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Conversations We Need

American attitudes about race may have changed, but we still need to talk about them. Gwen Ifill addressed both race and change in her general session keynote address that opened the NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting. Ifill, a television journalist with the Public Broadcasting Service, is the author of a new book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009).

“How nervous we still are, talking about race,” Ifill said. “We haven't yet figured out how to have a conversation that's not about accusation and grievance. The reason it matters this year is that [with Barack Obama's election as president] Washington is once again the center of the universe.”

Politicians are those we empower to tackle society's problems, she said. When population shifts occur, as they have in every major city, political power has been challenged as well. Her book examines how African American politicians are breaking through and how power is changing hands.

“What does the 'Age of Obama' mean?” Ifill asked. “It isn't really about Obama; it has more to do with how we adjust to the changes.”

During the Democratic primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, people thought they had to make a choice between gender and race—but Ifill said that's a false choice. When someone asked her, “Are you a woman first or a black first?” Ifill responded, “Gee, I've never been given an opportunity to choose!”

An audience member asked what educators can do to support conversations among our students that move beyond grievance. “It has to start in the classrooms,” Ifill responded, “in educational institutions where such conversations are permitted and you can consider all possibilities.

“Having a conversation about race is not a hostile act. The question is whether you're bound by your history. We're capable of having completely engaged conversations which aren't about accusation. Young people are ahead of us.”

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