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Race Relations Today: From Little Rock Nine To Trayvon Martin

August 19, 2013 1:24 p.m.

GUEST:

Dr. Terrence Roberts, Terrence Roberts Consulting, Little Rock Nine Foundation

Related Story: Race Relations Today: From Little Rock Nine To Trayvon Martin

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: America had a rude awakening this year to the fact that we are not in a post-racial society. The verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the death of Treyvon Martin opened up wounds that really have not healed despite the presidency of Barack Obama. How will ultimately America transcend the deep racial divide that persists in our country and how can leaders begin to unite us instead of using our differences to divide us? Those big issues were addressed in a symposium over the weekend sponsored by the Chopra foundation in San Diego. One of the speakers was a man who's had a lifetime of experience in leadership. Terrence Roberts was one of the Little Rock nine who desegregated schools in Arkansas back in 1957 and Dr. Roberts it's a pleasure to welcome you to the show.

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Thank you, my pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do you meet young people now who really don't know much about the Little Rock nine?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Yes. I meet young people who have very little historical awareness of anything for that matter. But it's exciting to see lights come on when I start telling the story about what happened to me and that becomes a lead-in for a much larger discussion about issues that impact their own lives.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do you explain what happened back in Arkansas back in the 1950s to a young audience?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Well it's important to help them understand the historical moment. In order for them to truly understand it I have to provide a lot of information and occurred three years later when the nine of us showed up at the high school and we had expected opposition. We weren't that naïve, but we were shocked at the intensity of it. I must say, that was a great shock. He told me that even my own understanding of the historical buildup did not include current feelings that were so broad and so visible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about that explosion as you refer to it, what was it like?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Scary. The one word that pops out immediately is fear. These folks wanted to kill us. Was pretty obvious, well they said as much and their actions tended to support that notion. Basically the point they were making with us was look either you remove yourselves voluntarily or we will see to it that you are removed. Scary stuff altogether.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you and the other students who made up the Little Rock nine are described and I think rightly so at least in retrospect, as brave and courageous. Is that how you saw yourselves then?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: I don't think so. I think we probably saw ourselves as people who are very interested in obeying the law since the law had changed. We were law-abiding citizens. We found out that did not count for much in the climate that we were operating in, so brave and courageous came later. In fact I think it is apropos because as I look back now from an adult perspective I can't imagine what I was thinking. So I'm glad that brave and courageous made an appearance someplace.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think this incident shaped your life?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I say that from the perspective of my being a psychologist and I understand all of us as human beings are shaped by everything that happens in our life so yes, Little Rock definitely had an impact on who I am today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: After the ugliness that you and the other students experienced being screamed at, this explosion of rage that you talk about being spat upon, the recipients of all that hate, it may have been understandable if you had some bad feeling against white people did you?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: No, no because I figure this thing out much earlier had the very fortunate experience of learning primarily from my mom, who taught me that there was nothing that anybody else could do to define me. That was my providence. I had the total responsibility to define myself as a person so all that stuff that they did even the physical, the psychological, the mental violence meant nothing to me mainly it was a statement about who they were so I look at that situation as being a gigantic learning experience for me about a lot of people not all of whom were the same for instance not every single white person in Little Rock was my enemy and by the same token not every single black person was my friend and I say that because too often people tend to think in terms of groups they lump people together and talk about for instance I often get a question what does the black community and I stopped them before they get too far along because I say they are in date dangerous territory when you talk about a lot of people and frankly I don't know all of them so I can possibly answer that question but as if you asked me about Terry Roberts I can talk with some knowledge exactly what may be going on with me at that time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dr. Terrence Roberts. He was one of the Little Rock nine and he was in San Diego over the weekend to speak at a symposium sponsored by the Chopra foundation. I wonder Terrance, how closely did you follow the Treyvon Martin case?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Very closely because it was in my mind one of those things that had a foregone conclusion. i.e. George Zimmerman would be found innocent. That seems to be the case in this country. But because of the way we have established ourselves as a society that people basically have no rights that whatever happens to them is simply a function of who they happen to be. I haven't heard this but I have heard people saying will trade on if you had not been so black if you had been a white person George Zimmerman probably wouldn't have had a gun on you with that sort of reality that we face.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You bring me to the point that I was going to make that a lot of this focus was on profiling. The idea that a young black man just walking through a neighborhood poses a threat in some people's minds. Is this a kind of silent racism that still shapes our society?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: It's not silent. It's really loud when you think about it. And this legacy was shaped during the 335 year. I was talking about earlier. The one legacy that we have from that. Is inequality. And the soul of inequality happens to be that which happens to young black men in this society. If you look at the historical thread going on way back in time to when Africans were first brought to this country as slaves there was concern about what to do with these folk. Especially once slavery was ended. Now what do we do it seemed to be a problem but only because they had already at that point been adjudged unequal to white people. And that inequality has persisted over time. So you know it is not surprising to me at all that we keep bumping into that and the racism as I said is loud and spectacular not silent at all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why do we keep bumping into it? There's been a great deal of difference in this country think that you would probably agree with me at least a bit from let's say 1957 when you desegregated that high school in Arkansas to now and yet, why do we keep bumping into the same type of inequality?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Because fundamentally we have never addressed that issue. We've done what I call cosmetic changes. We've open some doors he provided some opportunities etc. etc. for people of color but beyond that the essential problem remains. In the psyche of this country, in the cultural ethos if you will we find at the root, this country is a white country that is the mindset that people carry around and if you have that it's very difficult to even have a conversation about change.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In what other ways to see racism manifesting itself in our society?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: I think the primary way it manifests itself as it tries to render itself invisible. It does a poor job of it from my perspective you know I talk to people all the time about this and they say well I don't see it and I wonder you don't seem to be blind, what are you missing? If we look closely at the policies, the systems, the traditions that institutionalized whatever, we find the hierarchy of race visible always.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm thinking now that you mention it I'm thinking of the moves in some states as we speak to make it harder for people to vote and the reaction from and I will say it some of the black community saying we will not abide this, we have to organize and overcome this because this is aimed at us.

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Of course, see that is a very good illustration. I'm glad you brought it up because all of those moves ostensibly devise to prevent voter fraud in an atmosphere of no voter fraud. The statistics are very telling. The incidents of voter fraud are negligible, so why this massive program? When you look at it closely it is because we do not want these folks voting for candidates other than the candidates that the purveyors of all this madness want to promote. There is no way around it except if we really want to change it we have to confront it head-on. So far in my lifetime it's been number 72 years I've seen literally no effort to confront the main issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Lots of people say that racism and profiling, that is a generational thing, that young people today are much more open to a diverse society. But then you see George Zimmerman. He's in his 20s, so are there other factors involved?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Well of course. I don't know that that holds water, really in terms of the generational thing because if you look across the board you look at attitudes in different age groups, you will find in each age group a continuum, there is no unanimity of thought among people about these issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the topics you address, Terrance, is leadership and defining a new direction and potential for leadership how could that help in moving America passed its racial divide?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: You know, we have a system of governance that includes three branches of government. For instance, we see writ large what can happen when people push that aside as a framework the U.S. Congress today mainly fueled by the attitudes of a lot of the Republicans in Congress have suggested that we will put that aside until we get rid of this Barack Obama person. They're all agenda from the start has been to support any effort he wants to make to move this country forward. So what we have to do as a society is to ask ourselves are we supportive of this or not? And so far the verdict is mixed. Almost one half, we look at the red blue divide it's almost split right down the middle that is big because it's almost a standoff.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So is this political polarization that we are dealing with now, is that a failure of leadership, or is that a failure with the electorate, with us?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: I think we have to look at all of us and I include myself because I figure if I don't speak out and I don't raise my voice I'm contributing to maintaining this onerous status quo so all of us have a job to do all of us have a responsibility none of us have the right to sit idly on the sideline while all this stuff goes on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But you say we haven't really looked into the soul of America, into our past and really confronted what it is that keeps us divided.

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Right and I don't know all the reasons for that. My speculation includes that there are some people in this country who benefit from maintaining the status quo as it is, financially economically it pays off. Cheap labor as a case in point and that too goes back historically when you think about the building of this country, cheap labor made it possible free, cheap labor made it possible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know it's taken 55, 56 years to get from the steps of Central high in Little Rock to where we are now with Barack Obama as President of the United States. How long do you think it's going to take to get us where we need to go?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: I have no idea. I think about that a lot though because I have two grandsons because I worry about their future because as young black boys in this country they are at risk. And the change for me can't happen fast enough but I'm not optimistic that there will be any change, honestly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the alternative?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Chaos, destruction, imminent disaster from my point of view although it's troubling to even say those words but that's all I can see.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you are saying there is no hope?

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Well, for me there is hope, but I find very few people around who share that and I've talked to a lot of people around the country and even out of the country I find most folk who are probably not able to even articulate what they are talking about hopefulness sometimes shows up more often than not there is despair.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You've given us a lot to think about I want to thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I've been speaking with Dr. Terrence Roberts. Thank you so much.

DR. TERRENCE ROBERTS: Thank you.