William Raspberry

William Raspberry is a Pulitzer-Prize winning syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and the Knight Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism at the DeWitt Wallace Center and the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. He teaches public policy courses on the history and impact of equal opportunity and affirmative action; on the effect of socio-economic changes on families, children and communities; on the ways citizens seek political power; and on the press and the public interest. Mr. Raspberry, who continues to write for The Post, won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his commentaries on crime, AIDS, the Nation of Islam and violent rap lyrics. He has won numerous other journalistic awards and more than a dozen honorary degrees, including one from Duke in 1993.

A Critical Perspective from William Raspberry on Borders and Barriers


The best teachers — I don’t mean the most highly trained teachers — but the best teachers are able to look at examples of collaboration in everything from a business office to a symphony orchestra, and figure out from that, pick from that, some things that they could apply in their own academic collaborations. I think the exchange may be about as unstructured and indirect as that.


Some parents (and we’ve all encountered them) are very much into expanding their horizons — becoming men and women of the world and moving away from their provincial attitudes. But some parents are quite frightened of their children’s efforts to reach out and become a little worldlier citizens, and they keep issuing cautions — especially if it’s across racial lines. And it’s not just the white people who do it, by the way. Any number of black parents are quite nervous about their children falling into relationships that are genuine and successful across racial lines. But they fear that once you are out of this little cocoon, you’re going to be expecting people to deal with you fairly as just another human being, and somebody will smack you with a cold towel. We want to protect our kids. We want our kids to know how to deal with all kinds of human beings. And we spend half our time protecting them from meeting any such people.


I’m not sure that it’s the teachers role to lead the demonstration and to do the kind of protests and so on. I’ll give you an example of both a teachable moment and also of a collaboration of something we talked about a minute ago. We had quite a ruckus on our campus a year ago when David Horowitz ran an ad in our school paper “Ten Reason Why Reparations are a Bad Idea and Racist” and the piece was pretty raw. It had the earmarks of a racist attitude, and the students went a little nuts on campus — the minority students did (the African-American students in particular). And we wound up having some forums to talk about it, because they thought (it wasn’t about Horowitz) but they thought their paper should not poison their community with this stuff. Well, we let that one play out, but another professor and I — we took the moment, because a large part of what was going on was a sense that, uh, not that Horowitz was much of a part of it, but it exposed the sense on campus that a lot of the black kids didn’t really feel welcomed and embraced on campus. Nobody was saying nasty stuff to them, but they just didn’t feel a complete part. So, Zoe Brown and I took this as a point of departure, and divided our classes into teams to explore what might we do on this campus to help knit the campus into a community. What had been happening on that campus and in campuses across America is that each subgroup of the campus gets busy working on its own grievances with the unstated expectation that if every subgroup works on its grievances and gets some resolve the result will be some kind of community on campus. It’s quite the opposite. It has the effect — it’s likely to have the effect — of pulling the campus apart in a hundred different directions, unless somebody is working on knitting the campus into a community. So we’ve had our students look at their own community and see what they might do, and some really terrific papers came out of it.


It’s so easy to slop over from the knowledge that some children come from reduced circumstances. Well, you know, they’re here. One can’t expect much more than that they should be here, and not make trouble and occasionally do some decent work. And it’s very hard if you’re not an experienced teacher and haven’t had some kind of help to figure out how to encourage kids to try their level best and to make them believe that they can succeed at a high level. Feeling sorry for kids is really not educating them.


Clever teachers (and there are a lot of them) can find ways to let the test be what it ought to be — that is to say a proxy for the course work. You can ask a few items about a Shakespeare play, and if you get those right, the assumption is that you read the play and know the play, but it’s also possible to learn the answers to those three questions without ever having cracked the book, and it’s that second thing that kind of scares me, but I must say if you put a sort of life and death choice on a teacher between having great and improving test scores on the one hand, and having kids have a thorough and general knowledge of the subject matter, but maybe not doing quite so well on the test, most teachers will have to go for the first.


You can’t let them get off the hook! You can praise them to the skies for “the terrific work you did on the rest of it.” If he were a basketball coach instead of a teacher, and Jamal learned to do just one terrific job of dribbling, but banged (bricked) off the backboard every time he shot, he’d have to say, “Hey son, great ball handling. Let’s work on the shot. You have to do both things.” And Jamal needed to learn that, and he needed to learn it at a time when he could be receptive to it because he was being praised for having done outstanding work.


Well, you know, I’m for affirmative action, but then so’s everybody depending on how you define it, and I don’t think we have time to do that tonight. It’s one of those ideas that everybody, I think, virtually everybody is for and everybody’s against depending on how you define it. I think we’re still at a point in our society where it’s important to be sensitive to racial discrepancy. Not every racial discrepancy is a result of racism, and one ought to be aware of that. But one oughtn’t be too casual about what may be discrimination. One ought to be fairly assertive about making sure that our major institutions (for instance) care about being representative. It should be very distressing to anybody now if we had a Supreme Court that consisted of 9 white guys. Frankly, I don’t think it’ll ever happen again. We’ve become that sensitive. Does that mean that suppose the nine white guys are the best Supreme Court candidates — well, there’s no such animal. And that’s the truth in most things. We keep making analogies to athletics. You know, the one who runs the hundred yard dash the fastest gets the trophy. That’s true. But most of life isn’t like a foot race. It really isn’t.


I think we have insufficiently owned up to the huge power of what happens to children at home long before they ever get near a school. And we, because we are reluctant to criticize homes (except those of us who come at it so harshly that criticism has a reverse effect), we wind up putting a burden on schools to do things that perhaps schools are not able to do. Whether this speaks directly to that person’s question or not, I think we need to spend some time working with homes, working with parents, especially parents of young children (young pre-schoolers), getting them ready for school learning. The kids mostly come to school eager to learn. They have not, in many cases, developed the habits that facilitate learning, and these are not really difficult to teach. You don’t need to be a college graduate, or even a high school graduate to do them. But they have to be taught. Most of us, who as parents do these things well, had to have parents who did them well. If you have a parent who wasn’t very good at this ‘getting kids ready to learn’ thing, the chances are the kid’s not going to be any good at it, either, so we have to step in.


Typically, in H.B.C.U.’s, we’re talking about kids who have had a less adequate preparation pre-college, and if that’s so — and we keep arguing that it is so — this lack of preparation or this lesser preparation has consequences. Some schools used to try to correct for it by in effect inserting another year between high school graduation and college freshmanhood. But then the other principle kicks in. You’re saying it’s going to take this kid five years, and this kid’s mother and father five years of tuition payments to get out of school, when everyone else does it in four — that’s not fair. If the kid comes in and does what the teacher requires, why shouldn’t he move on in four? Well, of course that’s precisely what happens. But the teacher’s teach generally to the middle and if lots of kids are in that freshman class who are not fully prepared to be full-fledged college students, the teaching will reflect that. It’s a wonderful thought to think that everywhere in America — from Harvard University to Delta State — that every student of freshman English will get the same thing and at the same level of intensity. Ain’t gonna happen, and it probably shouldn’t happen.


Students should be encouraged to mingle, but mingling for the sake of mingling kind of reminds me of the old days when they used to say “Take one to lunch week.” Mingling has — self-segregation has some interesting permutations. I’m certainly not the first to point this out. Nobody ever goes to the school cafeteria and says, “Why are all those white kids sitting at that table?.” If they ask about self-segregation, it’s always about minority kids being at the table. White kids sitting at the table (if the entire table is white) are not thought to be self-segregating. Now the kids may have any number of reasons for sitting together at the table — I mean minority kids. Not least of which is the comfort level. There are always kids who — white and black — who are quite comfortable mingling, and I think the modeling of that is important. The one thing I must say in response to that question that I strongly, strongly object to, and it’s not that rare still is that sometimes minority kids put pressure on other minority kids not to mingle. Not a few times have I heard some version of, “You gonna hang with them, or you gonna hang with us?,” as though it’s a choice that must be made, and it’s a permanent choice. I would say the first step is the permissive one — that everybody ought to feel free to deal with people with whom he or she feels they have something in common.


It is right, and it plays out in some interesting ways. When you and I were kids, and I mean grown-up kids, a couple of things used to happen. When we were grown-ups, we’d go to parties, and if I saw two other black people at this integrated party, we’d all acknowledge each other, but we made a point of not clinging. Mingle, Dammit! When I was in school, a few years before that, there were only about a dozen or so of us black kids at this little school I attended, but if three were sitting together at a table in the snack bar, when a fourth one came up, the fourth one was obligated to go and start a new table somewhere. Now kids absolutely don’t care about the mingling on that level. They like to be free to hang with who they’d like to hang with. But those were the days when we were quite self-consciously working at racial integration. I’ve got mixed feeling about our abandonment of that as a goal. It had some sort of silly manifestations in the old days, but at least we thought of it. We thought about it, and we spent some time working at it. I think more time than we do now.


I’m not sure that there are significant numbers of black kids who think college is not for them because of their skin color. There is an enormous pool of kids out there who think college is not for them because they think they’re not smart enough for college. And we need to do what we can, and not just at college, but well before that, to help kids understand what the real deal is. It’s the thing that middle class people know — that poor people often don’t figure out — that you don’t have to be terrifically smart to make it in this world — to make it solidly into the middle class. If you are reasonably bright, and willing to work, you can probably do pretty well. Some kids have the notion that college is for geniuses or, you know, people who sort of test off the charts. It ain’t so. People who want to pursue careers that require college almost always have the ability to absorb. They probably oughtn’t be at the Ivys, but there are colleges, maybe even with the interim stint of a community college, where they can get their game together, just as people do in athletics. You need a chance to get your game together.


I’m very leery of asking people as a matter of routine to try to do really delicate stuff that they have no training and perhaps no aptitude for. If I’m hearing the question correctly, you’re talking about work that therapists, and counselors, and psychologists and psychiatrists work at all the time — sometimes with exemplary results. I think that what most of us can do is to show kids that we care about them, that we really do care about them. We care what happens to them, we’re available to them, and if there’s something that’s hurting that we can help stop hurting, we’re willing and able to do that. And that’s about all. I think we need to keep our mitts off their little psyches. We don’t know what we’re doing.