LEO has a proud history of tackling sensitive, uncomfortable issues and none more so than discussing race in Louisville and America. February is Black History month and we don’t just see this as an opportunity to discuss race relations, but as our responsibility to do so — particularly at a time when racial frictions seem to be reaching a national crescendo.
In the briefest of summaries, the recent escalation of racial tension began around the election of our first black president in 2008. That is not to say that there were not racial issues at the time, but that they were not of this magnitude, or they at least were of a different shade. Remember also, this was post-9/11, when Americans of all colors bound together and directed any racial animosity toward the Muslim side of the world. Looking back now, it is difficult to recall the multitude of incidents that have brought us to this moment, but the election of President Obama marked a turning point when gray America started to become black and white America again.
During his campaign, Obama ran into early trouble with a former associate, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his “God damn America speech,” which forced Obama to address his own racial identity directly. Then in 2009, our freshman president was compelled to host a “Beer Summit,” at the White House, between Harvard Professor Henry Gates Jr. and police sergeant James Crowley, who had previously arrested the black professor as he tried to find a way into his own locked house.
Most recently, a series of killings by police and individuals asserting a claim to “stand-your-ground” has decimated nearly two decades of progress since Rodney King. I was 8 years old when he was beaten by the LAPD.
All the while, LEO has been here addressing these crises when they have arisen; lending a voice to the voiceless; calling to action that which needs civil engagement.
In the second-ever issue, LEO founder, John Yarmuth, addressed the “crisis” of the NCAA student-athlete saying, “No one cared a hoot about whether college athletes graduated until blacks began to dominate basketball, and football.”
Three issues later, Bob Schulman dreamt of a Louisville “in which a troubleshooting, peacemaking team swings into action each time there is a headline-making act of bigotry, and car horns and church bells sound off to symbolize a community’s dismay.” He finished by quoting W.C. Fields, “I am free from all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.”
My dad once wrote about me, his seven-year-old son, unquestionably idolizing black role models, instead of Larry Bird, it was Michael Jordan; not Vanilla Ice, but M.C. Hammer; instead of Letterman or Leno, I loved Arsenio Hall. My dad even prophesied, “I don’t think Aaron would for one moment think it unusual or even noteworthy if an African-American man or woman were elected President of the United States.” He continued to surmise, however, “The American media, with all its faults, may be making one of the most important contributions to race relations in our history. By throwing the spotlight on black accomplishments … our media may be creating a generation of color-neutral, if not color-blind, Americans.”
While it gives me chills every time I read it, hoping there may still be some truth in his optimism, I am wondering if it is easier or harder to discuss race in the world today. Easier or not, is it at least more helpful than hurtful to talk race in today’s media?
We are a more empowered citizenry today than any civilization in the history of the world. We have tools that give us access to the wealthy and powerful. We can document, create and produce the “news” ourselves. We are enabled with remarkable tools allowing us to organize and rally against the hatred and bigotry of racism.
However, we are also more capable of intimidating and bullying dissenters we do not agree with. We have more opportunities to isolate ourselves with only those who look like us, think like us and share our biases. We are suffocated by a relentless input of media coverage, which focuses on the biggest, most recent controversy, not always with deference to importance or legitimacy. At some point, do we not become desensitized to the noise?
So is it easier to talk race today than when LEO started 25 years ago?
If Black History month is to be recognized in LEO, it would be an abdication of our responsibility to not at least attempt to make it a valuable contribution … lest we not just recognize the history of contributions past, but rather contribute to the history in which we find ourselves now. Some 300 million Americans are more empowered than at any point in our history with greater knowledge of the world and tools to change it. How will you use that power?