Spotlighting Race in America

Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien fights for race conversation at media table 

By Daniel A. Washington 

Chances are you’ve heard the name Soledad O’Brien — maybe on television, providing commentary or narrating documentaries on race relations in the United States.

Arguably most known for her work in producing the multi-part documentary series “Black in America,” O’Brien has earned numerous awards for shedding light on often overlooked injustices endured by mi-norities in America. A former anchor for CNN, and current CEO of Starfish Media Group, she spoke with the Detroiter prior to the Mackinac Policy Conference, where she helped lead a discussion on national politics and the importance of race, economics and inclusion.

What is one of the most relevant issues facing American politics today?

How do you make sure that people feel represented? I see it all the time while interviewing people. This election is a real wake-up call and a lot of people are unhappy with the current state of affairs with the political system.

You have done a lot to shine a light on race relations in “Black in America.” What do you think the state of race relations are today in this country?

I think it is a very interesting time we live in. I think people think it’s a horrible time, but I’m not one of them. I think this time presents a number of highs and lows of living people trying to grapple with the issue and conversation of race in America. I think the idea that we would all get together and fix it is a little naive. I believe we are at a time where people are pushing back in a way. These are historic narratives that people are rallying and fighting against. I really thought that this presidential race was going to give way to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but we have instead seen an uprising in staunch white America push back. I don’t think we’re at the worst ever (time for race relations), but instead are experiencing the ebb and flow just like during other times in our history.

What are some of the key takeaways people need to understand about race in America?

I think the biggest takeaway is people don’t understand the history of how and what this country was built on. I think it makes people very uncomfortable to discuss the realities of race and class. I was talking to someone on Twitter and had to explain that indeed slavery has an effect on today’s issues and, more importantly, a race of people gravely affected. I think when you don’t understand your history you get angry, and being really misinformed causes racial tension and issues that only deepen the resentment. Demographics have shifted in this country. I think people really need to go back and understand the roots of our history, especially in regard to slavery. If you don’t do that, then you won’t understand why people are angry and feeling as if their life or the lives of those most affected has yet to be restored.

With the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots approaching, what do you think Detroit needs to focus on moving forward in terms of race?

I am a big believer that when faced with a challenge, you deal with it upfront. In Detroit, there’s a lot of opportunity and you can’t stay stuck in the past. You have to respect it and look forward to telling a new
narrative. Detroit needs to look to its future and see what it can do to make tomorrow better.

What is your take on the federal government’s role (EPA, congressional hearings) and response in the Flint water crisis?

The federal government’s role is to protect the people and, in this case, their water. There is no doubt that there has been and is an injustice that has occurred against the people of Flint. No apology or discussion can undo what has been done. This issue has opened the door and shed light on others across America in regard to the quality of water and its consumption. Going back to Flint, the biggest tragedy is the long list of officials that didn’t care, which in turn caused so many lives to suffer.

What is one issue that didn’t necessarily exist 25 years ago?

I would say eight to nine years ago when I look back, we were not allowed to acknowledge, let alone say, white supremacy on air. I recall having a conversation with my boss at the time about the idea that black people are treated differently by police. He would not hear any of it. He said all parents both black and white taught their children the same things in regard to respect and fear of police officers. This notion that different interactions existed was unheard of.

We now do understand that when it comes to policing there are completely different reactions for the white and black civilian. That is a big shift. We now care and are aware that blacks have been forced to live differently and approach police interaction different. I‘ve seen huge strides in this understanding, but there’s still a lot of work to be done considering the recent tragedies of unarmed black men losing their lives to police brutality.

What is your take on the presidential primary race so far?

It is very interesting from a reporter’s perspective. From a voter’s perspective, it’s a hot mess. I think there are a lot of voters on the GOP side who feel their leaders are really ignoring them. On the Democratic side, you look at the most recent debate and see some glaring problems. I think it’s very challenging for voters thus far; you get the sense that it isn’t really about the issues and more about the name-calling and accusations that dominate the headlines and conversation.

What do you think of the media’s role in the presidential election thus far?

I think the media is a combination of institutions, not just one entity. Some have done a great job reporting the facts, and others have been really disappointing and not doing what they should as journalists. Some have decided to encourage and even push the name-calling and madness to drive ratings. I think some media outlets are doing a great job and upholding the responsibility of journalism.

Daniel A. Washington is a marketing and communications coordinator at the Detroit Regional Chamber.