Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien discusses “Black in America” during a town-hall event Feb. 20 in the Baker University Center Ballroom.
Photographer: Yi-Ke Peng
OHIO panelists at the Soledad O’Brien event were Arthur Cromwell, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies, and OHIO seniors Seaira Christian-Daniels and Tessa Scott.
Photographer: Yi-Ke Peng
Ohio University student Eliza Straughter reacts to meeting Soledad O’Brien. Straughter had been wanting to meet O'Brien since she was in middle school.
Photographer: Yi-Ke Peng
Feb 21, 2014
By Angela Woodward
Ohio University students and educators past and present and members of the local community packed the Baker University Center Ballroom Thursday evening to join award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien in a conversation about race in America.
O’Brien’s visit to Athens – sponsored by the Scripps College of Communication, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the School of Communication Studies – was designed to engage the OHIO campus and local community in a town-hall conversation on issues of race and inequality.
O’Brien is wrapping up a national speaking tour, with the Athens event being her only stop in Ohio. The tour, coinciding with Black History Month, is an extension of O’Brien’s “Black in America” series, which premiered on CNN in 2008 as a multi-part series of documentaries covering issues, challenges and the culture of African Americans throughout the U.S.
“I think often conversations about race are just yuck,” O’Brien said in an interview prior to Thursday’s town-hall event. “You’re either cast as the bad guy — so why would you want to join that conversation — or you’re cast as the victim — so why would you want to join that conversation? So nobody says anything. I think that if you can frame the conversation around statistics and information and give a real context to it, it can be a real thoughtful conversation. You move it out of the personal and into the why.”
That’s exactly what O’Brien did during Thursday night’s event, kicking off the evening with a video highlighting segments from her “Black in America” series before taking the stage to share some of her personal and professional experiences as a biracial American.
O’Brien spoke of growing up as the child of a mother who was black and from Cuba and a father who was white and from Australia and the struggles her parents faced. She recalled her parents being denied service at a restaurant on their first date, having to go across state lines to be legally wed, and being told by friends not to start a family because “biracial children don’t fit in this world.”
And while she noted that the country has come a long way in terms of civil rights, “as a nation, we have gone from overt racism to subtle racism.”
O’Brien said she launched the “Black in America” series in 2008 as a way to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and as an opportunity to assess where we are as a nation and how we are measuring up to the vision King had.
“It’s not an easy question to answer,” she admitted.
In discussing race in America, O’Brien focused on the role of media, income inequality and education, sharing stories from her documentaries as well as statistics to illustrate the points she was making.
She showed several examples of the ways in which the black community is unfairly and inaccurately portrayed in the media, using photos, captions and even clothing from such events as Hurricane Katrina and the Trayvon Martin case.
“This framing doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “There are implications. … The way we describe people matters. The images we see over and over again matter.”
And O’Brien took the conversation beyond race, recalling King’s warning about becoming a two-tiered nation and turning the conversation to issues of wealth disparity and education.
In discussing income inequality in America, O’Brien noted, “Instead of closing the gap between black and white, we’re actually opening the gap between rich and poor.”
And when questioning how the U.S. can right these injustices, O’Brien turned the focus to education.
“I think the biggest issue in the black community is the biggest issue in the American community – education,” she said. “Education has the potential to be this country’s great equalizer.”
O’Brien was then joined on stage by three panelists from the OHIO community – Arthur Cromwell, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies and director of the Honors Tutorial College’s (HTC) program in that area; Seaira Christian-Daniels, a senior in HTC majoring in journalism and pursuing a certificate in Spanish; and Tessa Scott, a senior majoring in communication studies and seeking a certificate in political science.
The three shared some of their experiences and joined O’Brien in fielding questions from the audience.
When it comes to discussions of race on campus, Christian-Daniels said, “There’s a discussion, but it’s not happening as often as it needs to and in the context that it needs to.”
Cromwell touched on how some Americans have gone back to “embracing their inner bigot” primarily out of fear, which has resulted in some white Americans voting against their own self-interests rather than banding together with those outside their race who share the same self-interests.
“There is a strong black community here,” Scott said of OHIO. “It may be small, but it is here.”
Scott said she strives to talk to students on campus and to share with them her perspective and personal story to counter what they see on television.
Though the presentation and panel discussion had time to only open the door on the issue of race in America, audience members appreciated its intent.
“I loved it,” Tajah Smith, a first-year student majoring in news and information in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, said following the presentation.
Smith said she came to the event because she and her mother had watched the “Black in America” documentaries. “I was amazed by the work Soledad put into it. I’ve always admired her work and looked up to her. She’s one of the reasons I got into journalism in the first place.”
Administrators within OHIO’s College of Communication commented on O’Brien’s visit and its implications for not only the students studying communications but the community as a whole.
“Having someone of Soledad O’Brien’s notoriety come to our campus makes us very proud,” said Scott Titsworth, dean of the Scripps College of Communication. “We’re so pleased that she’s here to talk about this very substantive issue and engaging our campus and the local community in a discussion that impacts all of us.”
Michael Butterworth, director of the School of Communication Studies, also talked about the significance of O’Brien’s visit.
“This is a unique opportunity for our faculty and students to talk about issues of cultural, identity and representation,” Butterworth said. “In our coursework we seek to prepare our students to be effective and responsible communicators in a global society, and having someone like Soledad on our campus provides us a great opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about these issues.”
Additional sponsors for the event included OHIO’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Department of African American Studies, the Office of Multicultural Programs and the Multicultural Center. The reception that followed the town-hall event was cosponsored by the Campus Involvement Center and the Black Cultural Programming Board.