Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson rejects the notion of a “post-racial” America following the election of President Barack Obama, but does conclude that the country is moving measurably closer to realizing that goal.
A crystallizing moment came when Robinson, who won the Pulitzer for reporting on the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post, found himself interviewing the newly elected president in the Oval Office and realized that “there are only black folk here.”
“I looked around the office," Robinson told a capacity crowd in Perella Auditorium on Tuesday evening (Feb. 23), “saw nothing but black faces, and thought, ‘This is a scene that was not only impossible, but utterly unthinkable at any other time in America.’”
Still, the level of criticism directed at Obama since he took office—which Robinson said he can’t help but feel is at least partially grounded in racism—indicates to him that the United States has far to go to become a post-racial society.
“I’m convinced we’re not in a post-racial America, but we have a sense of the way the arc of history is bending. I have a sense that your generation is bringing us closer than my generation did,” he told the students. “What you have to do is decide what that will look like. Will it be a denial of race, or a culture of diversity…some kaleidoscopic vision of America?
“So, are we in a post-racial America? No. Will we be 50 years from now? That’s up to you.”
Robinson’s address was part of the university’s Spring Lecture Series on Race and Politics. He, political scientist Dorian Warren and art professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw were invited to campus this week to discuss the topic of “Post-racial America? Dreams, Myths and Visions.”
The Orangeburg Massacre and a historical perspective
In his 45-minute talk, Robinson took the audience back to his childhood, in the waning days of the racially segregated South, where his high school teachers resisted efforts to desegregate the schools in South Carolina.
He recalled the Orangeburg Massacre of February 1968, when students from mostly black South Carolina State University tried to enter the city’s sole bowling alley, which was open only to whites. When the owner refused, a protest ensued for two days before three black students were shot and killed by police and 28 other students were injured. A pregnant woman who was injured in the protest later suffered a miscarriage.
Robinson lived about 400 yards from much of the action.
The violence, he said, was “about dreams too long deferred and freedom too long denied.”
“I apologize for the historical overview,” he said, “but, as time goes on, you can lose the texture and feel of the times, which were awful—far worse than you can imagine.”
Robinson went on to the University of Michigan, where he was the first black student to be named co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. He began a journalism career that led to assignments such as the case of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, foreign bureau coverage in Buenos Aires and London, and opportunities to write about race in Brazil, music in Cuba, a heavyweight championship fight, and both dictators and royalty.
He also became a regular contributor to MSNBC, and it was in that role that Robinson witnessed the rise of then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama in the snows of Iowa.
Neither enamored of, nor encumbered by, conventional wisdom
“I went from frozen town to frozen town, and I covered [former U.S. Sen.] John Edwards’ rallies and [former U.S. Sen. and current U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton’s rallies. Clinton’s, in particular, were huge, smoothly run, like a machine,” he said. “It was easy to [believe the] conventional wisdom that she would win the Democratic nomination.”
But attending one of Obama’s rallies, he sensed something stirring.
“It was something entirely different,” he said. “I saw an all-white crowd, mostly middle-aged, filling a high school auditorium, actually moved and inspired by this man with an exotic background and unusual name. I was shocked. The experience was eye-opening and enormously helpful in covering the campaign because I had seen this first-hand.”
Robinson said the experience freed him to cover the rest of the campaign unencumbered by conventional wisdom and to discern the momentum that was slowly building in Obama’s favor.
Eleven months later, Robinson was on the NBC set in Rockefeller Center, “with my dysfunctional MSNBC family,” when the message in his ear piece indicated that the network was ready to call the election for Obama at 11 p.m.
“Two things occurred to me,” he said. “One, I’m the only black guy here and I better have something to say. And two, I have to make a phone call.”
During the commercial break, Robinson slipped away to call the home in Orangeburg where he grew up to share the news with his father, then 92, and his mother, 87.
“I got to tell them that they lived to see the election of the first African-American president of the United States,” he said. “It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Robinson’s lecture and those by Warren and Shaw were sponsored by the Visiting Lecturers Committee, the Council on Equity and Community, the Africana Studies and women’s studies programs, ArtsLehigh, the Humanities Center and the Office of the Dean, as well as the joint multicultural programs and the departments of history, political science, religion, English and sociology.