February 22nd, 2009
07:45 AM ET

Dear President Obama #34: Race baiting in black and white

Reporter's Note: I am writing a letter a day to the White House. The President asked for advice, and I’m helping.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/20/art.getty.obama.stern.jpg]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

I have been surprised at the staying power of the debates that kicked up this week over race. I don’t know why. Certainly I’ve seen racial issues ignite public fury endless times in my career, but I must say it still often catches me off guard.

Between Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments about us all being cowards for not grappling with racial inequalities, and the goofy cartoon about the chimp in that New York newspaper, it seems as if so many people are upset.

I don’t pretend to know all the rights and wrongs of these things. I know that many people have many different opinions, and we’re a long way from any unanimous assessment of where we stand on the issue of equality. I know political leaders of all races, and certainly too many of us in the media, spend a lot of time fanning the flames of racial animus even when we claim we want just the opposite.

So let me just tell you a story for this Sunday. A long time ago when I was a young reporter, I covered City Hall. And it seemed like every other week during the city council meeting the mayor, a white guy; and a prominent councilman, who was black, would square off and start yelling at each other. The issues varied: Police patrols, road repairs, parade permits, liquor licenses. Frankly it didn’t matter. For the longest time I thought these guys hated each other. Then, gradually, it dawned on me that they had actually each built their political kingdoms on the other’s back.

The subtext of every fight was a clear message to voters. From the white man: White folks, you better keep me in power, or the blacks will overrun the town. From the black man: Black folks, you better keep re-electing me, or the whites will crush you.

I came to believe that racism was a cornerstone of their political power, and neither one of them really wanted it to go away. I know that must sound terribly cynical and I hope I was wrong. But all these years later, I still think it was true.

The struggle for a decent, fair, color-blind society is a long and difficult one, and I don’t know if it is something we’ll ever achieve. Probably not. But what is most disheartening is that realization from long ago, that we’ve got plenty of people, black and white, who don’t really want it; indeed, whose power and sense of place flows from keeping people of all races afraid and at each others’ throats.

Sorry for such a downer of a letter. But you know, as much as I want to help with this advice business, it can’t just be on the good days.

Call when you can. As you might guess, I’d love to talk.



For more of the Foreman Letters, click here.

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. savedone_2

    Go head and do your thing, Mr. President. finally the whitehouse has some color other than white and green. Nothin wrong with a bit of mixture.... I am so glad we have a President whose knows that being angry and sin not, stands with him. He has the wisdom of an elder(meaning one of long age) sticks and stone may break my bones, but words cannot harm me!! BY THE WAY, THIS IS NOT A RESSESION
    THIS IS A DEPRESSION!!! our money, food, gas, banks, stocks, homes are all being 'depressed' not ression, maybe it hasn`t touch the right people. That will be the 'ALARM', then we can get it right...

    February 23, 2009 at 9:43 am |
  2. savedone_2

    Can`t everybody c that race has and will b an issue.. It was an issue in bibilical times, and will never go away. Can`t we look around us and c pretty soon everybody will have color to thier skin. The cartoon was ignorant and klansman style, all u needed was a rope, instead of gun. What bout people like me that r racial mixed... about my children that are also racial mix. We have no say, we are tagged when born... To the people who allowed that crazy ignorant and disgusting toon, SHAME SHAME SHAME.... This is the kinda stuff that makes American people look bad.. America .. a melting pot, or free world, maybe to u. But 4 us with color 2 our skin, we r still not so far away from slavery ..... still .... White Americans claim they r not racist, smile n ur face and eat from ur plate, while still refering 2 ya as 'NEGRO' even better, "N", These people should be jailed 4 what the toon has dispicted. And people say, 'WE DON`T LOOK AT COLOR", what world r u living in?, cause I think ur lost!!! No matter what is said, I, as a Minister, Person, and of color, declare the words of Moses, "LET MY PEOPLE GO", then M.L.King, "LET FREEDOM RING" . Y can`t we all just get along, and look at the content of ones character and not judge by color of skin. What happened Christian Americans , to our Christian Teachings .. love thy neighbor ... after all was it not "white" written or tranlated... Lastly, to the toonest, I forgive u, however I will not forget! THEY OWE ALL PEOPLE AN APOLOGY IN PUBLIC, FINED AND FIRED!!!!!!!!

    February 23, 2009 at 9:34 am |
  3. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Many people are upset. And you so well wrote, Eric Holder’s comments about us all being cowards for not grappling with racial inequalities, and the goofy cartoon about the chimp in that New York newspaper--add after viewing some of the Oscar awards-promotion of homosexuality, pedifila, and a foreign film capturing eight Oscars--our society remains dishearten--it is what it is-–

    February 23, 2009 at 8:47 am |
  4. Michael C. McHugh

    In the past, and into the 1960s and 1970s, the state and federal governments has policies that supported segregation, especially in schools and housing. We've never really changed those patterns inherited from the past, and I think that policies like school busing were a mistaken way of doing do. Millions of whites fled to the suburbs so they could continue to be segregated, or set up "private" schools their their children would never have to attend school with blacks. This is all well known, even if we don't often talk about it in public.

    I think the best way might be to improve jobs, education, housing and medical care in minority communities, while understanding full well that these are still basically segregated communities–separate and unequal. I am under no illusions that this problem can be solved easily or quickly in America, but at least we can give people in these segregated communities are more equal chance in life–and more than just more prisons and more police, which has been the standard Republican policy for the last 30 years.

    February 23, 2009 at 8:21 am |
  5. Ralph Holder

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was correct. I only have to look at what occurred to my son and I by the NH Family and Supreme Courts to know that whites don't get it when it comes to treating African Americans with the same dignity as they would expect. Who in their right mind, in this day and age, let alone supposedly well-educated and legally trained judges and court officials, would deprive a black child equal educational opportunity because of their racial classification. We are not talking the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Ed, but the 2003 case of Holder v. Holder, 03-M-0032, where a white court appointed Gaurdian ad Litem recommended my son be schooled in a neighboring State of Masschusetts because she believed he would "be too lonely being the only Black child in the local NH school and that he could learn more about his race in MA than he coud in NH." I sought intervention by the U.S. Dept of Justice Office of Civil Rights to enforce Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the State, but the white NH U.S. Attorney refused. The white justices of the NH Supreme court declined my appeal even though it implicated a blatant violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws in education. The white Governor of NH also declined to get involved, as did all my state and federally elected or appointed ofrficials. The U.S. Attorney General has a tough job to root out the stereotypical biases and the Republican led administrations cut back in civil rights enforcement, but Americans need to wake up. If a state court can abuse its power and authority try to rob my son of his civil and onstitutional birthrights because of his race, it obviously believes it can ifringe on the civil and constitutional rights of others for any reason. These bigots in black robes would not even dain to justify the lower court's ruling by giving an opinion about why they declined to hear my appeal. Stop the institutional racism found in the courts ad other government agencies.

    February 23, 2009 at 8:08 am |
  6. Gail Ellis Duncan

    We are in transition. Freedom comes when we are honest with ourselves first. We feed the energy of racism and hate when we judge, condemn and criticize. Let us be honest with ourselves within and work on our own inner struggles/judgements/blame and shame and start to project humanity into all situations. It is easy in hard times to put the blame outside of self and not learn the needed lessons for change to occur. Let us think pro equality, pro humanity, pro earth and leave anti out of our thoughts and minds. Feed the energy of pro.

    February 23, 2009 at 6:07 am |
  7. nitram

    Last week a muslim killed his two daughters because they dressed in western clothes. Another muslim beheaded his wife. ABC,CBS,NBC did not report this. Why? Why wrent these animals arrested and charged with murder 1?

    February 23, 2009 at 5:29 am |
  8. nitram

    Gentlemen: If you dont realize that the Obama's are Black Muslim Racists, then you havent been listening. They are members of Rev Wrights church. They have listened to and accepted his hatred of all non muslims(Christians,Jews) Obama doesnt want people to live together. He survives on telling the trash of this country, I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU. I HAVE COME FROM THE MOUNTAIN. The sooner true americans, black white,assian etc. wake he will keep dividing ths country.

    February 23, 2009 at 5:26 am |
  9. Ckelly

    If we are going to have a discussion about race, discrimination etc..then lets have a REAL conversation that hears all sides and all stories: its not just a black versus white issue..there is the First nations and their genocide; the terrible treatment of the chinese building the railroads...the discrimination and prejudice against the Irish when they came to this country. A race of people in their own right oppressed for 800 years before escaping to the new americas to face more hatred..the imprisonment of the Japanese during WW2...the zenophobia towords Latinos and Arabs....this is a class issue and a fear issue....There are many, many well educated and sucessful, wealthy black people in all areas of politics, medicine, finance, business, professional teaching, medicine, science, entertainment and sports...the list goes on...yes, there are poor blacks who face discrimination and their are plenty of poor whites that face discrimination too. Are you smart enough? rich enough? thin enough? politically correct enough? talented enough? young enough? Somehow being "white enough" seems to matter alot less than it did 50 years ago. Lets get up to speed with the real issues.

    Being born female is still the greatest indicator of inequality out there.
    I predict that gender will be replaced with age as the greatest indicator for inequality in the future.

    February 23, 2009 at 5:09 am |
  10. Ray Rasmussen

    Hello Anderson

    I think you missing the whole point on the auto baleout.

    In the case of General Motors (just as one very blatant example of a large multi-national company), the US tax-payer is footing the bill for a bailout, all the while GM closes factories inside the US and opens new ones abroad. In fact, the general manager of GM in Brazil recently told a Latin American business publication that GM was planning to spend US$1 Billion Dollars for new and upgraded manufacturing facilities in that country. When the cheeky reporter asked where the heck GM was going to get the money, the top man at GM in Brazil beamingly said, the US Congress of course. If that is not brazen, then I do not know what is.
    Enough said. Let them go under!!!!

    February 23, 2009 at 2:07 am |
  11. J.V.Hodgson

    Its a difficult subject but in essence two things have to work well in America, with all its races and ethnic/Religious communities.
    1) Equal opportunity for all.
    2) Good access to a good educational system, with financial support to those who might not be able to afford it white, black or whatever ethnic group or religious persuasion.
    Cartoons have a place, but for me should stay out of politics/ race religion/ or ethnic topics, and must ideally, basically be humourous.
    Holder has his right to free speech as Sharpton and others do.
    Finally maybe I am not intelligent enough, but the Chimp cartoon just disgusted me because it dealt with the shooting death of the chimp, for which I was just sorry it was necessary. sorry I missed completely any racist intent, but when raised I could see the connection and was similarly disgusted. I also see no NECESSARY connection between the Holder comments and the Cartoon.

    February 23, 2009 at 12:23 am |
  12. Wardell katrina Survivor

    Tom, whats amazing is that some people can't relate, because they aren't on the short end of everything.Did you hear about the young white man who got shot 41 times, by NewYork, police,NO because it happen to a young black man,wait a minute, did you hear about the four little white girls, while in church, that got blown up, the world saw it, my mistake they were black, or down in NewOrleans, a white kid came down from Georgia, looking to have fun in the FRENCH QUARTER,but because of dress code, two 500lb men laid on him, while a 200lb man laid across his head, and smashed the life out of him, while the NOPD, standing there turned his back,oops my bad, he was black, and his mother would love to have her son back, if these things were happening to whites kids, there would be an uproar, in the country, you just don't get it, people are people, if blacks turned their backs on you, you would want to talk about it too.Mike inNYC, you forgot , it was people like you that started the social engineering, I,m willing to bet your ancestors came from AFRICA!!!Read some history, its AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH. GOD! help US.

    February 22, 2009 at 8:02 pm |
  13. c,ca

    I have to agree, Tom. My husband and I were Obama supporters from the beginning. We would often say, "What are Al and Jesse going to do if he wins? They'll have nothing to complain about." But no, there's always something. It gets annoying. I think Al Sharpton's job is to be a professional whiner – what else does he do? And how can I get that job?

    That is not how Obama ran his campaign. His message was (is) to include everybody. I think that's what his supporters want. Most of us would like to move forward except those, as you said, whose power comes from keeping the races at each other's throats.

    And since I'm applying for that professional whiner job: Roland Martin is really getting on my nerves lately. He goes on and on about equal rights, bla, bla, bla....... but when Prop. 8 passed in California – he was perfectly fine with that. Change the State's Constitution to deny people their rights, sure – why not. Equal rights for some people, but wait, not those people.

    They're all just self-serving clowns.

    February 22, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  14. Saad Rehan

    Being part of any media is a pretty responsible job. Today people in America are raising hell about the of a chimp cartoon made by some cartoonist. If we can recall in recent past there was another cartoon that was published by westren media on Prophet Mohammad. It really hurted 1.5 billion muslims around the world, but no one, no Al Sharpton or United States official came out and condemmed it, infact it was potrayed in the west as muslims are against freedom of press and It was published again, with an attitude, like do what ever u can.

    The responsibility of media is to be careful about the feelings of the masses..being free doesn't mean that no body is responsible for nothing. We, media which represents the people should condemn any attempt that fuels hatered and extremism, weather it is based on race or religion.

    February 22, 2009 at 6:17 pm |
  15. Salas

    Conscience is an open wound,only the truth can heal it,i believe mr holder was right in making that comment,it isnt that he want to draw back the little progress already made but to ensure that people wont look back and return to past ideals.When he made the comment,he didnt say whites folks were guilty of racism,but that a nation with such history must as a matter of urgency tackle the monster head-on.What is important is the content of our character and not the colour of our skin.All institutionalized obstacles impeding the growth of the minority folks:latinos,arabs,blacks should be removed in other to have a truly model society,where we are our brothers keepers.It begins within our heart and goes out to our community.Thanks

    February 22, 2009 at 6:04 pm |
  16. Fay - California

    So when people like Roland Martin, Al Sharpton or organizations like the NAACP point out genuinely racist incidents or disparities in this country, it's somehow their fault that racism persists? There was an interesting blog post here recently by Stephanie Lace Maxwell that illustrated clearly why African-Americans aren't throwing the word "racism" around casually simply because they wish to be "perpetual victims". There are real issues that still need to be addressed.

    February 22, 2009 at 4:13 pm |
  17. Amanda Walton-Fort Erie, Canada

    It will be a great day for us all when race and religion has no bearing on the kind of person we are...

    A strange question I ask myself often

    If everyone on the planet were blind...
    would there still be racism?

    Have a great day Tom! Stay Safe

    February 22, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Terry

    I don't think that every segment of society is as racially divided as this blog and subsequent comments suggest. I think it varies in terms of where you live and the people you surround yourself with and call your friends. I was raised in a multiracial family and married a man who is white of Irish descent, the color of his skin didn't matter, I loved him and he loved me, as I know was the case with my parents. Unfortunately, taking on this kind of relationship brings all kinds of baggage from others that can make life and bringing up a family difficult. There will always be people who do not accept the relationship that my husband and I have, but I truly don't care, that is their business and they are entitled to their opinion, I don't let it rule my life. I guess one of my points is that you should be a fly on the wall in our living room when it comes to racially charged discussions, they can become very heated, but in the end we respect each others opinions, hear what each other has to say, then inevitably agree to disagree. It's a shame that it can"t be like this for so many other people out there, this race game became old a long time ago, people need to to just drop this white and black thing and try to get along, a little respect for each other can go a long way.

    February 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  19. Mike in NYC

    @Lissa in Houston:

    There's also "impossibility," as in the impossibility of a totally integrated society that is also stable and harmonious.

    There's no such thing as too much emphasis on reality. It's the only game in town.

    February 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm |
  20. Mike, Syracuse NY

    I watched the series Black in America on CNN. One of the most surprising things was the degree to which lingering economic inequality was due to irresponsible choices among blacks. It's well known that a child in a one parent home will do less well economically, is less likely to stay in school, and is more prone to crime. Yet the illegitamte birth rate among blacks is 2-3X that of whites. In inner cities, black school dropout rates are over 50%. Both these factors are dominant in earning potential. The legal framework for equality is there. The mental framework is not. Until blacks take charge of their lives and start making responsible decisions all the Afirmative Action in the world won't help. Why don't we see Al Sharpton railing against blacks who drop out of school instead of at cartoons in the paper? Answer, because then he wouldn't be able to blame whites.

    February 22, 2009 at 2:59 pm |
  21. Neo

    You sent that to the president? 😡 Your observation is just that, based upon an old encounter, that was specific to politics, not REAL life. This generation is not even issue-y when it comes to race and frankly the old timers need to take a lesson from the youth on this one. We're not seeing what you're seeing. If their was staunch racism today then Barack wouldn't be president.

    Commenters: MB, Mike in NYC and Lissa .... your words were inspiring. Thank You.

    February 22, 2009 at 2:39 pm |
  22. Jeane from Salem MA

    @Lissa: That is the best way I've ever heard to describe this and so many other situations. Thanks for sharing it.

    February 22, 2009 at 2:06 pm |
  23. Lissa in Houston

    There was an interesting guy on Bill Moyers Friday – he used the best comment I've heard to explain the way that Republicans approach all of their arguments and beliefs: corrosive cynicism. He said there is "reality" and there is "possibility". If you can't find a happy medium between the two, you are stuck in a radical position. Too much emphasis on reality and you get corrosive cynicism. Too much possibility and you get irrelevant idealism. I think this applies to race, to economics, to everything. Sometimes the Democrats get too much into the possibilities, but the Republicans are WAAAY to far off into corrosive cynicism. They can't see the possibilities.

    February 22, 2009 at 11:51 am |
  24. Mike in NYC

    Tom, it might make you feel better to think that racial and ethnic identity persist because of what some politicians are doing, but the truth is that most people prefer to be around others who are like them.

    We have to accept that people self-segregate. I, for one, have no problem with it. I do it myself, and feel no guilt whatsoever.

    What remains to be seen is how much coercive state power is going to be used to force people together. Never underestimate the fanaticism of the social engineers in their drive to remake society in their ideological image.

    February 22, 2009 at 11:47 am |
  25. KAREN

    IT should not matter the color of your skin,only the prueratey of your heart,we,are who we are,GOD created all of us,and we all have a perpese so lets love each other,and take care of each other.

    February 22, 2009 at 11:21 am |
  26. Joel Messing

    Why won't Reporters really tell folks that the reason for bailing out foreclosures is because of loss of Property taxes to state and local governments. Politicians really couldn't care about the poeple or they would have never allowed the sub prime mortgages to be made. Is it all about taxes and votes rather than what is good ofr the country? If you believe that politicians really care about people you wouldn't see this crazyness..

    February 22, 2009 at 11:15 am |
  27. Paul W.

    We did not vote Obama in to have him repeat Bush's Fascist Policies, and also keep the same war criminals that Bush had running his Fascist Party??

    We were under the impression that Obama was running as a Democrat, not a Republican Fascist??

    This makes Obama complicit in Bush's War Crimes, and violations of the Geneva Cionvention. It also violates War Powers Act, and Human Rights?

    We real Democrats are mad as hell!
    Obama backs Bush: No rights for Bagram prisoners 20 Feb 2009 The Obama administration, siding with the Bush White House, contended Friday that prisoners in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights. In a two-sentence court filing, the Justice Department said it agreed that detainees at Bagram Airfield cannot use U.S. courts to challenge their detention. The filing shocked human rights attorneys.

    US rules-out legal action for Bagram detainees 21 Feb 2009 The US Department of Justice has ruled that prisoners housed at a US military base in Afghanistan should not have the right to take legal action in the United States to challenge their detention. Under former president [sic] George W Bush the American Justice Department had resisted, arguing that the prisoners were enemy combatants who had been captured in a war zone. Now the Obama administration has confirmed it supports that view, a move that has angered and disappointed human rights lawyers.

    February 22, 2009 at 10:40 am |
  28. Art

    Hi Tom,I've thought about that myself. I think its human nature in many ways. Weather we admit it or not its in our DNA, I think. Anger can be a deadly emotion. It can bring out the worst in us. Mix passion and anger and you have a bad combination. Its to bad we still can't get through all this, we need to keeping moving forward. Keeping going Mr. president, I'am with ya. Thanks for reading, Art

    February 22, 2009 at 10:10 am |
  29. Clarence in Georgia

    Holder's remark stung in its truth. Yelling at each other over racial problems is not conversation. Speaking our minds within our own communities, is not conversation. Commenting on problems, is not conversation. We, deep inside, may fear to discuss, across racial lines the truths. The fear is that we will either be called racists or sell-outs. In fact, I am showing that fear now as I comment safely without contact.

    February 22, 2009 at 9:35 am |
  30. mb

    That's the crux of it. People like the NAACP, Roland Martin, Sharpton, Ruben Naverette, Duke, and many others thrive on the fear they generate in others. They want people to believe they're relevant and necessary when in fact, they stand in the way of progess of this very issue.
    Fortunately kids seem less "threatened" by each other and the younger generation gets along much better...and it has nothing to do with their efforts.
    It infuriates me to see leaders pointing to how much ethnic groups interact, or the degree to which they live among each other as evidence of racism. We don't even have that among whites. Our cultural values and beliefs vary from area to area, town to town, and state to state.
    Address the educational, cultural, and other issues that hinder progress. They preach about including black history in books, yet 1 in 7 people in America can't read. Our schools are woefully inadequate. Our values are misplaced. We idolize idiots and dismiss teachers as relatively irrelevant in the process. Parents aren't held accountable for their children(s)' education. Kids are getting pregnant and producing the next generation of failure.
    In the case of the extremists. Let them be held accountable in a court of law when they make false accusations. Maybe when they are forced to prove their accusations and have to pay for the damage to the lives and careers of indivuals when they can't, they'll shut up.
    Unfortunately too many people on both sides have found race makes a good crutch. They can use it to go through life as a failure because it means they don't have to be responsible for it. It's easy to be the victim, and one thing that is clear about America...No one is responsible for anything and that's everyone's problem.

    February 22, 2009 at 8:16 am |