Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: How does race consciousness affect your race? You talked about someone, your father, I think, was a race man. Do you see yourself as someone who advances issues of race, or issues of society, or both, and is there a distinction between them? And is there such a thing as someone who transcends race?

BRAUN: I think that we all have to get to the point of transcending race. The real issue in my mind is the liberation of the human spirit, in whatever package it comes in, whether it's a black package or a female package or an Asian package or Hispanic package, a poor package, a disabled package, a gay package, a straight package. The packaging is less important than what it is that individual has to contribute and tapping the genius of that is really what this whole — this experience, this republic is supposed to be about. That's what makes us different. That's where the beacon of light comes from, the notion that every individual is a reflection of God and that the goal of society is to let those reflections have full play in the society as a whole.

And so for me, maybe again, my life, I'm born into a body: I'm a black woman, I'm real clear about that. I also know that while race is localized, how race is perceived is a local issue, really, in the scheme of things. Gender is universal. Gender is more universal as an issue than race is, but both of those things really speak to the willingness of a society to open itself up to the contributions that people who might be female have to make, that people who might be black have to make and celebrating, celebrating what that is.

I don't want to have to be black and not act that way. I don't want to have to submerge my cultural background. I don't want to have to put 43rd & Berkeley in a closet to be accepted by somebody. I want to be able to say, "Hey, look, this is the sum total of my experiences, and I'm going to put that on the table because you know what, with these experiences, you will be able to make a better set of decisions." You know, I want to put the sum total of being a girl, you know, wearing pinkish purple, not ashamed to talk about my diet, I mean, put that as much as part of me as the intellectual side or as the side that can read a balance sheet. I mean, I want to be able to bring all of that to bear on the contribution I have to make, whether it is in the public sector or as a private citizen.

BOND: Talk about differences. Do you think you have a different leadership style when you're dealing with groups that are all black or mixed race or predominantly white? Are you different in these?

BRAUN: No. And that for me is— it's like the old, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, etc." For me it's just a lot easier to be the same and so whether I'm talking to a group of church ladies on the southside of Chicago or farmers in Iowa, I will use the same language. Now, I may talk about different issues. The church ladies may not be concerned about soy bean loan rates and genetically modified corn. They may not care about that. I'll speak to their issues, but in terms of the words I use and how I comport myself and my demeanor, it's always, you know, I am what I am.

BOND: Isn't there likely to be the occasion where you say something and the church ladies say, "Amen, that's right," and you say something, and the farmers don't say anything, even though they agree with what you're saying.

BRAUN: Oh, yeah.

BOND: Does that create in you a different response?

BRAUN: You know, I'll tell you something, that is actually — that actually touches on what I see as one of my own weaknesses which is, I have and am working on having a better sense of how others see me because, again, because I say the same thing to the church ladies as the farmers, I have to, you know — my antenna has to be a little better in terms of what it is that they hear when they hear the words. Let me give you an example.

This gets back to the Senate days and back to welfare again. Pat Moynihan was also a friend and mentor for me. He was very nice to me when I was in the Senate and he was very opposed to Clinton's welfare reform for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was, as he put it, it was destroying the social safety net that the country had had since the 1930s and I also was vehemently opposed to the President's welfare reform and because it was just wrong in my opinion. I still say it's wrong. I told him I thought it was it was wrong, so that's not, you know — but what I came to — and I did everything. I mean, I had historical vignettes of what the country was like when the states ran welfare, the orphan trains out of New York and all the rest. I mean, I did every aspect of the argument I was able to put together.

It wasn't until midway through the debate that it occurred to me that I may as well have been talking into the toilet as the Senate chamber on this issue because what my colleagues heard was a black woman standing up saying "Where's mine?" you know, whatever the words coming out, what was being perceived was here's this black female, the prototypical welfare mother standing up here saying, "Why're you taking away my benefits?" as opposed to here's a senator arguing in behalf of poor children throughout the United States and what kind of nation we are, how we define ourselves as a country, as a community, around the issue of poverty. And so it hurt me. It really — I mean, on a real fundamental level, that realization hurt greatly because I realized then that no matter what I said, if I had been white and male making the same arguments, it would've resonated differently. If I'd been white and female making the same arguments it would've resonated differently.

BOND: Is it then that you think it may be impossible for you to get away from race?

BRAUN: Oh, you can never get away.

BOND: Because of how you look, and how I see you, others see you, that race is always at the forefront of perception and that perception in turn colors what you say and what I hear?

BRAUN: Exactly. Race is, again, it's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It defines the context of the conversation and that's just a reality. And as we change the reality— and that reality has been changing. I mean, the great victory in my mind of the civil rights movement was not just integration. The great victory of it was that it made racism unpopular, public racism. Now, there're people who privately will say what they say and still tell the racist jokes and everything, but the larger society frowns on that conduct now. That's very different than, you know, a hundred years ago. That's very different than what was going on at the turn of the last century. And that great victory, of course, then allows us to get to the next level, whatever that will be. And so I think it is probably a continuum of moving, and progress is linear, but the fact is we're in a different place on race now than we were in this country 50 years ago when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, but we're not where we can get to.