‘Solutionist’ Closes Chapter on 13 years at Duke

After 13 years on the faculty of the Institute’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Knight Professor of the Practice William Raspberry has ended his formal teaching career. He taught his last two courses this spring—“The Press and the Public Interest” and “Separation and Inclusion: The Quest for Political Power”—and made his final commute between his home in Washington, D.C., and the Washington Duke Inn.

William RaspberryFor nearly 40 years until he retired at the end of 2005, Raspberry was a celebrated Washington Post columnist, providing a mirror in which America’s social and political complexities were reflected. His honors include the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Lifetime Achievement Award, both awarded in 1994. Journalism, he once said, was “a career better than anything I could have dreamed up on my own.”

When he received the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club in 2004, NPC President Sheila Cherry said, “He has shown us what we are, but has also shown us what we might be.” Raspberry’s writing, “especially helped to bridge national racial divisions,” she said.

Raspberry grew up in Okolona, Miss., a small town where he says there were “two of everything; one for whites and one for blacks.” His parents taught at Okolona College, a junior college for blacks run by the Episcopal Church from 1902 to 1964, during the days of racial segregation. He credits his upbringing for instilling in him “pretty decent values” and a deep commitment to education. Politically, he calls himself “a solutionist.”

He spoke with Sanford Institute Communications Director Karen Kemp.

Q. Before you retired from The Washington Post, you said in a National Public Radio interview that you “very much dislike the idea of leaving a job horizontally” and you were leaving while you “still had some life left.” Are you leaving Duke for the same reasons?
A. Well, it’s time. I’m completing the 13th year of a five-year agreement! I will miss Duke and Durham. There are people I will miss enormously, just as there are people at the Post that I miss enormously. But you make new connections wherever you go. It’s important to try not to get too set, or get your life frozen.

What will you devote your time and energy to now?
“Baby Steps” is the main conduit for my emotion and energy now. It has the potential to be very important. We want to find ways to help children enter school not already behind, but ready for learning and for life. The Kellogg Foundation is interested in Baby Steps, and in Mississippi, and we want to see if pieces of what we are doing can be transferred into other communities. [Raspberry launched Baby Steps, an early childhood and parent education program for low-income families, in his hometown in 2003. Raspberry hopes to recreate the “community of learners” support network that he experienced as a child. After providing start-up funds for several years, Raspberry now receives program funding from the Kellogg Foundation.]

How are you going about it?
Involving parents. Success in learning is very much about relationships. I entered college as a math major because my favorite high school teacher was Mr. Gardner, and I worked hard to please him. I had no sense that one day simultaneous equations would come in handy. Those of us who did well in school did well not because of some long-term goal, but to please the adults who cared about us, the ones who cared to make the phone call home or keep us after class. Relationships are really important; I don’t know how we keep missing it.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by Baby Steps?
In my generation parents were uneducated because they had no opportunity, and they longed for that opportunity. Most uneducated parents believed if their children could get learning, it would save them… Now, a significant portion of low-income parents have given up on any belief in the power of learning. These are parents for whom school didn’t work. They have no sweet song to sing to their children about the glory of learning, and that’s new under the sun.

What’s the solution?
The big mistake is in supposing the problems we see can be solved by schools alone. American public schools actually do a reasonably decent job educating kids who come to school ready to learn and a terrible job educating those who don’t. What happens at home matters, and we’ve been reluctant to look at that.

It’s not just parental complacency, but a loss of parental belief. Somehow we need to communicate to children and their parents that middle-class success is available to kids of ordinary gifts who work hard.

In a column titled “Why Our Black Families Are Failing” you wrote: “For the first time since slavery, it is no longer possible to say with assurance that things are getting better.” Why?
We raised up a generation to believe the righteous demand was all they needed: Identify the need and then demand that somebody deliver it. It was one lesson we over-learned from the [Civil Rights] movement, and it does not work for what’s left to do, which calls for internal commitment, exertion and cooperation. Books and bricks can be delivered, but school performance is not something that can be delivered on demand. Some people say that to focus on these things is to “blame the victim.” I want to empower the victim. Racism still presents barriers to our progress as a people, but I assert that it is no longer the principle barrier.

[Raspberry compared racism in America to a torrent once so dangerous that people drowned in it, but which now, through sacrifice and hard work, is not as powerful as before.]

There is a diminishing utility to proving the obvious – “Look, white America, the stream is not dried up” – and great utility in showing to our own children the stream is finally crossable by all who would cross it. It’s more than mindless, cheery optimism. It’s a mental and, in some ways, a spiritual attitude. It’s a focus on net return on investment. We need to teach them that this thing is manageable. Let’s literally “get over it.”

What’s your assessment of the state of mass media?
The media do actual harm in some instances … with a focus on sexualization, objectification, trivialization of relationships and the pursuit of people who are famous for being well known but have not really done anything. We at least know what is on TV; we don’t know what’s on the Internet. Adults do need to teach children that the Internet is not a community and that people you meet there are not necessarily who they say they are.

I am not sure what we should take away from our children, but we need to make sure we give them good values. Sometimes we are so determined to give them what we didn’t have that we neglect to give them what we did have.

Do you think today’s aspiring journalist needs different traits or skills than the journalist of your era?
I like to think that at the core of the business there is still a set of values – to be engaged in a search for truth, to strive for fairness, to be as free of bias as possible. These are the things you brought to the game, and, of course, you had to able to type. Now, your skills need to include not just typing, but video, radio, all kinds of media tools. [In the future] the how-to of newsgathering will still be recognizable, but the delivery won’t be. there will be newsrooms, but 20 years from now there may not be anything going “thud” on my doorstep.

Is there a book by William Raspberry on the horizon?
I might start on it this summer, but I don’t know what it is yet. It might be something vaguely autobiographical, but not a memoir. You don’t know where it’s going until you sit down and start writing.