Bob Herbert lectures on Race in America: Our Role

By Vanessa Moss

Executive Staff

On Thursday, September 29, Bob Herbert spoke in Convocation Hall on a topic that is regularly heard, frequently discussed, yet rarely handled effectively in this country: Race in America.

Herbert has been acclaimed for his resolute and unforgiving depictions of injustices found in America through his journalism and other works. Among many other awards, Herbert was given the Ridenhour Courage Prize in 2009 for being “the champion of the under-reported story” and providing “moral clarity and a sense of outrage to his ongoing depiction of injustice.”

He theorizes that Americans who are not directly affected by the frequent and terrifying race-related shootings across the nation will respond to these outbursts of violence with an unhealthy and unproductive emotional pattern: “We will express our outrage to relatives, friends, and other like-minded individuals, and then retreat into the comfort of denial. Until the next eruption, when we will do the same thing all over again.”

Deep sadness or passionate indignation after learning on the news or through social media that new innocents have been killed is ultimately irrelevant because of this tendency to “retreat into the comfort of denial” without making any personal changes.

In order to progress current American race relations toward equality, Herbert pressed that three unsightly truths must be accepted: the reality of white racism must be acknowledged, the paternal abandonment of black children must be addressed, and the murderous violence seen across the country can no longer be endured.

Herbert emphasized that Institutionalized racism cannot be ignored if racial progress is to be made in the United States. In the current political season, we are seeing both Democrats and Republicans neglect race relations in their platforms. Not only that, but the Republican nominee “has turned a party that was once sympathetic to black rights into a virtually ‘All-White’ club.”

Child abandonment is a serious issue in black communities that has been little recognized for many years. According to the National Center for Fathering, 57.6% of young African American children are growing up without fathers, and in a world with already established racism, the loss of a father is a deficit that most cannot afford.

“When you look at African American children, when you look at the tragic numbers who have been slain, or maimed, or enslaved by drugs, who succumb to avoidable diseases, or end up in prisons or jails, I have to believe the presence of more fathers in their homes would help to lessen the enormity of that human catastrophe. How could it not?”

Extreme violence afflicts black communities horrifyingly more than others. Statistics provided by the Center for Disease Control suggest that about one in every 40,000 white citizens are murdered annually. The homicide rate for black people is approximately one in every 5,000. Criminal violence in black communities must be fought alongside the fight against racism with equal tenacity.

These three truths are closely knit and cyclical across generations: The lack of opportunities for black citizens contributes to the lack of emotional and financial stability in black men’s lives, which then leads them to avoid the commitment of a family and contributes to neighborhood violence and criminal activity. This furthers the lack of fathers for young African Americans, and the new generation of children grow up similarly excluded from opportunities as their parents were, and have the ability to also live the rhythm of institutionalized racism in America.

As infuriating and seemingly endless as that cycle is, Herbert closed with a glimmer of resolution, giving listeners a list of things that they can do instead of “[retreating] into the comfort of denial.”

Vote. He emphasized that you should persuade everyone you can to vote, in addition to your own ballot. The United States is “a republic that’s supposed to be broadly representative of the people. And that can only happen if people really exercise their right to vote in enormous numbers.”

Have non-abusive conversations with views that vary from your own and listen to their perspective without hostility, with the understanding that they will offer the same courtesy to you. From those conversations and a healthy dose of self-awareness, you need to “analyze your own prejudices honestly and brutally.” One opportunity for this dialogue is the Posse Plus Retreat, that all students are welcome to. These year’s topic for discussion is “Us VS Them.”

Become more involved and engaged with whatever political or civic groups you can. “It almost doesn’t matter what the particular issue is, or what you do…Whatever positive steps you take are sure to be helpful, even if that’s not obvious at first.”

If these recommendations don’t satisfy your need to contribute to a national change, Herbert suggests directing your gaze toward the successful social movements of the past. The Civil Rights, Women’s, Labor, and Gay Rights movements were all founded by good-hearted, goal-oriented, persevering people who never gave up. “We need new leadership”, Herbert explained. Perhaps that could be you.