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Spotting Silver Linings

June 2019

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Acclaimed journalist and NACUBO 2019 Annual Meeting keynoter Clarence Page reflects on the media, politics, and race in America and reveals why he is hopeful for the future.

Clarence Page

Having grown up in the working-class, factory town of Middletown, Ohio, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune Clarence Page credits college with facilitating his entry into the middle class. “I spent my high school years eagerly anticipating college because, to me, it represented a transformational experience that enabled me to leave Middletown. I knew that if I put my mind to it, college was going to open up opportunities for me.”

When he enrolled in Ohio University, Athens, in 1965, Page’s tuition was $770—$1,240 with room and board—and he could work at the steel mill during the summer to support his studies. “Going to college was a learning experience both academically and socially, and it also helped me mature and learn how to make smart decisions.” When Page first got to college, he joined every activity he could—from the radio station, to the yearbook, to a fraternity. He became so mired in activities that he almost failed his first semester. “I had to make some choices about what I was going to do. I quit nearly everything except the newspaper.” 

Although he was a student of color in the turbulent ’60s, Page still sees parallels between himself and students today. “I faced challenges that are similar to what adolescents everywhere face, which is identity formation—the kind of transition that one makes from being a kid, to a teenager, to an adult. And higher education is instrumental in that transition for so many.” 

Compared to his own college years, when Page and his peers were worried about the draft, he has noticed that the generation now entering college is increasingly worried about money. “So many from my generation want to get the steel mills back and open up the coal mines again, and that’s just not going to happen. We’ve got to look ahead to the future. What are we going to do to create jobs for the future and prepare people for them? That’s what young people are concerned about.” But, Page notes that college is about more than just getting a diploma and a job. “It also offers young people a way to help prepare themselves for a productive life.”

Ultimately, Page is optimistic about the future. He sees in the younger generations an increased openness to the diversity and rapid change of our current cultural climate, “When I talk to young people today, I’m very encouraged by how sophisticated they are about the world.”

Page is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board; a regular contributor to news programs, such as the PBS NewsHour, The McLaughlin Group, and The Chris Matthews Show; the 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary; and author of the books Showing My Color: Impolite Essays on Race and Identity (HarperCollins, 1996) and Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics, and Social ChangeSelected Columns 1984–2014 (Agate Bolden, 2014). 

In an interview with Business Officer magazine, Page—the NACUBO 2019 Annual Meeting main stage speaker on Monday, July 15—discusses his perspective on the media, race, class, and America’s current political moment.

As a member of the journalism profession for more than 50 years, what is your perspective on how the media misread the 2016 election?

I have been covering politics since my college days in the ’60s, and I learned long ago that covering presidential races is like an endless Road Runner cartoon, where reporters are the coyote and the newsmakers are the roadrunner. Every time a campaign or an election surprises us, we say, “Well, we’re not going to be surprised next time.” But even when we take the necessary measures, we get surprised by something different. That’s why I’m endlessly fascinated by my business. 

When President Trump was elected, I was somewhat depressed, not because of his politics, but because we in the media—myself and my colleagues, who I thought were so smart about predicting these things—were nearly all surprised when he won. I feel a lot more positive about it now because I do think we need to be humbled every so often, and this is an opportunity for us all to relearn what we previously thought we knew. 

What have newsrooms learned from the 2016 election cycle, and how has the media responded?

I’ve learned so much about what we in the media missed. In this case, we missed all those potential Trump voters who hadn’t voted before or who had changed their minds since the last election. We missed them because they fell off the demographic charts we normally use. It was very much those people who were not covered by the media, not discovered by us, who made the difference. Although, I think evidence shows Donald Trump didn’t expect to win either. Consequently, I have seen more efforts now to define stringers and part-time freelancers who can go out to areas where otherwise newspapers wouldn’t be sending reporters. 

What concerns do you have about the current state of our political discourse in the United States?

I am mostly concerned about the divisions that have been uncovered in our society, and specifically how our discourse is being impacted by the digital age. I’m also encouraged by how we are learning to communicate more effectively and defensively—to watch out for fake news and various kinds of propaganda. 

Fundamentally, the political discourse of today hasn’t changed from the days when America’s founders wrote the First Amendment and set up a platform for free debate unencumbered by the federal government. I sometimes wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have tweeted. Twitter would be just as essential for him today, I think, as it is for President Trump or the many journalists who use Twitter both to receive and send information.

The biggest challenge for myself and my colleagues, especially here in Washington, D.C., is that organizing and understanding the flow of information is like trying to drink from a fire hose. This has become a never-ending challenge, especially with a media savvy president who is constantly sending out messages. Our current digital age breaks the old rules of discourse and raises new questions—about privacy and what is offensive, for example. We’re just going to have to learn the hard way—by doing. 

How do you think the election of President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has impacted the experience of race in America?

When President Obama was first elected more than 10 years ago, many people were talking about how America was now a post-racial society. In our exuberance as a nation, everybody was so happy to see this narrative of the first black president play out in a positive way. At the time, polling of public attitudes toward politics and race relations by the Pew Research Center showed that black Americans were more optimistic about the future than white Americans. After Trump’s election, that reversed again. Now, black Americans are less optimistic than white Americans. But, neither group has been bubbling over with exuberant excitement. 

Now, nobody says that we live in a post-racial society. It’s quite apparent that we’ve got a lot of divisions, and Trump’s election merely exposed just how discontented everybody was about their current state and the way America was going. And, that question—“Where do you think America is heading, better or worse?”—that’s a key question in forecasting future elections. The country was ready to elect Obama, but is the country ready to face what comes after? 

What has your experience as a reporter revealed to you about race in America, and how has that picture changed over time?

Working as a reporter in Chicago was a very valuable experience for me. I learned that Chicago, like other big cities, had a long history of ethnic and racial conflicts. Just as each new ethnic group moves into a city, it becomes part of what’s been called an ethnic succession, working its way up the ladder. 

When the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ended preferences for European immigrants, we began to see the population of nonwhite immigrants from around the rest of the world greatly increase. I started covering the problems of the black community a little less and was more frequently covering the situations Hispanic, Asian American, and Arab American families were facing.

Today, as a result of the #MeToo movement, we’re talking more about the intersectionality of race and gender. There are differences between the way black and white women in the movement see both the problems and the potential solutions to institutionalized oppression, but now these two groups are making much more concerted efforts to work together. This coordinated effort also helps to highlight that people who may have a great record on race can also have a terrible record on sex and gender. 

How do you view the intersection of race and class? 

While I do believe that race is very important, I think it is less important than class. One of the legacies of the civil rights movement is that, from 1965 to 1985, the black middle class increased significantly. Opportunities opened up for black Americans and the poverty rate in the black community declined from more than 50 percent to where it is now, at around 20 percent. But, the poverty rate has stayed at around 20 percent for black Americans since the early ’90s—that’s a number that hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years and includes mostly children. We need to improve this.

Now, I’ve had discussions or conducted workshops about race with many different kinds of groups, such as high school students, college students, professionals, and churches. Sometimes it takes a little while, but inevitably someone will say, “Isn’t the problem really class?” 

But a lot of folks get depressed and defensive when you start talking about class. It’s like my daddy used to say, quoting an old preacher that he used to know, “Now you have stopped preaching and gone to meddling.” When an amiable discussion about race and poverty develops into talking about how to help poor people rise up from poverty, that’s when you can really start getting into some touchy discussions. 

It’s not enough just to celebrate the fact that black unemployment has fallen to a new record low. Why did it fall? Who is still poor? Why are they still poor? These are questions that we don’t probe enough. A lot of those folks, for example, are working two or three jobs—their names disappear from the unemployment role, but they’re still underemployed and having a hard time making ends meet. That’s the group that gets the most frustrated. And, when they do turn out and vote, will often just vote out of protest. 

How do you see the intersection of race and class playing out in the future?

I am disturbed by what I see as a backsliding by the next generation of kids, the Gen Xers and Gen Yers. Those of us who came up during the civil rights era saw opportunities open up that the previous generations did not have. It primed us to be optimistic. But, what we’re finding now with the children of my generation is that they aren’t earning as much money as we were, and they don’t view their prospects as optimistically as we did. This transcends racial lines. More and more white Americans don’t expect their kids to do as well financially as they did. 

I’ve always pushed for looking at these economic factors as economic problems, as opposed to racial problems, because you are able to isolate what actually does appear to be racially related. And, in the end, the remedies that help to improve white outcomes also help black outcomes.

What do you see as the role of higher education in improving one’s outcomes?

Based on my conversations with students, I think the answer is “more money,” especially if they have student loans to pay off. Without some sort of schooling beyond high school, you’re unlikely to see any real increase in income, adjusted for inflation, in your working life.

More importantly, as an old saying goes, higher education prepares you for a lifetime of further educating yourself. For example, look at all the changes that have happened in media. Look at how the internet disrupted the world of typewriters and broadcast news earlier in my career. Higher education teaches you how to understand change, adjust to it, and help generate more changes—for the better, one hopes. My late father advised me that, “There are two types of people in this world: The movers and shakers and those who get moved and shaken.” Education helps you to be a master of change instead of feeling threatened by it.

What inspires optimism in you today?

I feel optimistic about how resourceful Americans are and the fact that so many things that used to be a big deal are now taken for granted. Just think about how there were two black senators in the top tier of presidential candidates before March this election season. After the Obama presidency, it’s just not as big a deal. Those same things we take for granted now are actually evidence of progress. 

On the whole, I think it is important for us not to be apathetic and say, “Oh, well, that job is done now. Racism isn’t the problem anymore. Let’s just move on.” No, racism is still a problem and it’s connected with other problems, and we need to pay attention to it for the good of the country. 

LIZ CLARK is vice president, policy and research, NACUBO.

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I’m also encouraged by how we are learning to communicate more effectively and defensively—to watch out for fake news and various kinds of propaganda.