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Racial Barriers Still Exist, but Anything is Achievable, says PBS' Gwen Ifill

1/25/2010 --

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — From her vantage point as a reporter and Washington insider, broadcast journalist/author Gwen Ifill disputed the notion that America has entered a post-racial society, and contended that Martin Luther King Jr. would concur. While King certainly would celebrate how far the nation has come — even electing an African-American president — the civil rights leader would focus on what still needs to be done, Ifill said.

"Perhaps King would realize his role would always be that of an agitator," Ifill said during the recent MLK Day Lecture at the University. "Instead of resting on the laurels of achievement, he would push for more in caring for the least of us — the homeless, at-risk youth, and the unemployed."

Ifill shared her thoughts Jan. 18 before a packed house in Hill Auditorium. The Ross School co-sponsored the annual event with the University's MLK Planning Committee.

The managing editor of the PBS series "Washington Week" and co-anchor for "PBS NewsHour" acknowledged that race is still an awkward identifier for many, but it's an important one. She addresses the topic in her book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. "Race is about understanding the value of difference," she argued.

She cited a well-known passage from King's "I Have a Dream" speech to express her belief that King felt the same. "When he said he didn't want his children to be judged by the color of their skin, the operative word was 'judged'" she said. "He never meant that the color of their skin should be ignored."

Ifill noted the intolerance that has clouded race relations permeates other aspects of society as well, embittering the current political climate. "Refusing to acknowledge another's point of view equates to a lack of diversity of thought that makes us a poorer society," she said. "As a journalist, I try to go into every exchange with the understanding that you might have a point, that you might add something to my understanding. More people in my business need to do that, but so do we as individuals."

She maintained a belief, however, in the inherent goodwill of the American people. "I'm not going to overinvest in the view of people who are moving us back," she said. "We know when things aren't right, and there's still an overwhelming desire among us to take action. We are not as complacent and set in our ways as it sometimes seems."

Ifill stressed the American people's collective responsibility to ensure that future generations view King as "more than a postage stamp or a distant icon." In talking about the doors that were opened for her because of the work of King and others, she noted, "I do not for one moment think that I got where I am because of what I did myself." She also credited the pioneers of human rights with her choice to be a journalist. "Because of them, I came to believe that the search for truth and the search for justice are not incompatible."

Ifill also related her success to early standards set by her parents, West Indian immigrants — "black people who chose to be African American." They taught her to embrace her race, and that if anyone called her black with the intent of insulting her, she should reply, "Thank you." Ifill's parents instilled in her the belief she could do anything, but she would have to work hard for it. "They taught me that America is the land of opportunity, but opportunities won't just fall in your lap because you think they should." Her parents always held high expectations of her, and Ifill said she now realizes the value of that upbringing. "I've seen the havoc that can be wrought in households that have low expectations."

She noted that expectations also were important to King. She read an excerpt from his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he wrote that people who have seen or experienced injustice cannot patiently sit and wait for change to come. While it's easy to read the passage and think about how far our nation has progressed from the era of segregation, Ifill argued that doing so misses the point.

"Dr. King is making the case for expectations," she said. "We should all expect that anything is achievable, if not now, then soon. The barriers are still there. But shining the light of justice, of understanding, of tolerance is as necessary as it can be satisfying. And it is the real way to honor Dr. King's legacy."

—Amy Spooner



For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu