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African American columnists discuss press, racial issues

STANFORD -- Was boxer Mike Tyson convicted of rape because of his previous conduct toward women or because he didn't stop when a woman said no?

Does the Republican sweep in the November elections represent a hard shift to the right that leaves African Americans out in the cold or does it offer a chance for liberal groups to build coalitions?

A group of leading African American newspaper columnists voiced a variety of opinions on these and other issues at an evening symposium Monday, Nov. 14, in Cubberley Auditorium. The event, attended by an audience of approximately 250, was part of the three-day annual meeting of the Trotter Group, an organization of African American columnists. The Knight Fellowships Program sponsored the meeting.

Harvard law Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Stanford trustee, served as moderator. He began by asking the columnists what they were trying to accomplish through their writing.

“I think the job of the columnist is to irritate, even to be rude in the pursuit of your position,” said Les Payne of Newsday, who said he usually takes on racism.

Lorraine Kee of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said she goes after not only racism but sexism as well. On the O.J. Simpson case, the two issues came together, she said. And on the Mike Tyson case, she said, she came down on the opposite side from many black males, who tended to be sympathetic to Tyson.

DeWayne Wickham of USA Today said he had written that Tyson had built a case against himself even before the rape charge, having engaged in “butt-grabbing in public places, fondling women,” and a mugging that he admitted he had taken part in a decade or so earlier. “I think the accumulation of all of his excesses rendered him guilty in this case long before all the evidence was heard and the jury's verdict was in,” Wickham said.

Brenda Payton of the Oakland Tribune said the Tyson case brought out a distinct generational split. Women of her mother's generation, she said, felt that what happened between Tyson and the woman couldn't have been rape because the woman had gone voluntarily to Tyson's hotel room at night, while younger women felt that no should mean no, whatever the circumstances. Payton said she herself felt conflicted and didn't write about the case, maybe “because I felt out of step with my generation.”

In the O.J. Simpson case, Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe said he has written that black people are missing the boat by concentrating energy on Tyson and Simpson. An example he cited was the delegation of black leaders in Southern California who went to the Los Angeles district attorney to plead with him not to try the Simpson case as a death penalty case. “I don't see that same concern for all the black men on death row, or see that concern galvanized when black men who don't have O.J.'s or Tyson's name are going to prison at astonishing rates,” Jackson said.

Ogletree asked whether the columnists agreed that a conspiracy was at work in the downfalls of Tyson, Simpson and Michael Jackson as well as in the grueling ordeal Clarence Thomas underwent before being confirmed to the Supreme Court. Payne said he would not call it a conspiracy “in the sense there is some combination of forces acting in concert.” But, short of a conspiracy, he said that he has no doubt that black men and women in this country face “a different height of a bar, no matter what they are achieving.”

Vernon Jarrett, recently retired from the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times, called O.J. Simpson a “unique creation. For all practical purposes, he was a white boy,” with chiseled features, a beautiful physique and a graceful way of handling himself.

In this country, Jarrett said, “white people define us. The tendency is that anything that represents excellence, perfection, grace is white, even if it's black. O.J. represented the epitome of what white people say is white: rich, classy, successful.” Time magazine, Jarrett said, evicted Simpson from the white race, once he had been charged with murder, by darkening his cover photograph.

“African Americans are under intense pressure to conform to some perfect white or whitish icon of behavior that white Americans do not put themselves under,” Jackson replied. “There's an intense pressure on African Americans to be polite and nice, to be everything to everybody.”

While white youths are allowed to enjoy the delinquencies of the cartoon figures Beavis and Butthead, black teens are not allowed any room to misbehave, Jackson said. “There's a cultural box put around black people in which pressure to conform creates tinderboxes all around.”

Sheryl McCarthy of New York Newsday said blacks are also put into a box by other blacks. “We do not have to concede that excellence, grace and monetary success has defined a person out of the box so they're no longer one of us.”

About the large Republican gains in the recent elections, the columnists offered differing opinions. Sherman Miller of the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal, said that “for the first time, we see the Republican Party seriously going after black votes in the city. I'm a firm believer that if you have both sides fighting for you, you have leverage. If you have one side ignoring you and the other taking advantage of you, you get nothing.”

Wickham foresaw a much bleaker future. “This was a victory of radical conservative ideology over moderate ideology and liberalism. It is a victory of those whom I describe as 'anti-civil rights Democrats,' who've falsely been identified as Reagan Democrats.”

As for Republicans seeking black votes, Wickham said, “there's no big tent in the Republican Party that can embrace the Christian right, the radical right and African Americans. It's just not going to work.”

Payne allowed that there might be new chances for coalition building, with African Americans, progressives and white women joining to fight for common objectives.

What happened in the election, Jackson said, “meant that health care reform has been sacrificed for the short-term glee of voting against black people - crime, welfare and tax cuts - which to me are euphemisms for black people.”

“It will be interesting to see who white men are going blame [for all problems] two years from now,” Jackson said.

On the issue of Haiti, the columnists generally agreed that the current U.S. intervention is right because, as Jackson said, the United States “had a direct hand in destabilizing Haiti and bringing it to its current decrepit condition.”

Wickham said the “repressive Haiti that so many of us wrote about was a creation of U.S. policy,” which supported the Duvaliers.


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