Finally! MSNBC's Three-Hour Conversation About Race in America

It was a different sort of doc block last night on MSNBC: First, there was the documentary "Meeting David Wilson," about a young black man, David A. Wilson, whose search for identity led him back through his family tree to a plantation in North Carolina where his ancestors had been slaves — and David B. Wilson, a descendant of the slaveowners who'd owned them. It was an extraordinary and moving documentary, tracing David A's journey to David B's doorstep and the frank, if sometimes uncomfortable exchanges that followed (i.e. "Do you think you should pay me reparations?"). It's thoughtful and moving and works because both David Wilsons are decent, genuine people who seem not only to really want to move the state of race relations ahead in this country, but to be evidence that it's already underway.

The documentary ran from 9 - 10:30 p.m. — but instead of rerunning "Countdown" next, or a documentary reminding you why you should try to stay out of prison, MSNBC instead broadcast a live discussion about the film at Howard University, moderated by Brian Williams with a revolving panel of experts — and for the next 90 minutes, tried to at least begin that conversation about race that people keep talking about. Special guests included radio talk show host Tom Joyner (who has recently been un-Smiley'd); author/academic Michael Eric Dyson, lately very familiar on the pundit circuit; entrepreneur/activist Malaak Compton-Rock, wife of Chris Rock and someone who I hope will become more familiar on the pundit circuit, because she was awesome; the Rev. DeForest Soaries, a prominent religious and political leader and former NJ Secretary of State; activist/writer (and HuffPo blogger!) Kevin Powell; Washington D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier; AWARE founder Tim Wise ("Association for White Anti-Racist Education," if you were wondering), and Boston Herald columnist/"Morning Joe" regular Mike Barnicle, who seemed to be a rather random pick but who raised some good points. The whole thing was fascinating, and pretty frank without seeming to offend anyone (mostly — Howard Professor Greg Carr was singled out by Williams in the audience, and he seemed pretty annoyed that no one from Howard was actually represented on the stage. Hey, if that's the most awkward moment in a 90-minute live discussion about race after a movie about a black man meeting the white descendant of the slaveowners who owned his ancestors, that's pretty good).

There will, no doubt, be disagreement on that and many other points — a blogger who calls herself "The Black Snob" thought the conversation amounted to "an echo chamber of black people and Liberal whites" [saying] 'racism bad'". Said the Snob: "What does that solve? How does that fix health care or education or our mortality rates? What does that accomplish? And I gather very few white Americans even watched the damn thing." Well, she could be right on that point since my God, I have never seen so many black people in commercials on MSNBC before (and not a Liberty Mutual ad to be found, btw). But, well, I'm white and I watched, so who knows.

The Snob has a pretty high standard, which is her right (all things considered, she was much kinder to MSNBC than to CNN's recent "Black in America" coverage, and in particular, T.J. Holmes). Here's her take on how the media's been grappling with these issues of late:

No one seems to want to address the reality that most white people know very little about black people. While some are suspect in their intensions when something vaguely racist is uttered, most are too ignorant about black people to have a full grasp on what is and isn't offensive and are too afraid to ask for fear of being branded a racist.

And here's something funny: I was about to mention a few examples but then wavered, wondering if my mentioning them would mean that...well, you know. But what the hell. The reaction to Geraldine Ferraro comes to mind; the uproar over Bill Cinton's comment about South Carolina and Jesse Jackson; the flap over Joe Biden's "clean and articulate" remark — in each case you saw people falling all over themselves to condemn and renounce and that's the kind of reaction that's going to make people watch the the heck they say.

But — it really does seem like a great time in this country to talk about race (like maybe it wasn't after Katrina? Because that conversation didn't really happen), and if the country is open to having it then the last thing we need right now is to go the safe route of silence. Even The Black Snob agrees with that: "I'm probably asking too much. These are cable news networks. They are trying. So I'll toss them a bone. Yeah, for trying." The network certainly did try, what a "Today" show segment yesterday featuring the Davids Wilson (and "Today" correspondent and former Giant Tiki Barber hosting the documentary), plugs from BriWi on "NBC Nightly News" and on his blog, and a delegation of NBC/MSNBC bigwigs all traveling en masse to D.C. for the occasion.

I don't have the perspective of the Snob, but I can say that I learned from the documentary and the discussion after, and, well, now I'm writing this, which might make someone else check it out. To me, the night seemed to be a great thing for MSNBC/NBC to have done — the whole thing probably cost more than re-running a documentary about a serial killer, and may not score the ratings, but it did move a more important needle. Whether that needle is race relations in this country or just the amount of time cable news channels are willing to devote to it, I think that "trying" is pretty darn good. In any case, it totally replaced "MILF Island" as my favorite thing I have seen on TV this week.

Update: MSNBC put the video of the post-doc discussion online; find them all collected here, including the eye-opening 'doll test' where little black children explain why a white doll is prettier and better than a black doll. Wow.

Related in tart media criticism:
Should I Vote With My Vagina or Melanin Content? [Anonymiss]

p.s. I'd tell you when you can catch the replay, but alas I don't see any new listings on MSNBC or on my TV. There are a few videos below from "Meeting David Wilson," including the trailer which asks a question Wilson puts to people on the street, black and white — and the viewer: "What's wrong with black people?" The Black Snob asks a variation of that question, insofar as she wonders what's wrong with black people who aren't Michael Eric Dyson: "MY GOD, must Dyson be on EVERYTHING? I can't escape the man." Ha. He really is rather ubiquitous. We're sort of partial to Marc Lamont Hill, would have loved to have seen him up there, too. Next time!

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