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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
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BOND: William Raspberry, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you so much for being here.
RASPBERRY: It's a pleasure and a joy to be here.
BOND: Well, I want to begin with a question about Brown v. Board of Education. Do you remember what it meant to you at the time you heard about it, the first you heard about it?
RASPBERRY: I do, and what it -- it seemed utterly impossible. I was in small town Mississippi at the time and I thought, "That's all very nice but, boy, it ain't ever going to happen here," you know. I thought I knew whites in the South and I thought that this just ain't going to happen. And slowly I started to believe that, hey, maybe it could, and now I've reached the point where I still believe maybe it could.
BOND: I see. All these years later.
RASPBERRY: It hasn't yet.
BOND: So, I guess that leads into the next question. At the time you thought it wouldn't mean what it promised to mean -- what do you think it's turned out to mean, now these fifty-two years later?
RASPBERRY: It turned out to establish something that I thought was -- and still think -- is very important and that is that the government has no business, at all its levels, has no business making odious separations of people based on race and other irrelevancies. That was an important thing to establish. It was important to drive home the fact that it was damaging. I mean, quite apart from the legal implications, it's damaging psychologically to children to be told that you may not attend this school because of the color of your skin.
Unfortunately, we went on to make another and, I think, also damaging conclusion when we said by implication and I mean we, the black community, said by implication and to some extent still say that what's wrong with this school is that there're too many kids in it who look like you. That's also psychologically damaging and destructive.
I'm awfully glad Brown happened. It wasn't enough. And unfortunately, we still half a century later haven't figured out what enough would look like. We don't know what to do about the education of our children, especially poor black kids in the cities.
BOND: You wrote in a 1982 Post column that black Americans had a choice between being educated or integrated or both integrated and educated and made being integrated the top priority and the results, you wrote, are socially questionable and educationally disastrous. What'd you mean by that?
RASPBERRY: I don't think I was smart back in '82.
BOND: Yes, you were.
RASPBERRY: No, I -- what I meant by that was a series of things. First, is that for middle-class black children already imbued with the values of their middle-class parents, the education part had already happened and integration was the next logical step for them. What they did, though, was to make this a general prescription, not as a logical next step for people who had already made a substantial step but as a curative step for those who hadn't and it doesn't work -- it doesn't work as a remedy. And what I meant in that column is that when you devote major effort and major financial, economic and political capital to getting the integration to happen, you don't have very much left to make education happen, and we went for a good while without the necessary attention to making education happen. I think it's one of the things that accounts for the situation we're in today where we've got neither education nor integration.
BOND: Now, in 1987, and you must get tired of having your words quoted and asked about things in the past or maybe not -- you said, "Civil rights tempts us to think in terms of distribution and enforcement when we ought to be thinking of discipline and exertion." Talk about that.
RASPBERRY: Well, the words do come back, don't they? And I guess I can't say I was taken out of context. No. I really do believe that, but let me say what I mean about that. There were things that were done during that period we remember as the civil rights movement that were absolutely vital for our future. I think laws were enacted. Practices were installed or stopped. And we called on America to change -- white America -- and it changed. It made possible some things that we couldn't have accomplished without that change no matter how virtuous we were as individuals. The exemplar we used to use, you know, as a description of segregation and housing, for instance, that even Ralph Bunche who was our Colin Powell, I guess, in those days -- even Ralph Bunche couldn't buy a house in a white neighborhood and how awful that was, and he was our symbol of virtue.
We were asserting that our virtue was not the problem. It was racism that was the problem and that needed to be overcome and we made some significant strides in doing that. But what I remember, and what seems to me important, is that there were always both internal and external barriers to our progress. In those days, during the movement, the external barriers were critical. No matter what we did internally wouldn't matter much as long as those barriers stayed in place, so it was a good noble fight and I'm awfully glad we did it and that we won.
We don't know -- haven't quite figured out what to do with that victory, though. In my own view, we've reached the point -- and it's the landmark point -- where the internal barriers are now more significant to our progress than the external ones. The external ones aren't gone, just as the internal ones weren't gone back in the '60s, but they are less an impediment. The external barriers are less an impediment now than the internal habits we've accrued, and we haven't quite got our minds around that.
Because we couldn't change the culture in the '60s, we could only make righteous demand, we made it and it was effective. And that piece says that we formed the habit of believing that righteous demand was enough to address all our issues. Some of the issues, including those that I think predominate now among many parts of our population, don't lend themselves to righteous demand. You can't righteously demand that your children be educated. You can demand a place in school. Well, we've got a place in school, but commitment to learning, to study, the things that really do make education pay off, don't lend themselves to righteous demand.
You could demand a new school or a new traffic light or new anything and while you slept, the government, if you made enough noise about it, might deliver it. You might wake up and look out your window in the morning and see a shiny new traffic light where three kids had been killed, you know, in the years before. You won't wake up in the morning and see a truck unloading education for your children on your front lawn. Your children have to go out there and get it. It has to be there. And we made sure during the days of the movement that it was there. We now have to make sure that our children are prepared to go out and grasp it. Otherwise, it won't matter that it's there.
BOND: This is not a quote from a column, but the researcher who put this together summarizes in this case -- "worse, an obsession with finding examples of persistent racism without inhibits solving more tractable and pressing problems from within." Is that what you were talking about a moment ago?
RASPBERRY: I don't know what that means, but it sounds sort of like what -- yeah, I think -- it's very difficult to multitask on racial disadvantage. King talked about the necessity for what he called a rhythmic alternation between dealing with causes and curing conditions. It's so easy to achieve a position of leadership if you hand the people who're in trouble a scapegoat for their condition. This is the villain who caused the beast. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I can cheer that because it's always right. It's always correct. But it's not always helpful and if you attempt to lead by saying, "They've been awful to us but what needs to be done next is up to us to do and we have to forget them for a little while, perhaps, or let somebody else deal with their sins, and we have to deal with our own shortcomings" -- that doesn't catapult you into leadership. And even people, no matter how well intentioned they may be, find it difficult to resist what I consider the applause lines of blaming the enemy for our shortcomings.
And it's not the reverse of blaming the victims. It's a matter of getting the analysis right, or at least right enough, so that you can make some progress. Because that to me is the name of the game -- moving from the condition we're in to the condition -- to nearer the condition we hope to achieve. If blaming makes that happen, then baby boy blame, but it doesn't anymore make it happen and it's finally necessary I think to change some of the things we do and some of the things we teach our children because we have reached that unprecedented place in African American history where for the first time what we do matters more than what is done to us. It does not say, and somebody will always hear you to say this, it does not mean that what is done to us is insignificant. It continues to be significant, but what we do for the first time matters more.
BOND: That's a nice segue into the next question and, again, going back to Brown, how has the Brown decision in '54 affected your life today and in the intervening years. I know you went to an integrated college, so Brown had little impact I would guess on that, but you've had a preoccupation, some would say, with education and now are engaged in a project in your own hometown so what has Brown meant to you in that sense over these many years, professionally I guess?
RASPBERRY: Brown has meant a lot of things, some psychological, some practical, it -- to have the nation's highest Court say what we already knew is still profoundly important, I think -- that we are full-fledged human Americans. No subcategories. We are full-fledged Americans. Our humanity is complete. That's a reassuring notion to internalize and to have other people who doubted our humanity to internalize, so it's meant that.
It's meant the opportunity for vastly improved education for a huge segment of the black middle class. It's meant a number of things. It meant school improvement in a lot of cases. What it didn't mean, though, and what it didn't accomplish is a significantly improved education for the poorest and most damaged of African Americans in the rural areas and in the big cities. It wasn't that anybody made a decision not to help those kids. We just sort of thought that if we helped the ones who were least damaged, the help will eventually trickle down to those who are most damaged and it hasn't.
RASPBERRY: You mentioned the effort I've been making in my hometown of Okolona, Mississippi. One significant fact about that town is that the schools -- fifty years, fifty-two years after Brown -- are officially desegregated. In fact, about 99 percent African American. There's no point in talking about solving Okolona's education problems through some racial tinkering or some racial accusation or some racial guilt. We've got to deal with the kids we've got and with the resources we have. It's also clear to me that there're things that our children suffer that we try to address, but we almost always try to address them by giving the schools one more thing to do. And the schools can hardly do what they're primarily charged with doing, which is to teach our children. And I started thinking about the children in my hometown -- a hometown that, by the way, had given me a good start in life back before Brown v. Board -- and looking at those youngsters and thinking, you know, there's some more Bill Raspberrys scattered among them, some more potential that if we're not careful, will go unrealized. What can we do?
And the thought occurred to me that so many of our children begin school, begin kindergarten already behind, and how does this happen? Because they fail to get the kind of start that is best for learning back home. Not because their parents are wicked, but because their parents don't always know what to do. So I undertook three years ago, back in '03, to teach the parents of preschoolers in my hometown what they can do at home to get their children ready for learning and for life.
BOND: And what are those things? What do they learn?
RASPBERRY: First, they're learning -- they're relearning what we used to know, that education is magical, that it is life-transforming if you let it be. We're talking about a generation of parents, and I'm talking now about young parents including many school dropouts, who no longer believe that education is magical. It didn't work for them. That's why they dropped out and had little Stephanie when they were seventeen or sixteen or eighteen. They want their children to do well. They love them. They spend precious money on dressing them to make them look cute and I say to them or we say to them, "We know you love your kids, but suppose we said we can give you something that will matter more for their lives long term than those cute Weeboks you've got on their feet, which will be too small in a few months anyway? Suppose we said you can give me something that'll change their life down the road, make it better. Would you be interested?" Well, of course, they'd be interested.
And we say, "I know what you're thinking. We're talking about education and you think there's nothing you can do to help your child be successful academically because you weren't. What do you know?" I say, "Look, you're your child's first teacher, like it or not, and every single day you get up in the morning you're teaching your kid. We're not talking about whether you should teach your child. We're talking about what you'll teach your child. You can teach your child that his life or her life will be pretty much the same as yours, or you'll teach your child that he or she has the prospect of a vastly changed life trajectory, that something wonderful can happen if we start now and prepare to make it happen."
BOND: And surely people buy into this and say, "Sure, sign me up, I'll do it." Have you thought about the people who say, "No, it's not for me" or "I don't have the time or I don't have the energy"?
RASPBERRY: Nobody says, "Not for me." Nobody says, "I don't want it." They signal they don't want by not showing up. With everything, there're the early adapters who will show up every time you say that life's going to be better for my kids, "Yeah, I want some of that," and there's a second ring of people who will come in kind of reluctantly and there's a third ring that will say, "Let me see how this goes and then I may step up." We're affecting the third ring. There's a fourth ring that I think I won't be able to reach, I'm not smart enough to reach. But if we can reach a critical mass of parents of young children, I think we begin to transform what happens in schools.
I'm already -- you know, I committed to doing birth to five, that is, parents of children from birth to five. It's already clear to me that when the five-year-old becomes six or seven and enters the public schools, we can't walk away from those parents. The things we've tried to teach them and the attitudes we've tried to instill in them will still be important so we'll have to find the ways and means of following them into the schools.
But you know, you ask what we do, what we teach them. Sure. Attitudes are among the things that I think are critical. The beginnings of a new belief in themselves as parents and their own efficacy. But there're specific things that they can be taught to do. Talk to your kids. Talk to your children. It can be quite astounding to watch how little conversation happens between parent and child at some of the lower income levels. Studies have been done on this that as you come down the socioeconomic ladder, there is less conversation between parent and child.
All parents, according to one study, a Todd Risley study, says that all parents do pretty much the same amount of what he calls business talk. "Now, bring me my shoes." "Hang your coat up." "Stop." We all do about the same amount of that. At the lowest socioeconomic spot, that's all that happens and you spend time with a middle-class mom or dad and their toddlers, there's this incessant chatter that's going on both ways. This is language formation. It promotes reading readiness although that's not what it's meant to do. It's kind of a bond -- it's what they do, but it's fun trying to teach taciturn parents to be chatterers, but it's important -- and they enjoy the -- I mean, it's fun for them, too. I mean, we're not taking them to the woodshed all the time. We're saying, "Here're things you can do. Here're things you can talk about."
Reading to their kids every night is something they can do. Using stuff that's around the kitchen to teach initial letter sounds is something they can do and enjoy learning to do. Talking to them about health choices -- a little trickier because moms are often making poor health choices themselves and it's hard to enforce, but if you can help people to believe that what they do will make a difference for their children's life chances, you can get their attention.
BOND: I would think that would be the initial hardest barrier, to convince parents that their children's outcomes can be different than theirs because of the interaction or intervention of the parent. Once you're over that hurdle, I would think it would be easy, but --
RASPBERRY: It's not easy, but once you're over that hurdle, it becomes possible. And you are exactly right. That is the critical barrier. You don't have to convince parents to love their children. They do that automatically and naturally, but they don't have much basis for believing in their own efficacy as parents. They haven't been reinforced. They haven't seen any good come of it, so our task is to do some modeling and make that happen.
BOND: Now, after three years, is it too early to say this has been successful, this didn't work too well?
RASPBERRY: You sound like a funder. Yes, it's too early. It's not too early to begin the measurements and we've got a brilliant woman in Mississippi whose specialty is assessment who's doing this for us, and we will have some numbers, and she's already been talking to the parents -- parents and children in the Baby Steps program. I think I forgot to tell you, that that's what we call it, Baby Steps -- who we talk to people who are in Baby Steps and people who are not, and they try to assess certain pre-literacy competencies and so on. That's at a pay grade higher than mine. I just -- I think it's something we need to do, so I just keep doing it.
BOND: You know, as an aside, in '64, in the Freedom Summer of Mississippi, we had Freedom Schools for kids. About three thousand kids went to these schools. Only anecdotal evidence will tell you that some of them flowered and flourished. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of Freedom Summer, we had a reunion and a teacher went back to Hattiesburg and met three girls who are now women who had been Freedom School students. They were children of single mothers and had all the demographics that you'd say means failure for these women. Two of them were doctors, one of them a lawyer. And I've always been curious why some graduate student, and I've tried to get my graduate students to do it, to go back and capture this cohort. We have the names. Easy to find. And compare them with those who didn't have this experience and see whether this single summer of a broadened educational experience might not have had some large effect, but anyway --
RASPBERRY: It would be a brilliant!
BOND: Oh, sure, it would be, but let's not get distracted by this.
RASPBERRY: Maybe you -- well --
BOND: I don't even know if they were in your county in '64, but at any rate, maybe some of the mothers of these children are kids who are in those schools all those years ago. But let me move on.
BOND: And this is pertinent to what you've just been talking about. In your own life, your personal life, who are the people who were most helpful to you in developing your talents and developing whom you are today? And I notice you've made a distinction between mentors and role models. Talk about that a bit.
RASPBERRY: Yeah. The smartest thing I did early on was to choose my parents very very wisely. I had two terrific parents. I've still got one of them. My mom, whom I saw four days ago, is a hundred years old and a lovely woman. She's still living in her own house. But she and my father, through I don't know what means, managed to acquire some child-rearing skills that were phenomenal. They didn't manage to acquire much money ever. They were both teachers, and there was -- we were never hungry or less than properly clothed, but the clothing was not always the good stuff that some of the kids were wearing. We didn't feel poor. What they did was -- because they loved learning so much themselves, we absorbed that. All five of us, we were forever reading things. My sister used to read in the shower, you know. I mean, it was -- and my own children have kept that habit going, which makes me appreciate the power of observation. But somehow they were able to instill in us, first, a love of learning.
They were able also -- in Okolona, Mississippi, segregated and awful for us -- they were able to make us feel that we were okay, valuable people, and the center of their lives. They were able to make us believe that no matter what happened around us and to us, we were to behave like Raspberry kids. I mean, that meant something in those days, you know? That other people's mistreatment of us did not relieve us of the responsibility of behaving decently in the world. They never quite said it that way. They would chide us for things, but more importantly, they modeled -- they modeled what they believed.
BOND: Where did they get this from?
RASPBERRY: I don't know where they got it.
BOND: Where did it come to them from?
RASPBERRY: I saw these attitudes reflected in both my maternal and paternal grandparents, especially the grandfathers. And I suppose some of it came from there. I'm sure if you asked them, they couldn't tell you where it came from, but -- I mean, this is the part of it that strikes me as powerful. When it happens and however happens, you can recognize its power and how it makes you feel, and it makes you want to pass it along, so once you get infected with this gene, whatever it is, it can, with a little help, replicate itself down the generations.
By the same token, if you get infected with an attitude that says nothing you do matters and that vengeance is a proper response, that getting even is more important than getting ahead, that's heritable, too. And I see kids -- I used to see kids on the playground who would fight because their parents had instructed them you don't take nothing off nobody and if anybody does anything to you, you hit them with a rock or you stab them with a pencil or you -- and they thought they were teaching their kids to take care of themselves because they loved their kids. So, what my own experience -- both at my house, and I do mean it when I say my parents were sort of incredible -- there's another thing about my early years, though, that's also extremely important, I think.
I was born on the campus of what was then Okolona College, a little two-year college with a four-year high school attached. It was a campus setting, dormitories, you know, the whole thing. That's where I was born. There's where my dad taught building trades. It was at that time the only four-year high school for blacks in Chickasaw County. But there was that little school, supported by the Episcopal church, that saw as its mission preparing young black kids to succeed in a hostile environment.
The people there -- I think I remember one Ph.D. the whole time the college existed. These were people who were not extraordinary scholars or particularly gifted teachers, but they were so committed to rescuing, saving a generation of us in the heat of segregation that they really did transform our lives. I'm talking about a surprising number of people who came through that little high school and college who went on to do well. And the presence of that little school helped to transform our town into what these days we would call a learning community, at least for the black half of the town. And we had some effect on the other, but I'm principally talking about what happened to black kids and black families in that town in those days. And it was really quite extraordinary in ways that I didn't realize until I left the place, and that experience of observing at first hand what a few committed people can do to lift the sights of people who didn't have much previous reason for lifting their eyes -- that's also part of what drives the Baby Steps effort.
I don't want to recreate the little college, it's no point in doing that. But I came to understand and to understand more every day as I look back, the importance of changing the culture, the cultural attitudes toward learning. Learning is in disrepute in some parts of our country. It's thought to be an effete kind of thing, and, you know, acting is more important than merely learning. And in our own little way, Baby Steps hopes to get people thinking about creating once again a learning community in our town.
We also hope to transform the town racially as well. The town is almost equally divided between black and white and we haven't figured out yet, except at the edges, how to live together. There's some people who want to do it, who are trying on both sides, but I think -- it occurred to me once again that we will argue about politics and religion and whether to put the park here or the school there. The one thing we're all agreed on is that we want our children to do well. I mean, it's the one -- you ask for a show of hands of those who are opposed to children and you don't get anybody waving their hands about. It's about the only thing I can think of where we're all agreed and waiting for somebody to give us something to do to act on that agreement.
BOND: Now, besides these academics and your own parents and teachers, I guess, are there other figures in your early life that had an impact on you?
RASPBERRY: They are -- and there are such people, and I will miss some of them, but let me name one by way of illustrating a point that I think is important. We talk to our youngsters today as early as junior high and we tell them the importance of studying and staying in school and making good grades because a college graduate earns this much and a high school graduate only earns this much and a high school dropout only earns this much, so you see how important it is that you stay in school and do well. And I roll back to my childhood and I think I did not study a single hour or write a single paper or pass a single examination with an eye on my economics twenty years down the road. It just wasn't a part of my thought process. You know, for kids, long-term is the weekend after next.
I worked hard in school to please adults who cared about me -- my parents of course, but Mr. Gardner was my math teacher and he was a wonderful man and he liked me and I was so -- it was so important for me to have him think well of me that I wanted to ace his algebra courses. And I did so well under Mr. Gardner that my first major when I went away to college was math. I just thought I wanted to be like Mr. Gardner.
There were other people on campus. One man who taught me agriculture. You know, I didn't learn that much about cover crops and that kind of thing, but he was the only teacher I remember who would take us high school boys aside and talk to us about life, which is to say about sex, and it was profoundly important to us because we weren't getting it anywhere else. I wasn't, God bless them, getting it -- I was not getting it from my parents at home. My parents never, I think, uttered the word sex to any of their five children. We never had the talk. I thought I was the only one who missed it, but I talked to my older sisters and they said, "No, no, no." What they would do in those important phases arose, they would find little tracts and books and magazines and leave them lying around in the living room confident that we'd find them and read them.
BOND: You'd pick them up.
RASPBERRY: But they never uttered the word.
BOND: Let me ask you, do you remember any specific national or local historical events that were regularly discussed in your home around the dinner table? And if so, how did these events shape your consciousness?
RASPBERRY: Boy, that's a hard question because I haven't thought of it. Look, I was born in 1935, so my first memories of important national events were World War II and the impact of that on what we did, what we ate, what happened to cousins who went off to fight in the War and all of that.
BOND: Did you have a Victory Garden?
RASPBERRY: We had a survival garden. We always had a garden.
RASPBERRY: Yeah, we had a garden and there were always a few chickens running around the yard. What we did have was black-out curtains. I remember at one phase of my life, we were living in a house that did not have electricity. We had kerosene lamps that were so dim you had to do a double take to see if anybody was home, and yet we bought these thick green or black black-out shades, and when the air raid warning siren went off, we dutifully lowered our blinds. I said, "The Japanese couldn't have found Okolona if we'd set the town on fire, you know, let alone -- and turning out the light," but we were dutiful and patriotic and cared about -- I mean, we didn't resent the fact that shoes and sugar and meat and candy bars were rationed. That was our little contribution to the war effort.
BOND: That was your part of the war effort.
BOND: What about other events after the War? Do you remember the War's end?
RASPBERRY: The War's end, yes. I remember sharing a celebratory mood. I didn't understand what any of this was about. I do remember wondering what will the headlines of the paper be now, because they were every day about the War. And I couldn't imagine what they used to be about. We didn't have as many dinner table conversations, or I didn't overhear as many adult conversations, about politics as we would now. Roosevelt, yeah, on the national level, but we were shut out of state and local politics. We knew vaguely who was running our lives but there was nothing that we could do about it.
My mother, by the way -- I was in college when my mother became the first black woman in Chickasaw County to register to vote.
RASPBERRY: I was already gone. So, I had a vague recollection of their interest in politics, but not strong. They used to talk a lot about how people behaved, and one of the things that I remember so well is that in this little -- I almost want to say, poverty-stricken home, for most of my childhood, there was at least one other person not a family member living with us to go to this little school on this campus I lived. So it became almost second nature that, you know, a spare bed would be put somewhere and another cup of water in the soup and this was what families did if they had a little to share and spare.
And I didn't realize what sort of impact this made on me personally until my wife and I found ourselves taking a thirteen-year-old foster son into our home some years ago because it seemed the natural thing to do. The kid, a decent kid, who needed a place to stay, needed a home, needed some parents. And I think what I'm saying is that little seeds get planted in ways that you don't even suspect and they will sprout at times and places that surprise you. You don't know and it makes me -- I'm almost glad I didn't know this early on. I mean, I think it would make you crazy as a parent if you really understood the influence of what your ordinary day-to-day behavior has on your children. I mean, it's scary, but it can be quite profound.
BOND: Now, moving ahead, how'd you choose your career? I understand you had multiple majors in college. What did you -- what were your majors?
RASPBERRY: As I said, I started off as a math major, partly to please Mr. Gardner, my math teacher, and partly because my father, who taught building trades, would in a fairer world would've have been an engineer, I'm sure of that. And I thought maybe I could be that engineer that Dad couldn't become. Because, see, here was my disease. They had filled me with confidence that I was smart enough to do whatever I set my mind about doing and I really believed that. I was halfway through college before I found out it wasn't true. I ran into organic chemistry and discovered that I couldn't do anything I wanted to do.
At any rate, I thought I could do whatever I put my mind to but I didn't know what I wanted to do and I found myself reacting to what people I cared about and who cared about me said I should do. "Oh, you're good in math, you should be a math major." "You're really good with English. You can spot a gerund or a participle phrase across the campus, you ought to be an English major." So, I was an English major for a time.
I was -- at one point, I was a history major because somebody said something else, and then at one point some people came around to say that the church, the Episcopal church, needed priests. They invited a bunch of us males off to visit Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia -- my first time in Washington, in fact -- to tell us that if we thought we could be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer but also thought we could be a priest, we ought to give that some consideration. So, I became a priest seminarian and was going to be become an Episcopal priest except that I was running out of money for school. Scholarships were not quite as prevalent then as they are now, and I had to work my way through college and this particular summer, it was between my junior and senior years, I'd had trouble finding a job and my re-entry into school that September was in doubt.
It was July already and I was sweating it. And that July day, a friend of mine who worked for the Indianapolis Recorder called and said, "The sports editor just quit. If you're willing to pass yourself off as a sports writer, I think I can get you hired." So I went down to the Recorder and told Mr. [George P.] Stewart I was a sports writer and got hired that day.
BOND: Were you a sports writer?
RASPBERRY: I wasn't a writer of any sort. I didn't know anything about sports. I mean, I liked sports, but -- and it took him about a week to discover that I really wasn't his next sports editor. But I was by then very good with subject verb agreements. See, I'd been an English major for a little while. And Mr. Stewart liked that and I had one other quality that he absolutely adored -- my willingness to work for the minimum wage. So he put me on that July and when September came around and it was time to go back to school, he came to me and said, "Go and find out what your school schedule is and any hours you're not working, I mean, you're not in school, you can work here." He gave me a Leica IIIF 35mm camera and said, "Go learn how to take pictures." And he just sort of gave me my head and let me learn to be a journalist and it was -- I spent four years at that place.
I went back to school that fall and then worked at the Recorder and went to school for a while. Then when I finished school, I stayed there until I got drafted in the Army, so the Indianapolis Recorder was my fourth -- my fifth major. That was my journalism major although I never took a journalism course in school. It was my J school.
BOND: And you learned at the Recorder the things that you might've learned had you gone to J school.
RASPBERRY: Some of them.
BOND: How to write a lead.
RASPBERRY: How to write leads, how to write headlines, how to structure a story -- but I learned something I think that I'm not sure I would have learned in journalism school. I had been writing papers for my college professors and they were, you know, good in the sense that they tended to be grammatically correct and I learned little tricks about, you know, sticking in short sentences after a series of longer ones, but they were not -- I'm glad I can't find any of them now, but I was writing then for an audience of one who had to read my work.
The first thing that hit me when I went to the Indianapolis Recorder was that nobody has to read what I'm writing. Nobody has to read it! And this was a worrisome thing to me and I learned not because somebody taught me about leads, but because I was afraid that I'd do all this work and nobody would read it. They let us write our own headlines so I would write a headline that I thought was catchy. Then I would try to write a first sentence, a lead, that was attractive and then I put my mind to thinking, "Well, if I've got them this far, can I write a second sentence that will keep their attention?" And then I would try to imagine how easy it easy for them to stop reading and have a little contest with myself to see how long I could hold them. I would hide the statistical material you had to use because it was usually boring. Hide it in some subordinate clause somewhere and see if I could hang onto them a little longer.
I ran into copy editors later in my life who would want to break me of a habit I formed in those days. I like to start sentences, paragraphs even, with "and" or "but." No, that's a conjunction. You can't start sentence with a conjunction. The reason I had that habit is I'd be in the middle of a long passage and I say, "Oh boy, I'm going to lose them, but if I start the next sentence with 'and' or 'but,' it's like I've signaled this is a continuing thought. It's rude to let go. Now, you can't stop now." And I would really work at trying to see how long I could hold a reader and it made my writing much, much better I think and I've never seen that directly taught in journalism class, but it made my columns, when I later on became a columnist, made those work much better. And to this day, one of the great compliments for me is to have a reader say, "I liked what you had to say yesterday and I particularly liked the way you ended it. You went all the way and that was so beautiful."
BOND: Now, you talk about the Recorder as a J school, but what other parts of your education besides this grounding in grammar, what other parts of your education led to this career? Is it the multiplicity? I've heard you talk about your multiplicity of interests and how that made you a good reporter because you're interested in so many things. Is that -- ?
RASPBERRY: Yeah, I think was never consciously aware of all of these things and maybe I'm a little bit surprised that everybody doesn't have a similar multiplicity of interests. You know, for some people, it's sufficient to describe my work for forty years as that of a black columnist. Well, it's most assuredly that, because I'm a black American. I'm a Southern-born American. I don't doubt that that influences who I am and what I think and how I feel. I'm male. That matters in how you see things. I'm a son and I'm a parent. That matters in how you see life. The things that strike you as important. The father of a son and daughters. That matters -- so I couldn't begin to parcel out, you know, the things that -- the pieces of me that go into the work I do and have done because it's -- you know, after all these years, it's seamless. You are who you are.
I don't know where your political views come from. You can't say they come from experience because people who have the same experience reach very different notions about politics. I don't know what combinations of things lead me to believe that certain values are better for me than for others, that certain things seem more interesting than others. I don't know. It's the reason I can't write my life story. I can't figure all this out.
BOND: You go from this small town in Mississippi to the big city of Indianapolis and in another conversation, you described the differences not being that much, but there had to be some differences for you.
RASPBERRY: Oh, there were differences. I mean, it was my first experience -- first, it was my first time crossing the state line leaving Mississippi. I had never left Mississippi before I got in the car to drive to Indianapolis to go to college and there I was for the first time in a big city and I didn't know how cities worked. I didn't know anything. I remember getting on a trolley car to go downtown because there was a parade or something. I was bored. I was living with my sister and her husband and I didn't notice the number on the bus. I looked at the words that were on the front of the destination marker and didn't know enough about big city transportation to know that it would have a different name there on the return trip and I didn't know what number it was, and I got downtown and I didn't have any idea how to get back. I don't know if I ever told anybody that. I just sort of blundered around and found out how to get back and felt a little smarter for having figured that out.
But Indianapolis at that time was a very confusing city racially. There were a few places in town where a black person could -- a few restaurants where a black person, a black couple, could eat and there were several where this was not possible.
BOND: How did you know which was which?
RASPBERRY: That was what was so confusing. You didn't know except by experience or word of mouth. I mean, it didn't come up that often for me because I didn't have a lot of eating-out money, but I do remember there was one place called The Pole, a drive-in theater, that would not serve you in your own car.
RASPBERRY: We -- during my early years there, when I'm in school and I'm working for the Recorder, had major major picket lines and things to desegregate the grocery stores, to get them to hire black check-out clerks. I mean, it was -- there had been a major -- a major impact. I mean, this was John Birch Society territory, but it had been Klan turf for a time.
Indianapolis -- I mean, Indiana had three old black schools that were black from their inception. They were designed as black schools and this was up North. It was Indianapolis, it was Crispus Attucks; in Gary, Roosevelt; and Evansville, Lincoln. There were black high schools and the locals used to speak of going up north to Kentucky because that was the adjacent state, I mean, bordering state on the South, but in some ways they thought Kentucky was a little more progressive than Indiana was. Indiana's made significant strides since then but it was, as I say -- I mean, there was more racial integration than I'd ever experienced in Mississippi, of course, but just enough to be confusing. And --
BOND: And you go from this all-black educational system to an integrated college.
RASPBERRY: Scared to death, because I thought -- I guess I thought I was about as smart as the white kids in Okolona, but, geeminee, these kids are not only white but they're Northern. I'm going to have, you know, really work to keep up.
BOND: Did that turn out to be true?
RASPBERRY: I worked my buns off that first year to prove that I could and then, really, I lost a lot of interest in school. I went to school the first year, my freshman year, then laid out and worked for fifteen months to get more money, then went back to school. Looking back, I'm thinking that I probably had a bout of adolescent angst at about that time. I had my seventeenth birthday as a college freshman. I was quite young. I didn't know what was going on and I didn't -- things were very unsettled for me. I was going through some of the same things that people say junior high school kids go through now but I didn't know that and there was nobody to talk to about it, and I became for a while a rather indifferent student.
I do remember being shocked and amazed that two professors asked to see me. And I went to see them and they started to talk to me as though they were my uncles or something and wanted to know what was going on and if they could be helpful or -- and I thought, "This is really quite amazing. In college, they do this?"
I talked about seeds getting planted. I find myself doing it now with students I teach if they seem to have some important distractions, come by to talk. Probably not supposed to do it, but I remember it was beneficial to me when somebody did it. And it just seems like a thing that grown-ups ought to do for children, you know?
BOND: What was the racial composition of the school?
RASPBERRY: Overwhelmingly white. There were -- I think my first year there were probably twelve black kids. We all knew each other and we were all careful not to all sit together in the cafeteria. It could go up to four but if a fifth one came, he had to go and start his own table, you know. We don't want them to think that -- it's funny thinking about that.
BOND: It is. And funny thinking about it today.
BOND: When you look back over your life, there's got to be a point where you say, if not in these words, but at least you conceptualize this, "I am a leader, people listen to me." Do you remember when that happened? And I'm sure it happened. Don't say it didn't happen.
RASPBERRY: No, if you'd ever asked me are you a leader, I'd given you a quick and resounding no.
RASPBERRY: But I take your question seriously and literally and I take it that you include under the rubric of leadership not just people who head organizations.
BOND: Right, exactly, yes, yes. Not at all people like that. Or not exclusively people like that.
RASPBERRY: I suppose -- I don't remember an incident or a day. I do remember slowly learning that people -- some people depended on me to help them sort out a lot of stuff that was going on.
BOND: Is this happening after you become a columnist or at a period before?
RASPBERRY: After I'd become a columnist -- but, you know, this was, what, in 1966, I was, what, just thirty.
BOND: Let me interrupt you a minute. This is a period when you're influencing people remotely. You don't know them. They read you in the paper --
BOND: What about earlier in college or high school? Any leadership positions that you held or were you ever in a position of formal leadership in these occasions? Or even in the military?
RASPBERRY: In the military, no. I was a grunt who learned to avoid work pretty much. But -- this will sound strange to you -- Indianapolis at the time I was a student there was a town where, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, virtually all the African American kids who were in college knew each other or knew about each other. The numbers weren't that large.
RASPBERRY: So in that little context, there were some of us who sort of helped set agendas, who we would've run from the idea of "leadership," but we formed youth chapters of the NAACP and we formed intercollegiate clubs and we formed picket lines. We did the things that we thought we were called upon by our age and station to do and there were some of us who took some pride in making some of these things happen, but I tended not to run for office or for leadership, formal leadership.
BOND: But you're displaying informal leadership. You're not the head, but you're one of the agenda setters. Is that true?
RASPBERRY: Well, I think the that's -- I wasn't consciously aware of it, but -- of course, and I would say it's probably more accurate to say that I was in my various settings part of a small agenda-setting cadre. There were two or three of us in this organization who would set an agenda and maybe a different configuration on another, but I liked being one of that leadership cadre. That was important to me. And at my church also. In the youth part of the church I was always pleased to be among those who could be counted on and that was the important thing about leadership at that stage of my life, was that knowing that I could be counted on and people were --
BOND: So you're conscious that people are saying, again, not in these words -- "What does Raspberry think? What does Raspberry think we ought to do?"
RASPBERRY: I was aware of that in various contexts, not as a constant but as a recurring theme. I must say, you may want to do this more sequentially but your question reminded me of something that happened to me. I was off in some place, Norfolk, I believe it was, making speech once. This was after I'm now a newspaper columnist. And a man came up to me and said, "I want to tell you something, I hope it doesn't embarrass you, but -- " And he's a leader in something in his hometown and he said, "Somebody asked me the other day what I thought about whatever this current issue was and I said, 'I don't know yet, I haven't read Raspberry.' " And I thought what a scary thing to say, but obviously very gratifying. I mean, the fact that people really do pay attention to your views on things. That takes some getting used to.
BOND: I would bet.
RASPBERRY: Because it's -- you know, you won't believe this now, but it's possible to be wrong and what do you do when you're wrong and people are following what you say? So it makes you -- it makes you skittish or could. It also stopped me from being as much of a smart ass as I'm sometimes inclined to be. Sometimes I'd like to take shots. I mean, it's fun to take shots. But the discovery that at least a few people out there will take this seriously and literally takes the fun out of the game for me.
BOND: What kind of adjustment do you make from being a daily journalist -- and I understand that the formats are very, very different from writing a column -- but what kind of intellectual adjustments do you have to make from reporting what's happened? You get kudos for your work on the Watts riot. You made a beat of civil rights in D.C. and you go from that to writing essentially opinion and even though there may be opinion in the other stories, it's subtle and hidden and not intentional, I'd guess, so what kind of mental jumps do you make to go from the one to the other?
RASPBERRY: That's a really fascinating question. If you're a human being, you have opinions, but you learn as a reporter to put the opinions on the lips of other people. You go and find somebody who will say what you need saying. And --
BOND: I used to do a man in the street interview for a local black paper in Atlanta and we'd have a question of the week and I'd find people and ask them a question, but if I didn't have enough people I'd find somebody and say wouldn't you say that, that answer.
RASPBERRY: You're not supposed to admit stuff like that.
BOND: It's beyond -- past me now.
RASPBERRY: But I even recall instances where not only would people -- I'd ask people, "Would you say that the following thing is true?" "Yeah, yeah, I'd say that." I remember one person in particular I'd call for opinions about stuff and he was a constituted leader -- "Yeah, you know what I think about that, go on and say something, I'll stand behind it." That's not good journalism and I'll deny that later on, I guess.
But I've personally found it freeing to be able to say, "This is what I believe but also here's why I believe it." I mean, it was never much fun saying, "This is what I believe, take it or leave it." The fun for me was in taking people where I imagined them to be and walking them inch by inch to where I thought they ought to be or to where I was and, again, with the same technique I learned back at the Indianapolis Recorder, seeing if I could write an opening sentence that they would not take issue with and then seeing where I could take that thought and how long before they would jump off the train and I was trying quite consciously to deny them a place to disembark. Sometimes you can take them quite a long way. Sometimes they'd jump as soon as they figured out where you were going. But all that helps technique.
I have had a number of colleagues in the journalism business who are very good at what they do, excellent reporters, who would not dream of writing an opinion column. I mean, they tell me, you know, it takes a certain arrogance to imagine that people care what you think about stuff. They're confident in their judgment that says, "This is an important story and this is an important piece of information, an important fact. Here it is and here's the context for it." But what I think -- they said, "No, I don't want to -- "
BOND: Don't you think there's a difference between arrogance and confidence? If you think that X is so and you think other people think X is not so, but you want them to become convinced about it, you don't have to be arrogant, just confident that you can persuade them. You can put the facts out and persuade them to your point of view.
RASPBERRY: Well, this is the thing that makes it so hard for me to understand what's happening in our politics a lot these days. If you really believe that you're right and that you've considered the important factors in a thing, why wouldn't you want to talk about it in a way that makes your truth accessible to those who haven't seen it yet and yet in our politics, we tend to shout at other people, not to show them the error of their ways but to paint scary faces on them.
If I have reached a conclusion somehow that is not the orthodox one, it's fun to see if we can find a premise that we can both agree on and try to track when we part -- where it is that we part company. I don't know why everybody doesn't enjoy that. It just seems almost recreational.
BOND: I would think so. Oh, let me move on.
BOND: Let me ask you about your leadership philosophy and, again, using leader in the same sense that you've agreed to discuss it, not necessarily the head of an organization. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? How, if at all, do these interact for you -- vision, philosophy and style?
RASPBERRY: Vision may be the thing that drives the rest of it. I think it's not likely that you do anything that could be called leadership if you don't see some outcome down the road and whether the outcome is just getting a traffic light installed or if it's transforming a community. The vision is what makes it all start to happen. The vision may not be the thing you talk about except in small pieces.
The philosophy may not be talked about at all because an internalized philosophy starts to seem such a bedrock, ordinary thing that it's almost like talking about the weather. If you really embrace the philosophy which is to say, a view of the world, your view of the world guides what you do and how you think and the visions you have, but you seldom state the philosophies to anybody. But the combination of the underlying philosophy and the specific vision combine to make you think it would be a good thing if more of us, if a lot of us, moved from where we are to where I see down the road. And that introduces, then, the question of style.
Style is incredibly individual, and the smart people who aspire to any kind of leadership do a sort of inventory of what there is about them, what they've got in their personality arsenal that will help them move people from here to there. For some, it's humor. For some, it's anger. For some, it's, you know -- it's what you've got. It's whatever you've got. And people who are successful at the leadership game, I think, learn to figure out what works for them in various situations.
BOND: This made me wonder -- when I read your columns in the Post, I'm gathering a philosophy from what I read even though it's not evident. You don't have "this is my philosophy" written there. And I think I'm gathering some vision of you and I very much like the style at which the argument's presented to me. Who are you writing for? Are you writing for all of the people who read the Washington Post? Are you writing for the people who are Bill Raspberry fans and are looking for you? Are you writing for people who open the op-ed page and see a headline that grabs? Who is your audience?
RASPBERRY: That's good. The audience probably is slightly different with each piece, depending on what you're trying to do with it. I even find it useful from time to time to have a picture in my head, maybe of an actual person that I'm writing this thing to and I find that useful because I want to know this person who hasn't reached a conclusion I'm about to reach, what will be his -- ?
BOND: You're not preaching to the converted.
BOND: But don't you think that there's some people who share exactly your ideas who want some reinforcement?
RASPBERRY: And there're columns I've written that I think are calculated to reinforce, to say that what -- "You're taking a lot of heat on this thing, but what you did is a good thing." But, again, I guess I would have in mind those people who think it wasn't a good thing because I'm trying --
BOND: I interrupted you. You're talking about the ideal audience, the person you visualize. Who is that person?
RASPBERRY: Oh, it's a different person probably every time.
BOND: For each column?
RASPBERRY: Out of the pack. It may be the person that I really had a hammer and tong argument with --
BOND: An actual person?
RASPBERRY: An actual person. It may be an actual person. It may be somebody I read, have never met, but who makes a strong case for a view that is not my view. And without specifically referring to that piece of writing and dismantling it point by point, I may try to meet the objections I think such a person would make as I go through, granting always the possibility that there's more than one way of looking at everything. I think it's one of the "tricks" I've learned about persuasive argument. If you deny any smidgen of intelligence to the person you're trying to convert, you won't convert anybody.
Those crossfire point-counterpoint, battling talking heads things you see on television really don't persuade anybody. They are almost entirely two preachers preaching to their own choirs. They're not calculated to convert. I'd like to think that any one of those people I could talk to -- "I agree with the following things that you said. In fact, I've never had anybody say it quite it so well before. Would you agree that this is also true?" And you can start to exchange some ideas and not just exchange brickbats, and that's a lot more fun for me.
BOND: What is the vision that guides your life? And has that vision changed? Is it different, say, now than it would've been some years in the past?
RASPBERRY: It changes in subtle ways, I think, and what may guide the vision as much as anything is -- let me call it a conceit, a conceit that I am a citizen of an increasingly large community. You know, I was -- my community was my parents' house, and then it was my street and my town and my race and my country. And I'd like to think that as I mature, that the entity in which I claim citizenship grows to include more people and more of a more diverse notion, and I count it a failure somehow if I find some people not fitting into what I consider my community. Sometimes their failure but very often my own, that I have insufficient understanding of how they see the world, what their philosophy is, what their vision is. I usually make myself believe that if we can exchange visions, we can then talk about philosophy and if we can do both those things, we might find ourselves actually agreeing on something.
BOND: But there may be an occasion when someone else's vision and your vision at least appear to be the same, yet they've come to different conclusions than you have about some issue or some question. How do you balance that? Here's someone who seems compatible in every way but ends up at a different place.
RASPBERRY: You know, it doesn't happen as much as it used to and I don't know quite why that is so. My way of thinking about this is that if you want to know what goes on in this building, its -- you may look through that window from the outside and see us here recording an interview and you might conclude that that is a studio of some sort or at least some studio-like thing. That's what's happening in that building. You go and look through another window or somebody else looks through another window and they see a heating and cooling system and say, "Well, that's some kind of a plant in there." And somebody else looks in and sees people eating and say, "Oh, it's some kind of big restaurant." And nobody will be wrong. They may be describing quite accurately what they see. And yet they're not wrong but they're all incomplete.
BOND: It's like the elephant and the blind man.
RASPBERRY: The elephant -- the blind man and the elephant, exactly so. And my response to that insight is to try to look at the world I occupy through as many windows as I can make available including the windows of people who reach a different conclusion than mine, and I don't want to necessarily beat up on them and say, "You've come to the wrong conclusion, but tell me what you see when you look through your window. And I assume that what you see is real, so tell me about it. And I'll tell you what I see when I look through mine and maybe we'll both get a better sense of what's inside this building."
BOND: Do you ever think that you're looking at a mirror and I'm looking at the window or that we're both looking and you're not just seeing anything? That is, do you have a certainty of your view being the view? Conclusions may be different about what you draw, but your view is the view?
RASPBERRY: What I have is a belief -- maybe misguided to some degree, but it's a belief I carry -- that I'm smart enough to be honest about what I see when I look in the window. And I get a little impatient with people who simply will not see what's pointed out to them not because they have a blind spot but because they fear that to acknowledge that they see this thing will be to acknowledge that they see something else and that they will be salami-sliced into changing their view.
I have tried to have a philosophy that says if you change my mind by giving me new information and new facts and new ways of looking at things, this is not a disaster. This is growth. This is what education is. So I've tried not to be wed to a conclusion just because it's comfortable. And because of that, I find that I can be reasonably genuine in wanting an exchange of views rather than, you know, pretending to want an exchange when all I want to do is open your head and pour my view into your head.
BOND: Let me ask you a question about how leaders are made. Most people talk about it in three ways -- great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. Or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these fits you?
RASPBERRY: Oh, boy. Probably all those things are working and I would guess that the last one --
BOND: Unpredictable events, leaders appropriate to the times.
RASPBERRY: Leaders appropriate to the times. There're those who really do believe, and very often so do I, that the times create the leaders that the times demand. And there's plenty of historic evidence for that, but I have to say that there're also times it seems to me that demand a kind of leadership that in fact does not present itself. There are people -- and this is why it's difficult when you're talking about it -- there're people, I think, who are destined for leadership almost from infancy. And such people will lead wherever they find themselves and in whatever circumstances they'll be, whether they're in the military or in the university or in the cotton fields, they will lead. There're other people who don't consider themselves as at all destined for leadership but who become increasingly uncomfortable with a wrong and it's like a pebble in the shoe, and at some point, they have to take the damn shoe off and get rid of the pebble. And they do this not thinking that they're leaders but they discover when they talk about this irritant that they aren't only the ones who've experienced it and want to be rid of it. And they start something that other people will follow and they're leaders almost accidentally. Sometimes leaders are those who -- I mean, if you can imagine somebody showing up at the scene of an accident or a natural disaster and sort of setting things in motion --
BOND: Taking control.
RASPBERRY: Taking control. There're people who show up at the scenes of political disasters or racial disasters or civic disasters and take control not because they want to get blood on their hands or risk cuts and injury, but because from their point of view it's so clear that something has to be done and who else is going to do it? So they say, "Come on, let's do it."
BOND: Is there something about your times that enabled you to have the influence that you had as a Post columnist, leaving aside race, that could not have happened in an earlier period? I don't mean that the Post opened up and hired more and more black writers but, say, a hundred years earlier could you have occupied this same position?
RASPBERRY: Those are the things that send you to sleep frustrated and talking to yourself because you can never know whether to be born thirty years sooner is to change drastically your life trajectory or to be born thirty years later. I mean, you can imagine my being, what, a thirty-five or forty-year-old journalist at a major city newspaper in 2006. What would I be doing? What would be I doing if I were twenty or twenty-five and a fledgling journalist now at the Post or The New York Times or some place and what would I aspire to? What opportunities would be available to me? I think you just can't know.
BOND: No. Probably an unfair question.
RASPBERRY: I mean, I think it's impossible to avoid thinking about -- you know, boy, what if I'd had the break my kids have or what if my kids had had the harsh lessons that I had. You know, we don't know. We have to deal with the times we're given.
BOND: Well, for you, is your ability as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or is it in your ability to articulate an agenda that's personal and yours, or are these the same thing?
RASPBERRY: They are not the same thing -- well, if I hear you correctly. The one sounds like the president of the United States. The other sounds like the press secretary. The president at least in ideal circumstances ought to have a bit of the vision thing. He ought to be able to see and communicate some vision, some overarching philosophy, and it's very helpful if you have a press secretary who can articulate that for journalists who come yapping around. But these are very different skill sets. There are people who are excellent at taking your ideas, teasing out what your ideas are and then making them articulate. But I wouldn't call such people leaders. They may often be indispensable to leaders, but they're not leadership.
The quality of leadership I think that's terribly important is the ability to step back a little bit from the fray and see a larger picture, see whatever the activity or the problem is in a larger context and try to deal with it in terms of that context with some outcome in mind. And probably the outcome ought to be something that the leader could articulate and share because if a leader has a goal that is not the goal of the people he's asking to follow him, that's a species of deception and I don't like it much.
BOND: Let me ask you a question that you've answered in an interview. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both these? Is there a distinction between them? Is there such thing as a race-transcending leader? Now, you said, "I never take into account what a black columnist or a black man would say about this issue, what he ought to think about this thing." So how does race consciousness come into your work?
RASPBERRY: I think race consciousness is a part of who you are. It's not a switch you flip and say, "I'm going to now do my race conscious thing." I mean, if you can imagine looking at the world as a human being in a world that includes a lot of animals that are not human, you don't have to say, "I think I'll look at this from a humanistic point of view." You will look at it from the point of view of a human being because that's what you are.
I will look at political issues and other many social issues from the point of view of the person my experience has forged me into being. I will look at it as man would look at it, as a short man would look at it, as a married man would look at it, as a black man would look at it, and as an American black man would look at it. It's what I am. It's what I have, and I don't have to flick on these various switches or turn them off to get a clearer picture. It's what I meant when I say I try to look at my world through as many windows as I can find that give onto the subject I'm discussing. Race is one of those windows and I would not ever counsel anybody that what you see through the window of race is false or misleading. It's just not all.
BOND: When you yourself are looking out or appearing before a group of people -- your students or a speech audience -- are you different? Do you have a different style when you're talking with an all black or a mixed group or a predominantly white or all white group? Are you different on these occasions?
RASPBERRY: Probably, yeah. I think it may be unavoidable. I'm different when I talk to old people than when I talk to young people, to college people, and when I talk to guys I go to football games with. Yeah. The frustration is when you try to think of one of these persona as the real you and the others, then, must be some phony you.
BOND: Artificial you.
RASPBERRY: And they're not artificial. They're all aspects of you. It's one of the fascinating things -- one of the fascinating things you can do is invite lots and lots of people you know from various aspects of your life to a party at your house where you are the only thing they have in common. And you find yourself, when you're trying to work the room and float around, talking not only about different things but in different styles to the various people there. That's a form of multi-lingualism.
BOND: It is, and I've never heard it put quite that way.
BOND: If we talk about black leadership, is this divisive? Are we playing into some kind divisiveness if we're separating people in these categories?
RASPBERRY: I don't think so. The term is certainly vague enough. But a part of this -- my vision is that we may have a time -- there may come a time when we will have leaders who are black with the experience of being black, the experience of being American or being whatever they are, but leaders who are black who are not necessarily black leaders, and I think -- I mean, I'm looking at -- we're having this interview before the bi-elections of 2006. And we've got a black man running for governor of Massachusetts and a black man running for the Senate in Tennessee.
BOND: My student.
RASPBERRY: And what happens as the aspirational ceilings of various subgroups of Americans, as those ceilings are lifted -- they won't become members of a different category, they'll still be a members of their old category, but their leadership won't necessarily be limited to that category in the same way that we no longer -- we never think of white leaders?
BOND: Yes, we never do.
RASPBERRY: It's perfectly reasonable to me that there could come a time when we will think about political leaders of various sorts, military leaders of various sorts, who are black or female but who are not "black" leaders. But until that happens, I'm not uncomfortable with the idea that there is a cadre of people who step up and who claim or at least try to speak on behalf of people who are otherwise largely voiceless. That's okay.
BOND: Now, do black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans or is there -- or will there be a point where that obligation ends?
RASPBERRY: You mean blacks who are leaders in other areas?
BOND: Yes. Ken Chenault has risen to the top of great American business and he's black. Does he have an obligation to help other black people that's distinct or just an obligation to help people generally?
RASPBERRY: That's a profound question and I think whatever the philosophical answer is, I think the practical answer is that those African Americans who achieve great success, especially in mainstream situations, assume some responsibility for at least letting their co-ethnics know how they got where they are, and it's a different -- it's a different responsibility than letting people know how I achieved greatness. I mean, there are people who can be inspired in useful ways by having a conversation with somebody who looks like them and I think that's not much of a price to pay for success.
Should you deny it to others? Of course not. You are a professor, and the form of the question that comes to a university professor is excruciatingly difficult. There was an important exchange at the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago -- a university professor says, a law professor says one of the highlights of his year is the Christmas dessert he and his wife give for the law students at his university. He invites the black law students over to his home and they just sort of talk and kick back and -- and another professor says, "Why, what an awful thing. Here is a professor who is supposed to be modeling fairness making aspects of himself available to one group of students based on some imagined racial kinship and by implication denying this to other students. How unfair can one be?" And I think how you wrestle with that kind of question says an awful lot about you and about what you think the state of our progress to be.
BOND: What do you think is your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
RASPBERRY: It hasn't happened yet. Watch Baby Steps, which may be my last contribution to making life better for people I care about. Perhaps showing the way that small towns can make themselves? Can will themselves into becoming communities. Maybe showing how big towns, cities, can break themselves down into manageable communities.
BOND: I was going to ask, is this likely to be successful because it happens in Okolona and not happening in Memphis?
RASPBERRY: It will happen in small towns more easily, but then we may learn how to break large towns down into smaller communities. We could build a community perhaps around an elementary school in Washington, D.C. But if we learn how to do this, if we learn how to transform our towns and our neighborhood into communities, this will be as profoundly important as any three dozen columns I've written in forty years in the business. Stay tuned.
BOND: And in the future, for which we're staying tuned, what kind of leaders will contemporary or future society demand? Do we need different sorts of people today or tomorrow morning or next year than we would've, say, a year ago or ten years or twenty?
RASPBERRY: I guess I hearken back to some options you laid out for me before. I think it's always always the case that problems become pressing enough that they demand solutions. And that set of facts demands and creates the leadership necessary to deliver those solutions. Whether we're talking about racial progress or global warming, somebody or somebodies will say, "We just can't let things drift on the way they're drifting. We must do something." I have no idea what qualities those people will have.
I wouldn't have pointed out a Ralph Nader as a leader who was going to make certain things happen among consumers, on behalf of consumers, you know, thirty years ago, but there he was. He might not be the guy to take us -- to do the thing today. Maybe we're all sufficiently different. I don't know.
A huge part of the fun of living is to watch leadership step on the stage. Who would've invented Barack Obama five years ago, and you and I knew something about politics five years ago. He wasn't in our --
BOND: No, he wasn't on my radar screen.
RASPBERRY: Wasn't on our radar. And there he is.
BOND: Now, what do we do in the future to foster leadership? Is there some way we can ready people so that when these crises or new challenges arise, they're ready?
RASPBERRY: I think a lot of people have been struggling with this question of whether it is possible to sort of hothouse generic leaders. South Africa has a program going right now supported by a foundation where they're trying to take likely young Africans and sort of teach them the skills of leadership. The jury's out on that one. I think we can recognize fledging leadership when it raises its head. There're people who will just sort of be interested in making good things happen, and we can support them by listening and if they seem amenable to it, we can help them with resources of various sorts and the very fact that leaders, that fledging leaders, get the support of important people can encourage more leaders to step forward.
I don't know whether one can artificially breed a hothouse full of leaders or not. It seems to me that circumstances help to make this happen. There're some people who will step up for one thing and not another, but it's the stepping up that we need to learn how to see, to honor, and to support with our gratitude and with our resources. People who step up in times of crisis are unbelievably valuable to every group and culture on the face of the earth and I think how we treat those who do step up will determine the quality of those who subsequently step up.
BOND: William Raspberry, thank you so much for being with us.
RASPBERRY: It's a joy.
BOND: We appreciate it. No, no, it's our pleasure. Thank you.
RASPBERRY: Thank you.