January 28, 2011

CNN's Soledad O'Brien discusses race in America

Photos by Carlton Mackey

By Margie Fishman

The "state of race" is not a monolithic concept, rooted in one moment in time. Rather, it is a fluid "conversation that digs into those uncomfortable spaces of how we are different and what that means," according to Soledad O'Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent.

O'Brien was the keynote speaker at Emory's 11th annual State of Race event on Jan. 25. Before a packed Glenn Memorial Auditorium, she delivered part personal narrative, part historical commentary on the layered meanings of race and social justice in contemporary America.

Before O'Brien assumed her familiar place behind the microphone, Emory College sophomore Daniel Weingarten entertained the audience with his poignant slam poetry.

The capstone event to Emory's King Week, State of Race was sponsored by the College Council, the Emory Center for Ethics and the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services.

Beginning Feb. 3, Emory will hold the first-ever "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" conference. The three-day event is part of an ongoing discussion at Emory about how universities and other institutions can reconcile their historic ties to slavery toward the goal of furthering community diversity and equity.

"It's easier to disregard the history [of slavery] and forget it," says O'Brien, whose credits include the "Black in America" and "Latino in America" CNN documentaries. "It's the responsibility of higher learning to lead the conversation."

O'Brien is the child of two immigrants, a white Australian father and a black Cuban mother who drove from Maryland to Washington, D.C. to get married in 1958, nine years before the U.S. Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

To her parents' chagrin, O'Brien dropped out of Harvard University's pre-med program to take a $6-an-hour job "removing staples from a bulletin board" for a television station. Early in her career, interviewers asked her to change her name and criticized  the biracial journalist for not "reading black" enough in front of the camera.

O'Brien persevered, eventually landing at NBC's "Weekend Today" and CNN's "American Morning." She has received the NAACP President's Award and is the first recipient of the Soledad O'Brien Freedom's Voice Award from Morehouse School of Medicine in recognition of her work as a catalyst for social change.

Courageous leaders are willing to "change the paradigm," she says. "We have to ask ourselves, ‘Who do we stand up for? What do we stand for?'"

O'Brien invoked the lessons imparted by Martin Luther King Jr., who may be remembered best for loving people and serving humanity.

"You realize the brilliance in that simplicity," she says. "The success of all of us hinges on no one left behind."

King was not an anointed leader, but a man plucked from relative obscurity to articulate what would become a global movement, she explains. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," she said, quoting King.

Before closing the evening, O'Brien took questions from the crowd. One audience member asked how the Tea Party might work to include more diversity in its ranks. "What's your platform to make people who are more diverse want to join you?" she responded.

Currently at work on a documentary about the Muslim experience in America, O'Brien explains that the feeling among some Muslims is that they are experiencing the next wave of racial discrimination.

After more than two decades in journalism crisscrossing the globe, she has uncovered some basic truths about the human experience. 

"Everyone is the same," she says. "They all want the same things — safety, security, the opportunity to have a better life. Ultimately, if you understand that, there is hope for all of us."

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