Plenary Panel Highlight: Charles Blow
By: Sara Grossman
This is it, journalist and commentator Charles Blow told the audience. This is us having a national conversation on race.
Michael Omi, UC Berkeley professor and associate director of the Haas Institute, had just asked Blow what a serious national conversation on race would look like, and the journalist was definitive in his response.
“I try to remind people that we are in the middle of that conversation,” Blow said. “We envision that conversation to be an equal part acceptance of blame and guilt and responsibility and that may not be the shape of the conversation we have now. But people are in fact having conversations about this issue all the time.”
Blow, who serves as an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and regularly comments on issues of race in America, said that all too often these conversations are just “preaching to the choir,” or the “aggrieved” talking to the “aggrievers.” We are all “raced,” he said, but it is inarguable that some people’s race benefits them more than others.
Blow shared an anecdote from his youth of when he and a friend were followed and stopped by a police officer in Louisiana, a story which ultimately ended with the pair face down in the street and the officer hovering over them saying, “I could lie you down in the middle of the street and shoot you in the back of the head and no one would ask me anything.”
When they got home, his friend’s father, who was also black, told them not to do anything.
“That was the way that people who looked like us survived in that part of the world,” Blow said. “When they pull a gun you can't pull a resume. This is not a perception issue, this happens. There is a skin tax.”
But, he said, the fact that people are now saying “enough is enough” is a step forward from those days.
That step forward, Blow said, has come in the form of not just protests but also technological advances like camera phones and social media. “Thank god for videophones,” he said, to loud applause.
“I think it's important for people to drag this out in the open so people can no longer deny it,” he said. “But I worry about the repetition of seeing people's lives taken on television. There is something about the video game-ization that devalues the act of taking the life. There is something macabre and pornographic about seeing that.”
Earlier in the hour, Prof. Omi began the discussion with a question about Blow’s experience with fraternities while in college. A good portion of Blow’s book, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” deals with his experience with hazing when joining an African American fraternity.
“Hazing is a societal poison that goes across all dimensions, military, professional groups … and is [based on] this idea that you have to somehow create a trauma to create a bonding,” he said. “[ the fact that] there are whole generations of Americans that are coming into being leaders of our society who have been nurtured by [hazing] is an incredible idea.”
“There is no way to hold yourself harmless when you are in the commission of cruelty. By the time you're finished with that much scarring, you're no longer even yourself,” he added.
The discussion later veered towards religious freedom and Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” bill, which many critics saw as legal permission for businesses to refuse service to members of the LGBTQ community. A week after it passed, lawmakers were pressured to soften parts of the law after a number of companies and public figures announced they would effectively reduce or halt actions in the state.
Blow was unimpressed by the reversal.
“Lawmakers were shaking in their boots because they were worried about the tax base, not because of human concern,” he said. “The human response would be to never do that in the first place.”
The conversation closed on a lighter note, when Prof. Omi posed a query that Haas Institute Executive Director john a. powell asked the staff at a recent meeting: Al Green or Smokey Robinson and why?
“I'm an Al Green person,” Blow said with a laugh. “Do I need a why? It's Al Green.”
Watch the entire video below.