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Getting Real About Race: A Discussion In Cleveland


Conversations about race can be hard to start, even harder to finish without hurt feelings, misunderstandings, frustration. We decided to try it anyway when we headed to member station WCPN ideastream in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this week for what we hoped would be honest conversation about this subject. We called it Getting Real About Race.

We're going to hear just a portion of that conversation with panelists Julia Shearson, who heads the Cleveland chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nina Turner, a former Ohio State senator, Wesley Bright, CEO of Akron Honey Company - he also heads a well-known local band - and Brad Whitehead, the president of the Fund for Our Economic Future in northeast Ohio. At one point, we started talking about the best ways for people of different races to get to know each other, starting with Julia Shearson.

JULIA SHEARSON: In order to understand people and in order to listen to people, you have to have proximity. So I would encourage everyone here in this audience, if you want to take that journey, to meet the other where they are, try to get proximity. That's what I did when I was trying to work on issues related to the police violence here in Cleveland. You really have to be close to people to know and understand what it is they're going through.

MARTIN: Do you ever feel like you're worried about saying the wrong thing? Because Wesley was saying that he thinks that sometimes the inhibitor is that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so it's easier to say nothing.

SHEARSON: Well, I think it's fine to say the wrong thing by accident. And God knows - and some of my friends are here. They know I've - you know, I've put my foot in my mouth before. It's fine to do it by accident. People who love you, they will gently lead you through that discourse, so it's OK to ask stupid questions and maybe say something stupid.

Where I get concerned is - and I'll call out a name here - where someone like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who should know better, is - actually has the gall to call the Black Lives Matter movement racist. It's like, I think he knows better than to do that. Now, that's where it's not OK to say things like that. And we need to call people out who say very hurtful and painful and ignorant things like that.

MARTIN: Well, we don't really have too much influence on Mayor Giuliani at this point, so we'll just kind of - Wesley, briefly, what did you want to just say?

WESLEY BRIGHT: Well, you mentioned that Rudy Giuliani, he should know, but he may not know. A lot of people are growing up...

MARTIN: ...What is it that he should know that he doesn't know?

BRIGHT: Anyone who may say or think that, they may just not know. They may have grown up a particular way in which it was - you know, the world was - you know, in which they lived was about them. And that's the only way they know. I'm not making excuses, but that may be why someone who is, you know, that old still thinks like that.



MARTIN: Well, let's talk about...


BRIGHT: ...Not that he's that old.


BRIGHT: Spoken by the only millennial of the panel, OK.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - you know, several people have already brought up the whole question of police-community relations. And since we started our conversation, why don't we go back to that? Because let's just be honest, that is the elephant in the room for so many people. It is the place where so many people interact with, you know, state authority and find it, you know, bruising and demeaning and oppressive.

So, senator, now I'm going to start with you. You chair a task force that was created by Ohio Governor John Kasich last year to improve relations between police departments and the communities that they serve. And I mentioned you also have a personal connection to this. You know, your husband's a former police officer - retired. Thank God he was able to complete his service.

NINA TURNER: Yeah, thank God.

MARTIN: And your son is currently serving. What do you see? What's the biggest challenge?

TURNER: I mean, you worry every day. And it's a burden that black mothers and brown mothers have that's just a little different. You know, I remember - and I rarely share this story, Michel, but this is just so powerful because it is about understanding. You know, Stephen Covey said first seek to understand and then to be understood. We have a disconnect in this country, though, that is bigger than the police.

But the story that I wanted to share is that when I was pregnant with my son - and my husband is light-skinned and he has red hair. And I remember saying to God - I said, God, please let my son be as close to the complexion of my husband as he can. And the reason why I said that is because it is so hard to be black in America. And when you are a darker-skinned African-American, it's even that much harder.

So although I knew that I could not change the ethnicity of my child, I wanted that child to have the easiest way possible. Not because I have a problem with my chocolate skin, even though sister catch hail all the time.


TURNER: But that is the burden that African-Americans bear in this country that no white person bears. No matter how poor they may be, they don't have to worry because there is white skin privilege in America.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for sharing that. I know it's not easy to share that.

TURNER: Not at all.

MARTIN: Thank you for sharing that. Brad.

BRAD WHITEHEAD: If you could walk out of here tonight - I've been on such a journey in this way - if you could just try to listen differently. And when you're in these conversations with these people that you say you know and you hear these emotions, is to try not to judge and say where is this coming from, and just accept it for a while and see if you can listen differently.

I used to think it was, like, a binary thing. You're - either you've got these racist beliefs or you don't. And I realize now that it's so much more like hygiene in that it's a constant thing where it's kind of in - where we are - and somebody - I saw an analogy saying combating racism is like flossing your teeth. You just need to do it every day in order to have good hygiene. And we're going to slide back all the time, but we have to always keep striving because this is so ingrained in us. and...

MARTIN: ...Can I ask you this, though - why should people do this hard work when they feel like it doesn't affect them?

WHITEHEAD: Well, because it's morally the right thing to do. Second, as I am an economist by training - and I can assure you that the economic research says that unfair societies don't perform as well over the long run as fair societies do. And then thirdly, for those of you who've traveled around the world know that when people are cut off from opportunity and tough social situations are allowed to fester, things like the social contract can break down.

And I don't want to get all Armageddon here in the last few minutes, but we tend to take the social contract for granted in this country. And I think if everyone could think about not only tending to themselves and their beliefs but also to realize they're a part of this system where the rules are rigged - and that's our responsibility, to fix this system in addition to fixing ourselves.

MARTIN: I thank all of you so much for this conversation. It's only beginning. We know we just scratched the surface. Thank you...

TURNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...For getting us started.


MARTIN: That was Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, Nina Turner, a former Ohio State Senator, Wesley Bright, CEO of Akron Honey Company, Julia Shearson, head of Cleveland's Council on American-Islamic Relations. Also on our panel was Donna Walker-Brown, who chairs the Inner-City Republican Movement in Cleveland. There's much more to this conversation. To watch the full event, go to npr.org/goingthere. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.