Washington 'power couple' takes on race
William and Janet Cohen want to use their experience as a mixed-race couple to start an open discussion on race in America.
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"The problem is that there are a very few who have made it to the top and they are completely separated from what is the reality on the ground for the vast majority of black people who will not have that chance," Mr. Cohen adds.Skip to next paragraph
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A recent Gallup Poll shows significant gaps persist in how black and white Americans understand race relations. When pollsters in 1963 first began asking the question, "Do you think that relations between whites and blacks will always be a problem?" some 26 percent of black respondents, compared with 44 percent of whites, said yes. In a poll last month, white Americans were more optimistic on the prospects for racial reconciliation: Fifty-seven percent of blacks expected that race relations would always be a problem, compared with 45 percent of whites.
"There's a big gulf between how blacks and whites look at the state of society today," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll in Princeton, N.J. Whites are much more positive than blacks in assessing how groups are treated in society today. Sixty-three percent of whites say that they are satisfied with the ways blacks are treated, compared with 35 percent of blacks.
A key objective of the conference is to help explain the historical experiences or memories that inform such a range of views. "For me, reconciliation means illumination – to reach a state of acknowledgement. It's about understanding how we got to where we are," says William Cohen.
An example: "Why would a black preacher – or anyone else – suggest that the United States government is involved in spreading AIDS in the black community? From where does this fear emanate? Well, then you start reading about medical apartheid and the Tuskegee experiment and you say: Maybe they have a reason to be apprehensive and we didn't understand this. There's a rational basis for the accumulation of fears over the centuries."
(The Tuskegee experiment involved 400 poor black men in Macon County, Ala., who enrolled in a four-decade study by the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute on the effects of syphilis. The men were never told they had the disease or treated for it. President Clinton apologized on behalf of the American people in 1997.)
"We need to acknowledge it and then move forward and hopefully achieve a higher level of humanity. That's my goal," says William Cohen.
Janet Cohen, who still bears a small childhood scar from a rat bite, says that she was inspired by South Africa's model of racial reconciliation. "The blacks just wanted the whites to admit what happened: Stop being in denial that we have this problem, don't deny that you have perpetrated these horrible things against us. Admit it. Once you admit it maybe you can move on," she says. "I don't think we've always been land of the free, but we are home of the brave. I think we can face all our truth, face all of our history and be stronger for it."
Participants invited to this conference speak of the diversity of the invitees, ranging from military and business people to celebrities, activists, academics, and journalists. Few of the professional talking heads on race are included.
"A concern at such events is that we're too often – and that was the case with the Clinton race initiative – talking to the choir and not really expanding the universe of people who are aware of issues of racism in society," says Michael Wenger of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington and former deputy director of President Clinton's Initiative on Race (1997-98).
"The fact that the Cohens are putting this on is a good thing, because they can reach beyond the so-called choir. They have a reach into parts of the society that most of us who talk consistently about race don't have," he adds.