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