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American race relations focal point at NABJ forum

Nate Homan

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogeltree told the packed room at the Constitution Ballroom at Hynes Convention Center that one of the biggest struggles in modern day race relations is Americans’ inability to talk about race in a mixed crowd, as if it were a taboo subject.

“I have some serious issues with the fact that we can’t discuss race in America when we are voting, in every state, but we don’t see representation in Congress in states where we are the majority population. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Award-winning journalist Ed Gordon and Ogletree, the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Injustice, hosted a forum on race in America, the challenges African Americans face in modern society and the strategies to help people overcome the challenges at hand at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention at Hynes Convention Center last week.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped support the 2014 NABJ Convention and Career Fair as a part of its America Healing effort, which provides grants and resources to support racial healing and to remove systemic barriers that deny opportunities to people of color.

The conversation focused on identifying and breaking down social barriers that many black families encounter in areas including, access to health care, quality education, access to well-paying jobs and the overall need for a better understanding of race in America.

“I remember the good old days when folks would sit down together at the dinner table and the young people would listen,” Ogletree said. “I learned a whole lot there. My parents never talked directly about race to me, but hearing my father talk about what he saw growing up in Alabama, my mother talking about what she saw in Arkansas, they were talking about each other’s problems and experiences.”

Ogeltree told the crowd that black people need to embrace a wider political scope than all align with one part.

“I think we should be in all parties across the board in order to balance the spectrum,” he said. “I am a life-long Democrat, but I’ve learned a lot from people who have different ideas. We have to make sure we have representation no matter what the stance is. I don’t think we should all be in one party.”

Gordon told the crowd that they were instrumental in the healing process of race relations in America.

“We have to decide that each of us has a role to play in changing the dynamic of our community,” Gordon said. “Until we do that, very little is going to change. Today, there are no demands left in our communities. No more action. We’ve allowed school systems to falter, and fail. We’ve allowed so many things to fall by the wayside that have sustained us for years and did well by us. Many times, the best ideas and answers are right in front of us, but we’re too afraid to step up.”

Gordon spoke the need to take care of one another regardless of wealth, social status or place of residency. When asked about the attitudes of African Americans held towards black families who have moved up the socio-economic ladder, Gordon said “you’ll hear folks refer to them as ‘those blacks,’ compared to when we all had to live together, rich, poor or otherwise. But it is still our responsibility to be our brother’s keeper. You have to suggest that you are the catalyst for change in your life and the lives of others.

“If it’s altruistic change for your community, if its selfish change for your career, as long as it’s a positive thought of change, it really doesn’t matter because we all will become better at this point. We all represent each other whether we know it or not.”

Ogletree acknowledged the change in race relations in Boston as the years passed between the busing crisis in the 1970s to the present day.

“The fact that this is a city of many colleges and universities, you have people coming here from so many different parts of the world that race relations are good. The internal race relations were bad especially between South Boston and the busing crisis. But there has been tons of improvements lead by former Mayor Tom Menino and the current Mayor Marty Walsh.”

Ogeltree stressed the need for people to take responsibility for the schools and the need to face the struggling education system in the city.

“The school systems are still a problem and they aren’t as good as they were at one point. That and joblessness is a major problem here. City councilors like Ayanna Pressley and Tito Jackson have done a great job showing people in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan that this is their city too and they are a part of what goes on here.”

“The school systems need to work on teaching kids at a young age how to talk about racism in a diverse crowd. It’s an easy conversation when one group is all together, but it gets more complicated in a mixed crowd and that is something that we, as a whole, need to improve on. I think if kids can get along, then adults can get along. The more we talk about it with kids, they’ll understand that we’re 99 percent made of the same makeup.”

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