July 23rd, 2008
01:46 PM ET

William S. Cohen: Why Americans can't get over race

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.


Watch Bill and Janet Cohen talk about their diverse backgrounds and life as an interracial couple in America.

Editor's Note:
William Cohen is a former Republican senator and defense secretary in the Clinton administration. His wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, is a former TV journalist, model and author. They are the co-authors of "Love In Black and White," a memoir about race, religion and their experiences as an interracial couple.

William S. Cohen and Janet Langhart Cohen

In 1835, Alexis DeTocqueville, in his seminal work, "Democracy in America," prophesied that the abolition of slavery would not eliminate racial prejudice, which he declared was "immovable."

Sen. Barack Obama, in running for the presidency of the United States, is challenging DeTocqueville's bleak assessment of the human heart. It remains unclear whether the Illinois senator is on a hopeless mission, or whether the American people will decide to make history by breaking with it.


soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. David Toyoshima

    America is a racist nation. As a Japanse American, and a son who's parents and grandparents were put into concentration camps during World War 2, and have experienced racism myself, I can plainly say that this country still has many wounds to heal. I've felt the anger from both whites and blacks toward me. "Dirty Japs." And while that's not uncommon among whites, I found it difficult to defend against a black person saying that to me. But I chalk it up to a person's own enlightenment. Both black, white or whatever. I Pakistani cab driver wants to know whether I'm Chinese, Japanese or Korean. I tell him I'm an American. 4th generation. He didn't get it. It made him confused, if not a bit testy. I know he was trying to make a connection. But what does it matter? To say I don't see color would be hyprocritical. I see blacks, hispanics, whites, etc. But my answer is I don't make judgements about them. If I get a chance to meet and talk with them, then that's a different story. I can choose to like or dislike a person purely on a personal level. My best friend is Harry Robinson. An African American man. My best friend for nearly 30 years. We talk about racism. What it means to be "different" in a largely white society.
    And what it means to keep our own identity. I'm pround of being Japanese as he is proud of being black. But are most proud of our own integrity. That's the only thing that we as human beings should be really proud of. Ourselves. Are we good a good person? I will never let another person put me down. Not just for racism, but to dirty my integrity. I will vote for Barack Obama. Not because he's a black man. But that he represents an honorable and noble man. We are all immigrants to this country. All have faced the trials of bigotry and racism. From the Irish and Italians, to the influx of southeast Asians and Mexicans. We come to this country for a better way of life. As did my ancestors more than a hundred years ago.

    July 24, 2008 at 4:41 am |
  2. Melissa, Los Angeles

    When I was in college in the early 1990's there was the "Advisement Center" and the "Minority Advisement Center". Instead of having just one Advisement Center they chose to have two which I found to be wrong which is why I never went into the Minority Advisement Center even though I'm Chinese. I felt by going into the Minority Advisement Center I was separating myself from my white classmates. We're all Americans and we have the choice to stay within our own race or not. I choose not to because I would be missing out on some fantastic and varied friends if I did.

    July 24, 2008 at 1:30 am |
  3. greg N.C.

    Delores i couldn't agree more with you. I do not understand that either. As for that fact i do not understand the term African-American nor Latino-American, Chinese-American, Irish-American, etc. I thought we were all AMERICANS, untill all this political correctness like this is settled i do not see the race issue going away. I mean you are either American or you are not!

    July 24, 2008 at 1:05 am |
  4. Esteban, Daly City, CA

    Is not a question of color, is a question of attitude. I grew up among blacks and we have a lot of blacks in Mexico, Central America, south America and the Caribbean and we get along just fine. The problem is that Black Amercicans act and behave like they are greatest thing made by God and that when he was done with them he broke the mold. I am not saying that all are the same, but the vast majority of them do. I have a lot of black friends but they are a breed apart; different kind of peopl. they are kind, humble and good all around.

    So get over this inferiority complex and join the rest of the poor soul in this Country trying to survive without blaming anybody for their misery.

    July 24, 2008 at 12:49 am |
  5. Will

    I just saw a segment of Black in America About black hip hop on the show. What about the promotion of drugs, sex, violence, and female degradation hip hop seems to so proudly boast about or scared to stop? All for some money? To keep them from being terrorists? Such music preaches gang violence. Isn’t that terrorism? That man on the program is either a big idiot or one of those ignorant people in America, who have looked away from the bad elements of black culture for years, just because those blacks are working. If blacks want America to be color-blind, why is it that blacks are blind to the immorality, crime, and ridiculousness many of them are creating? Is that what being black in America is mostly about? If it’s character that counts, and image is everything, then pull up you pants, stop listening to crap, and clean up your act. It’s obvious that African sexual practices have migrated to the US and possibly ingrained in black psyche, because Africans and African-Americans have paralleling epidemics of VD in their communities. Take it from someone who aced psychology and sociology in college. If black leaders don’t speak tough love like this to their own people, then I feel sorry for them.

    July 24, 2008 at 12:23 am |
  6. Cassandra Gerling-Perez

    I find it so interesting that some posters want to know when they will see "White in America". Well, we see it on TV everyday of our lives. People seem to have forgotten how Blacks have only been free to vote for 40 YEARS and were enslaved for 10 times as many years. Schools, organizations and affirmative action were all instituted because Blacks and Native Americans were denied entry into social organizations and college, etc. These institutions were created because we could not wait for White society to do it for them. Yes, Blacks have definitely come a long way especially over the past 40 years, but we have in many ways hit a roadblock. This issues were addressed in the documentary tonight. Perhaps there will be series related to other minority segments of our great country, but other than the Native Americans, there is no other culture and community that is dealing with this nation's LONG history of racism.

    July 24, 2008 at 12:14 am |
  7. JMC

    Bob & Gail,
    You are part of the problem! First of all what is the "black community?" The community I live in consist of all races. When will we stop using the statement "black community?" The last time I checked, I was part of the greater American community. I have never voted for mayor, governor or president of the "black community."

    It is not the so called “black community” that seeks out welfare, rob’s the “white community” or avoid work, it’s the individual. People of all races make individual life choices; some make good choices and some don’t. It is highly ignorant to blame all of our country’s problems on the “black community.” The country and the world is the way it is because of every race (both the good and the bad).

    I do have to agree with you when say that racism will never end but for different reasons. When the media and individuals like yourself continue to only portray black American‘s negatively we will never move forward. There are millions of black American’s that make a positive contribution to the American community every single day. There are two sides to every coin but you chose to see only one side.

    July 23, 2008 at 11:25 pm |
  8. Dr. Mary

    Cheers to Soledad O'Brien for doing this comprehensive investigation about a snapshot of blacks in America! Thanks to CNN for hosting this very important documentary.

    July 23, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  9. Mike in NYC

    N. Shele wrote:

    "...I feel that white people don’t understand that we no longer care how they feel about us…and those that are white are focused on the thought that we do (care)."

    Good point. Blacks should not be concerned with how whites feel about them. I am not concerned with how blacks feel about me.

    Robby wrote:

    "...there is something intrinsic about our human nature that would have us seek out our differences."

    Yes. Differences between groups are intrinsic, and the effects of these differences are unavoidable.

    Tosha wrote:

    "I believe racism will eventually end because everyone will be brown."

    That would be the end of "diversity," then, wouldn't it?

    July 23, 2008 at 11:14 pm |
  10. cocoais

    I really hate to be pessimistic, but I see nothing productive coming out of this special. I'm heartened by the wide range of topics that have been addressed, and happy that a major news organization chose to produce and air this special. Reading the message boards however, I realize that my fears are indeed warranted. It has been my overwhelming experience that white people just don't get it....not because they "can't" get it, but they just don't want to. It would take a major overhaul of the American school system to undo the idealogy entrenched in their minds. It is really depressing, and really and truly frightening to me as a black woman. This year alone, I've been harrassed by policemen while driving and while parked. I've been shadowed in stores, so much so that I do almost ALL of my shopping online now. I have been harassed and made to feel small by colleagues (one of whom insisted that I sleep on the floor when we were on a work related trip) and classmates at my Ivy league institution.

    I envy white people the freedoms they so take for granted and wish that things truly were equal for us all. They have the freedom to walk about this earth without being regarded as excrement...thieves...drug runners...drug addicts...not worthy of time.
    I also envy them their ability to put blinders on in the face of inequality.

    July 23, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  11. robert hunt

    My children [ daughters 10 and 14 ] are mixed race. Im white. My wife is “black” , I suppose, being brown and from Haiti, though both her great grandfathers were Frenchman. For the 2000 census, I purposely left the race boxes unchecked on the government form, personally feeling that racial categories are unnecessary, and these statisitics actually work against social harmony. Do you know, they sent census takers to my house to try and get an an answer and get those the boxes checked ? Why is it so important to label them ? Why do other mixed people feel they must choose ? This also sets a line of demarcation for many. They are beautiful citizens of the world, and the children themselves do not identify as either white or black. Can you imagine that ? Perfect.

    July 23, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
  12. Annie Kate

    It seems like today charges of racism are more prevalent than in the 60s and 70s. And some of it is ridiculous – its like if you don't let me have my way then you are a racist.

    Case in point – at the hotel where my son works, the night auditor was trying to get a family reunion out of the lobby where they were congregating and into the meeting room set aside for them (there is a rule that is plainly posted on the wall that no one is to loiter or have meetings in the lobby). The people in the reunion didn't want to go; they were all black and when the night auditor insisted that they had to conform to the rules of the hotel they accused him of being a racist. His reply was that he would enforce the rules whether they were black, white, Asian, or polka dotted and he then pointed out that he was black like them and he didn't appreciate being called a racist. It just seems to be an automatic accusation anymore – why is that?

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 23, 2008 at 8:52 pm |
  13. Delores

    As a white person I don't understand how the black community has organization, contests, awards and shows that are just for black, but still want to be included in all other events. Personally, I feel this is a negative against the race . If one wants to be treated with the same respect , then quit distinguishing oneself from one humanity.

    July 23, 2008 at 8:13 pm |
  14. Dan

    I think Americans (by-and-large) have 'gotten over' race. It's you douche bags in the media who love to hype this story because it increases your viewership, ratings, and stirs people into a frenzy. The media is nothing but a business, existing to maximize profit and shareholder wealth. If they make it by tearing off the skin of a healed wound so it can bleed afresh, what do they care? They made their dollar.

    July 23, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  15. Dawn

    Everyone that is black is not on welfare, just like everyone that is white is a not racist. The black unemployment rate nationally is 7%, that is high compared to whites but that would mean the majority of blacks do work. Why is it that when someone that is black say what it means to be black other races get defensive? Also who are these black people that are using thier race to profit for being black? I never got a dime! Other people file lawsuits just as African Americans..give me a break.

    July 23, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  16. colorado

    Maybe it's because race is brought up in almost every issue that is spoken of, and it is turned in to a big deal. What does it matter what color a persons skin is? What really matters is the behaviours and attitudes displayed. How long are people going to be penalized for what others did decades and centuries, ago? I am not responsible for what an ancestor did. I get awful tired of being judged just because I am white. I, and my family, are very respectful of ALL people that DESERVE it. People are what they make of themselves. Stop blaming everyone else for whatever problems may be in your life, and take some responsibility for your own actions, whether you are black, white, brown, yellow, whatever. The people that bring up race every single time are the smallest minded people I have ever seen.

    July 23, 2008 at 7:15 pm |
  17. GAIL Centre,Al;

    I think like BOB, Blacks have got to step up to the plate. If they want respect, they have to give respect . that door swings both ways.

    July 23, 2008 at 6:21 pm |
  18. Bob

    There will never be an end to race problems.

    As we work and see the Black Community on welfare we get upset.

    As we work and see the Black community causing and perpetuating a rise in crime we get upset.

    As we work and get robbed by the Black Community we get upset.

    Until they, the Balck Community goes out and get jobs, stop waiting for the hand out and stop commiting crimes race problems will continue. They need to be accountable they need to have self respect in order to earn respect.

    July 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  19. Tosha

    I believe racism will eventually end because everyone will be brown. The Hispanic population is growing by leaps and bounds. Attitudes are changing and more and more interracial couples are getting together and having children. The problem will be the haves versus the have nots.

    July 23, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  20. Karin


    The issue of Jeremiah Wright and Jesse Jackson is only an issue for Jeremiah Wright and Jesse Jackson. You cannot ask Barack Obama to speak for either of those men or their views. How many of the previous Presidents truly represented all people equally? It's fewer than you think and many of them used race for political gain themselves. If we are not willing to ask any previous President to step up to the plate and have a real discussion about race why are we so gung-ho to ask Barack Obama? Is it because he's black, or at least half black? Oh, and regarding the black community eliminating separatist viewpoints, I could easily ask the same of any other racial group. Just so you know that the deaf ears thing goes both ways. The issue of race and race relations does not solely lie on the backs of blacks in this country...it's up to EVERYONE. Don't ask one race to solve the problems of the many races.


    July 23, 2008 at 4:01 pm |
  21. Robby

    Racism as well as ethnic strife will never go away. For as much as we celebrate our differences here in the United States there is something intrinsic about our human nature that would have us seek out our differences. The best we can do is to always strive to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    July 23, 2008 at 3:59 pm |
  22. damian

    It irks me that the focus is always "black in america" and "what it means to be black". The focus should be "black and white in america". Being white is not without it's downside. Consider this...since before I was old enough to say "racism" I've grown up in a society that presumes that I'm racist – just because I'm white. How do you think that shapes how I interact with my black peers and how I regard the issue of race in America? Now consider that every white kid my age has grown up in the same environment as me.

    It's a huge complicated issue with no simple answers and no innocent parties.

    July 23, 2008 at 3:44 pm |
  23. Kendall

    As long as there is money to be there will be racism. Too many careers(radio talk host, writers, and yes, news anchors) today are build on divsion. Cultures are not shared but populaized. Black culture is more a product than a people. That fact alone, Is why there are little respect from others and ourselves. Things that are popular over time are not taken seriously(ex. Michael Jackson).

    July 23, 2008 at 3:36 pm |
  24. Woodrow

    We will not have a blind eye for race or skin color, until we break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.

    -"Culture" is important because it creates "Pride".
    -"Pride" is important because it generates "Motivation".
    -"Motivation" is important because it stimulates "Education" and $.

    and thats for real.

    H-town, Texas

    July 23, 2008 at 3:34 pm |
  25. Wendy in Texas

    During my formative years, I was surrounded by people from many nationalities. This environment was actually a mandate from my school district. This type of environment opened my eyes to many different cultures and so as I progress in life I don't have the same chip on my shoulder that other young black people do. But it is still there but much much smaller. Just as Mr. Obama does, I surround myself with things that are a great part of the black community such as radical entertaining preachers(they really are pretty funny to watch as long as you did not go to church to get the word) so that I can keep my pulse on what my community needs before I get back into my mainstream American life where there are so few minorities period. With that said mr. Wright and Jesse Jackson are given too much credit for how important they are. Just becuase they are they loudest does not mean black people care what they think. I don;t

    However to say that the black people use race for convience, profit or a lightning rod is wrong. I know from experience that no matter how far I progress there is always a racist who thinks that I am inferior becuase of the color of my skin. No matter how man times I prove them wrong and do not use my skin as a crutch, I find myself having to prove to the next group that I am in fact equal or greater.

    Because of my need to feel that I am doing the absolute best I can by them, my children will grow up in a prodiminently white neighborhood and will be faced with challenges I endured as an adult without a doubt, because people will perceive them as inferior or dirty or whatever sterotype they have concocted and taught to their children. I in turn have made great effort to teach them pride in being black. In addition, I am teaching them that it is up to them to continue a great legacy that has been marred with hateful acts, jealously and theft. These things no matter how far we have come are still pervasive in all aspects of life.

    It is those that don't walk our walk of difficulty in such small things as shopping without being followed, dissed at a restaurant becuase they don't think we can afford to tip them or even simply being in a prestigious place and noone knows who let us in, who say we are being separatist. There has been an undercurrent of separation since we were freed from others that are not black and we are simply teaching pride and defense of an impressive history. If every time you turned around someone told lies and exploited the bad part of your community and a sliver of the good side you would want to teach the same thing too.

    July 23, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  26. Larry

    Can you tell us why the following are in place; BET, TV One, Black Caucus, NAACP, UNCF, Black Essence Awards, Black Oscars. Can you imagine the uproar if you replaced Black with White, or are the regular Oscars for whites only?

    July 23, 2008 at 3:17 pm |
  27. Jay

    Race will continue to be an issue so long as there are politically-motivated profiteers of racial tension. Ask any person you know whether they judge a person by the content of their character or the color of their skin and it's assured that the former will trump the latter at every turn. But to hear the political profiteers tell it, we still have lynchings in the street and simple misunderstandings between stubborn people will always result in cries of "racism!"

    Yes, there will always be an insignificant number of throwbacks for whom racism trumps all, but they're not important enough to paint all Americans with such a ridiculously broad brush.

    July 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm |
  28. Yuseff


    Well I guess we did get of Jesse Helms. Rev. Wright is quite mild compared to him. Now if we can get rid of Dick Cheney, Pat Robertson, and most neocons your argument will have a lot of teeth.

    July 23, 2008 at 3:01 pm |
  29. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Americans can't get over race because we refuse to just listen to what others have to say and accept their story for what it is and how they feel. We always think we know better.

    While this documentary is great and I look forward to seeing it, I doubt it’s going to change race relations. This conversation can't come up now that we have a black man running for president then dye off later never to be spoken about.

    I would like to see CNN make this a series where we see all American cultures portrayed like "Hispanic in America", "Asian in America" and even "White in America". We can not just group a race of people together and say they are all alike. All races regardless if black, white, Chinese or who ever have a different story to tell within their race and if going to tell one side I think its best to tell them all. That is how we get over race.

    So Soledad lets see more year long investigations on other cultures in this country after this one. Don’t let this great conversation stop here because then it would be in vain.

    July 23, 2008 at 2:46 pm |
  30. N.Shele

    One of the reasons we can't get over race is because, being Black I feel that white people don't understand that we no longer care how they feel about us...and those that are white are focused on the thought that we do (care).

    I suppose that if white people continue to think that they are superior to Black people, and black people continue to care what these equals think it will always be and issue.

    I have been blessed to be raised by a parent that provided with all that is required to survive, of which, supported the mental capacity needed to live in this society.

    As long as I stand, live, and breath integrity. I will be above most, superior to none, and equal to all.

    I refuse to group all whites together. I am speaking only of the people, white or black. If you are black and you care what people think of you. Get Over It! If you are White and you think good law abiding black people care what you think. Get Over Yourselves!

    Thanx in advance, and I promise that one small step would do a world of good. N. Shele

    July 23, 2008 at 2:44 pm |
  31. JC- Los Angeles

    Your aticle's titled "Why Americans Can't get Over Race" is a massive disservice to Americans like myself who do not judge people by the color of their skin but merely by their character and actions.

    Growing up, one of my best freinds was African American; I have never to this day judged him by one race or another; he is merely my great friend Curtis.

    The use of race for convenience, profit or as a lightning rod, is extremely troubling and unacceptable.

    The American people have been asked by the media if they are ready for a black President; after hearing the separatist and racist views of Rev. Wright and Jesse Jackson, one could reasonably ask if Obama is ready to represent all people equally.

    Our nation is comprised of all nationalities and races with the most successful people taking advantage of the endless opportunities afforded its citizens.

    Unless the black community eliminates separatist viewpoints like those of Rev. Wright, demands a culture of success and self respect, their collective complaints will fall of deaf ears.

    July 23, 2008 at 2:00 pm |
  32. Cindy

    Unfortunately racism will never go away. It has been here for ever and will remain. The best that we can hope for is to be able to live peacefully together and keep the racist agenda down and try to move on without them.

    As far as this special goes, I hate to say it but it won't change anything. The only ones that will watch it will be the ones that aren't racist. The ones that need to watch it won't give it the time of day. So in the long run this special will do nothing for our race problem in America.


    July 23, 2008 at 1:53 pm |