Baltimoreans: Anything but color-blind

Mixed group meets to talk about how to identify, overcome the problems of race

Ethics & Values

March 23, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

In Baltimore circa 2003, it's hard to speak in depth about sports or politics, family or crime -- come to think of it, about anything that matters much -- without touching on the still-touchy topic of race. When a diverse crowd of 100 gathered at Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street this past Wednesday to determine whether America is a "color-blind" society, or should be, the triumph may have been that they didn't even try.

The public forum, staged by the New York-based Ford Foundation and Roundtable Inc., a Massachusetts media-production company, was the first in a three-part series, "Ethnicity and Race in a Changing America." The events are being staged in Baltimore and seven other cities, with the aim of bringing media members together with the people they cover in order to foster mutual understanding.

"Each side has a lot to learn from the other," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a University of Maryland Law School professor who, along with local talk-radio host Marc Steiner, led the free forum.

Ifill, an African-American, spoke astutely of problems a media outlet faces in sharing news both fairly and inclusively. Every newspaper, for instance, relates events from a certain narrow perspective, she said -- even those that see themselves as mainstream, including The Sun, which presents itself as neutral.

"Every publication has a point of view," she said, "and should be aware of that. Even white is a color."

'A complicated issue'

The evening began with Ifill and Steiner, who is white, introducing a 15-minute film that combined clips taken from race-themed programs the PBS network will soon broadcast. They asked a rapt audience to ponder several questions as it scrutinized the film. Among them: "Is America color-blind?" and "What does it mean to be an American?"

Among the characters in the film was a Chinese-American veteran of World War II who spoke of the perils he faced in Europe -- and the racial prejudice to which he returned.

When the lights came up, Steiner spoke about a labor dispute he witnessed during the Civil Rights movement.

"When there's a genuine struggle," he said, "race does become secondary. But it's a complicated issue in America, maybe more so now than ever."

Audience members began streaming to the two microphones in the library's Wheeler Auditorium, and what emerged was less a report card on the press than an emotional airing of personal frustrations.

An elderly African-American doctor recalled his medical school days. The races of the cadavers he dissected made no difference, he said, but once he entered the work force, color mattered a lot. He called for spiritual education that would obviate racism. "There's only one race -- the human race," he said, triggering applause.

A finance professional, also African-American, assessed race and opportunity in Baltimore. In other cities, including New York, qualifications and education level mattered more. Here, she said, her voice rising in anger, there's "a very small pie" which isn't widely shared.

A white radio producer suggested that local power brokers have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo of de facto racial segregation. But he added, to more applause, that the free forum itself promoted the kind of "heartfelt connectedness" everyone wants.

Newspaper code

In the end, Ifill shared examples of media myopia -- some of them admittedly hard to avoid. When she reads the Afro-American or other minority newspapers, she says, she keeps in mind the perspective from which the stories are likely to have been written. With The Sun, she said, that's harder to do.

The paper's "encrypted language" -- terms such as "inner-city schools" and "corporate crime" -- evokes racially charged subjects without admitting it's doing so.

"We hear about [tennis players] Venus and Serena Williams being 'from Compton,' " she said, "and having a 'colorful' father. And we're supposed to know what that means. But part of what makes their story interesting is that they're black women succeeding in a historically white sport. More direct language would help."

Steiner attempted to find it. He advocates a stronger media voice for blacks, he says, and mentioned several ways his station, WYPR-FM, "brings African-Americans into the fold." As organizers wound the forum down after two hours, the longtime activist sounded frustrated. "We could talk till midnight," he said. "We're just getting started!"

The two-hour forum couldn't resolve the "color-blindness" question it raised. And within a few hours, another major issue -- war -- would be on everyone's mind. But as the session broke up, most there seemed to feel the conversation they'd had was the first step toward any answer.

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