialogue aren't really ready for honest dialogue, which means that you can't be sitting there worried about being offended every second. You need to really hash these things out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So we talked for a while. And what I heard from Clarence Page is that, yes, racial dialogue is important. But it's something that should be done locally to work best, not on a broad national scale, and that people must be committed to being completely honest, committed to listening and participating - even when they're very offended.

DEMBY: So OK. It seems like one of the problems with having "racial dialogue" - I'm doing racial dialogue in air quotes - is that it's, like, wrapped up in this other argument that Clarence Page was making - right? - that we live in a segregated society. So because of white supremacy, we have all of these institutions and communities that were deliberately separate. Right? And so we don't even have spaces where this dialogue can live and, I guess, like, accumulate. You know what I mean?

Like, you can have a conversation in a cabin out in the woods, as Clarence said. But what really needs to happen is that you interact with people who you are, like, trying to, like, live in community with. Right? Like, you need that to happen in a PTA meeting or a community meeting, but those PTA meetings don't exist because our schools are segregated. You know what I mean? There's no neighborhoods where people have to come up with rules around how to live with each other - not just talk to each other in these one-off conversations but, like, live with each other. Right? So these dialogues feel like this diffuse thing that lives out in the ether. It's not tethered to how people are living day to day.

And also, as our play cousin and former CODE SWITCH editor Keith Woods said when we talked about, like, how to have a conversation like this in the school, people tend to think that conversations about race are honorable unto themselves - like, that just because you had them, you've done the good thing no matter how terrible those conversations might have turned out to have been. Obviously, that ain't it either.

I mean, Shereen, what do you make of what Clarence is saying here?

MERAJI: I tend toward wanting to have these types of conversations more than not wanting to have them. But I also feel like we need to be prepared with the same kind of information. And that's actually where Cynthia Tucker comes in. She, like you, is very skeptical of these big calls for national dialogues on race. And you know, to make her point, she goes back to that 1998 roundtable with President Clinton.

TUCKER: We discussed the same things that people who were genuinely interested in racial and ethnic progress in the country have been discussing for 50 years. We talked about changing demographics. We talked about race and poverty. We talked about how so many whites don't seem to have a sense of the history of race in this country.

MERAJI: I definitely watched that and thought - oh, man, I can't believe we're literally talking about the same exact things 20 years later.

TUCKER: (Laughter) Well, I remember thinking to myself that this probably isn't going to go anywhere. With all due respect to President Clinton, I thought that he gave the answers that were most politically safe. You know, again, I'm not sure a national conversation about race would move us along. I would much prefer if we could attempt to have some history lessons. I think that this is a country that has failed to grapple with its ugly and violent racial history. I think that one of the things that got Northam in trouble is that he has no sense of the history of blackface in this country.

So I think it would be great if, at high schools and colleges across the country, instead of a big national dialogue on race, we started trying to teach something of the true history of race in this country. We need to talk about the fact that America was built on the free, forced labor of black people. You know, we are still struggling here in the South - in Virginia, which was the second capital of the Confederacy. We're still struggling over the actual history of the Civil War. I think that would be a place to start.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "ROBOT PARK")

DEMBY: So let's talk about Virginia. After the break, we get into a little bit of history and a lot of context around this week's drama with the Virginia-based New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "ROBOT PARK")

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Charles Barkley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN RACE")

CHARLES BARKLEY: We're going to talk about race, stereotypes. We're going to talk about religion. We are going to start a dialogue.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

So I know before the break, Cynthia said it was mostly white politicians calling for racial dialogue. We've got to shout out Sir Charles here, though. He had a TV show a couple years ago trying to get people to sit down and have tough conversations about race. Barkley saying I want to start a dialogue is, like, my favorite Twitter meme.

MERAJI: (Laughter) But back to the Old Dominion, where Governor Northam is fighting for his political career. Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for The New York Times, just published a piece titled "Blackface Is The Tip Of The Iceberg." And he spoke to Eugene from Charlottesville, where he lives.

JAMELLE BOUIE: And Virginia, famously or infamously, during the Jim Crow period, was home to massive resistance, where white Virginians in communities across the state, including very prominently in Charlottesville, closed the public schools rather than integrate them. It took some time before there was public school integration in Virginia schools.

DEMBY: Jamelle said that in the post-civil rights era, Virginia has seen two diverging political trend lines.

BOUIE: The first is that the state, really, since 1970, has had rapid population growth, has become much more diverse. Really, in that regard, since 1990, the state's become, like, remarkably diverse with Asian immigrants, Hispanic immigrants. Right now Virginia, I think, is about 19 percent African-American, which is pretty high nationally and puts it kind of, like, in the middle for a Southern state.

DEMBY: So that's the first trend. The second trend line...

BOUIE: A political culture that is not - I wouldn't say stuck in the '60s and '70s, but its principal movers and shakers all sort of, like, reflect the way politics were 30 years ago or 40 years ago. This style of politics is kind of referred to as the Virginia way. It is a bipartisan style of politics, but it's bipartisan in part because the politicians and so on and so forth come out of a similar kind of social world of, you know, the University of Virginia or the University of Richmond or sort of any of the state's kind of more elite public and private institutions - come out of a culture of law, business.

It's a style of politics that is very attuned to making sure that there isn't very much friction for the state's major business interests, for the state's major, like, industrial interests and has never been that attuned to kind of shaping social policy. And the state has kind of had a hands-off approach to much of this. You can kind of analogize it to sort of, like, the New South ideology that pops up in kind of the - as the Jim Crow South is coming to an end, this idea that Southern states will modernize and advance by really catering to business interests.

DEMBY: And so Jamelle says Ralph Northam finds himself at the head of a party that's stuck between these two realities.

BOUIE: He entered state politics in the late 2000s. Prior to that, he was a practicing pediatrician. He had voted for George W. Bush two times. He was considered sort of conservative but a conservative Democrat coming out of, like, this tradition of glad-handing, very transactional politics. And Northam has found himself, as he's advanced in his career, at the helm of a political - a Virginia Democratic Party that's both somewhat revitalized after kind of Republican dominance for 10 years in the state and also is very hostile to the kinds of politics that used to define Virginia. Right? That...

DEMBY: Because of the brownness of that Democratic Party?

BOUIE: Because of the brownness of the Democratic Party, because that Democratic Party is increasingly college educated - much like nationally, the Democratic Party in Virginia no longer wins the votes of what you would, I guess, call working-class whites. Its white support comes from college-educated whites in Northern Virginia and then throughout the state where there's sort of high concentrations of them, like in Charlottesville.

DEMBY: So Northam steps into office as the state is wrestling with all these big controversies around the Confederate monuments. The violence in Charlottesville is a response to the controversies around the monuments. What kinds of stances did Northam take around issues like the monuments and to other racialized issues?

BOUIE: Right. That's what's interesting. I mean, in places where there was already kind of continuity he could continue. Right? So the previous governor, also a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe was very aggressive about restoring voting rights to former felons. And he was - McAuliffe was picking up after the governor before him, Bob McDonnell, who was a Republican who also kind of moved this process forward in a way that hadn't been done before. And Northam has continued that, not an opponent of it by any means.

During the Charlottesville stuff, which was during the election season, Northam - it was clear he wasn't quite sure what to say. He wasn't apologetic towards - right? - the instigators of what happened in Charlottesville. He wasn't defending the Confederate statues. He recognized that the state Democrats and the state Democratic Party had very much adopted a take-down-the-statues attitude. But when it appeared - right? - that the race might be closer than it looked, that his opponent, Republican Ed Gillespie, may have a shot at winning, he definitely backed off a little bit. He suggested that, you know, maybe we don't take them down; maybe we do something else.

You saw a kind of similar thing with the question of sanctuary cities, where Gillespie was really hitting Northam very hard on immigration and on kind of immigration and law enforcement. And the sort of the more liberal Democrats in the Virginia Democratic Party, which is quite a few of them, were dismissing these attacks outright. And Northam was sort of willing to say, well, maybe, you know, if governor, I will do something about sanctuary cities - in a less punitive way.

DEMBY: Your piece in Monday's New York Times, it's called "Blackface Is The Tip Of The Iceberg." You write that, quote, "in American politics, lawmakers can get a pass for almost anything short of open allegiance to racist ideologies or the explicit use of racist imagery." But then you say that that misses all the other ways that racism is not condemned in our politics.

BOUIE: I mean, one reason I don't think it happens - and I don't think I quite said this in my column - but is that I'm not sure that people understand those things as being racist - right? - that there's a sort of, like, deniability behind them. If I say, this bill that restricts voting in ways that pretty specifically target black Americans is racist, someone could respond - and people do respond saying, well, don't you think it's important that people have identification before they go vote? Why don't you think black Americans can get that kind of identification? - in kind of an accusatory way. Because so much of, I think, racially discriminatory policymaking has always been, you know, what the courts call facially neutral, it's hard to be definitive in a way that you can be definitive with something like blackface. So that's one thing.

I think the other thing relates to just how the public broadly kind of, like, understands or thinks of racism, which is that it doesn't - the mainstream public, the largely white public, doesn't tend to think about racism in ways that go beyond kind of, like, individual prejudice, bias or hatred. And so to say - right? - that this piece of policymaking is racist - when like, a typical, you know, viewer of cable news or whatever hears that, what they hear is, the person who did this policy has malice or hatred towards black people or some other racial group. What they do not hear is that this policy burdens a particular racial group in a specific way that kind of diminishes their life chances.

DEMBY: Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times. He lives in Charlottesville. And he's a PostBourgie alum. Appreciate you, Jam.

BOUIE: Appreciate you, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "ROBOT PARK")

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask Code Switch.

MERAJI: Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun and Kumari Devarajan and me. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kat Chow and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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