Let’s begin with the premise that no people, culture, religious, racial or ethnic group is by definition immoral. Not acknowledging this, at the core, is the problem with Juan Williams’ gross generalization about Muslims that recently got him fired from National Public Radio (NPR). But if NPR’s “Fresh Air” interview last week with the rapper Jay-Z about his new book Decoded is any indication, it’s a message still lost on Terry Gross.
To be sure, Juan Williams revealed his bias by openly expressing his personal opinion. Terry Gross didn’t do that. Instead the bias is more subtle and insidious and lurks in the line of questioning.
While not as shocking as the obvious blanket condemnation Juan Williams advanced, the Terry Gross/ Jay-Z interview is even more problematic because it illuminates a tendency pervasive in today’s news media. This is a moment in which Blacks can be embraced and promoted at the same time that their humanity is dismantled—all in a 30-second sound bite.
Throughout her interview with Jay-Z, Gross kept returning the discussion to those places that reinforce the idea of Black culture as immoral and Black people as corrupt and/or corruptible. Such anti-Black arguments that once lived primarily in conservative public policy debates have now worked their way into national culture (especially in film, television, news media and politics) to the degree that these views are now widely accepted as the norm.
In short, racial disparities in education, unemployment, criminal justice, wealth-building, and more are rooted in Black cultural failing alone. As this logic prevails, it’s impossible to gain traction on any targeted policy solutions regarding the problems disproportionately facing Blacks.
President Obama realizes this. Hence his colorblind politics, a policy approach that anti-racist activist Tim Wise documents in detail in his new book, Colorblind. However, one wonders to what extent even liberal journalists like Terry Gross realize they are collaborators.
To grasp the full extent to which Gross emboldens conservative ideas about race, one should listen to the entire 45-minute interview. For now, let this brief exchange illustrate the point,
GROSS: Your father left when you were very young. And you say that most of your friends’ fathers had left. You say, “Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced. But we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.” That’s really interesting that one of your things that your father leaves behind that you can use is his records.
JAY-Z: Yeah, I guess there’s a bright side to everything right?
GROSS: Yeah, well, that’s one way of looking at it.
Any great interviewer—and Gross is at the top of her game—knows the role he or she plays in the outcome. Part of the science is in framing the questions.
The advancing of conservative rhetoric about Blacks persists, whether Gross is bluntly asking Jay about crimes he committed 15 years ago (crack sales and assault), or inquiring about his mother’s parental decisions: “You ended up selling crack and helping your mother, as a single mother, support the family. Did she know that’s how you were making the money?”
What’s the takeaway message? That Jay’s mom was a single parent that made poor choices, let her teenage son sell drugs and is unprincipled because she knows the money he’s using to support the family comes from drug sales. It’s a narrative we’ve heard from the Republican Revolution of 1994 to the recent well-financed media blitz that resulted in the mid-term shellacking of the Democrats.
And Terry Gross never goes off message. In a nearly hour long interview with a self-made record executive mogul and entrepreneur worth at least half a billion, on the occasion of the publication of a book he deems a coming of age story for his generation, the most pressing questions on the table range from insight into drug dealing to why rappers grab their crotches?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that folks should boycott NPR or even “Fresh Air.” And I’m not saying Gross should be fired. What I’m after is something much larger—a radical shift away from the growing tendency to allow conservative race analysis to dominate the ways Americans think and talk about race.
Ironically, Jay-Z points us to the territory in at least one of his responses to Gross: “I know all sorts of people saw their lives destroyed—but in America, we process that sort of thing as a tragedy,” he tells Gross when she asks him about Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West and George Bush. “When it happens to black people, it feels like something else, like history rerunning its favorite loop.”
Given how pervasive this narrative have become, it’s going take much more than firing journalists like Gross and Williams to purge that “favorite loop” from our national culture.
Bakari Kitwana is senior media fellow at the Harvard Law-based think tank, The Jamestown Project and the author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2011).