Cover image: From left to right: CNN anchor Don Lemon, writer Daryl Davis, Republican strategist Ron Christie, writer and political correspondent Jonathan Alter with WNYC moderator Keli Goff. © Tokyo Racer for WhereNYC
Bottom Line: In the world of talking points, spin cycles and political punditry, the Political Party with WNYC host Keli Goff offers a refreshingly poignant discussion on contentious issues facing ordinary Americans.
Review: It’s hard to imagine that eight years ago, a senator and a man of Kenyan and American heritage, completely reshaped the electoral map, defeating Sen. John McCain in a blowout. And after nearly a decade, Obama’s final months in the Oval Office are now coming to an end, but what will be his legacy on race relations and how will this affect the next administration?
It’s an impossible question to answer within a small chunk of time, but WNYC’s Keli Goff asked the panel whether race relations have improved during Obama’s two terms. These days it’s difficult to say anything positive with the numerous videos of police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it was refreshing to see a panel of diverse political opinions and life experiences engage in a rare thoughtful conversation, happily devoid of the Sunday Morning talk show bullet points.
“The Racial Divide” – Jonathan Alter
While most on the panel agreed that the daily lives of Americans have less racial divisions than before, Obama’s presidency has continually exposed the deep-rooted racially-motivated anger and xenophobia.
From the so-called birther movement, which falsely claimed that Obama was Kenyan and therefore ineligible to be President, exposed a hatred that continues to plague America. “Like rubbing salt into a wound,” according to Jonathan Alter, the rightwing press, notably Fox News, seized on it, fueling the movement in order to improve its ratings. And with Donald Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee “fringe politics,” from those on the far right, have moved into the heart of mainstream discussions, particularly visible on social media platforms.
For those “once part of a club” see their world disappearing, and Obama, according to Mr. Alter, represents an unfamiliar and “changing America,” to certain white Americans who have taken on a defensive posture, or an “us against them” position. The Tea Party is also a product of that “hate”, often evoking ideas of the “K.K.K. in 1954,” added fellow panelist, blues musician and author of Klan-destine Relations, Daryl Davis.
“Living in a bubble” – Ron Christie
While the panel discussed a great many topics about Obama’s presidency and race relations, the poignant theme of the evening was how the conversation on race has digressed. “More people are talking at each other rather than to each other,” according to CNN anchor Don Lemon. Conservative political strategist, Ron Christie, who is also African-American, believes that too many are “living in a bubble” or mold, where either you are for or against.
Although there was plenty of harsh words for Fox News and the right, Mr. Alter like many on the panel, were equally scathing of the PCU-style political correctness that “shuts down debate” on college campuses like at Wesleyan University, where protesters threatened to boycott the school newspaper for an editorial criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Simply casting someone as racist because they don’t agree has greatly damaged the debate and made people afraid to have a frank discussion. “It becomes a list of dirty laundry of things to say in their community but not to others,” Mr. Lemon said.
Both Ron Christie and Keli Goff had their share of personal, sometimes racist and misogynistic attacks from both Trump and Bernie-or-Bust supporters for their criticisms of the two candidates. This kind of intimidation has worked to silence rather than encourage debate.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – Daryl Davis
Perhaps Obama’s legacy should be about engagement rather than division. At times, according to Mr. Christie, it came at cost, when he negotiated with Republicans first before members of his own party during the passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act. It is through engagement, however, that people can find common ground. Mr. Davis, also black American, went down south to write a book on the K.K.K. and ended up striking friendships with Klan members. At first, it wasn’t easy showing to their homes. “Some just shut the door; others fought and I fought back, but most let me into their homes,” he said. “It is the first five minutes that you begin to find common ground,” he added, but his “reaching out” actually bore unlikely friendships with many of these white supremacists, convincing them to eventually leave the Klan.
The takeaway point of the evening is not to shut out debate and disagreement. It shouldn’t be a battle, simplified as “black and white.” Once we engage and listen to one another we begin to see commonalities and less division, according to Mr. Davis. A theme that also characterizes the Political Party series at Greene Space that take down barriers and foster meaningful exchanges between unlikely friends.
Don’t miss actor Ethan Hawke and WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll talk on race this Friday, Sept. 30th.