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The power of conversation: Soledad O’Brien discusses racial issues, facing history

When it comes to American love stories, most don’t envision an illegal one in which the lovers are spit on for being affectionate in public and forced to move to states with less restrictive marriage laws.

As immigrants to the United States, Soledad O’Brien’s Afro-Cuban mother and white Australian father know this experience well.

“When I speak to college students and I tell them my parents were literally unable to marry in their home state, they’re surprised. They cannot believe it,” O’Brien said. “They don’t understand that there was a time where black people and white people could not marry; it was against the law.”

O’Brien is an American broadcast journalist, executive producer and philanthropist. The chairman of Starfish Media Group, O’Brien continues to be a television anchor and correspondent for CNN, HBO Real Sports and Al Jazeera America. | Esteban Portillo/The Cougar

O’Brien, the primary speaker in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s Spring Speaker Series, used her journalism background to probe the serious — and recently magnified — issues surrounding the effects of racism in America to an audience of more than 1,200 in Cullen Performance Hall Tuesday night.

“I think when you talk at college campuses, there is a value in educating people who may not actually know a complete story,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s parents moved from Maryland, where interracial marriage was illegal, to Washington, D.C. and finally to the Long Island community of St. James, where O’Brien and her five siblings were raised.

O’Brien said her mother instilled her with a strong, optimistic mindset.

“My mother always told me, ‘Do not let people tell you you’re not black and do not let people tell you you’re not Latino,’” O’Brien said.

“(My parents) believed they would be a living example of how the nation could get better.”

With a panel including UH Law School Dean Leonard Baynes, democratic alderman Antonio French and author and commentator Julianne Malveaux, O’Brien spearheaded a discussion on the continuing issues surrounding being black in America.

“This year, five decades after Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, 70 percent of blacks say they are treated less fairly by the police than whites,” O’Brien said.

From left to right: O’Brien, Baynes and Malveaux. | Esteban Portillo/The Cougar

“When whites are asked… 37 percent said ‘yes.’ And more disappointingly, we have a problem as a country when fewer than half of all of Americans of any race believe the U.S. has made substantial progress in racial equality. True equality is still out of reach.”

O’Brien said the U.S. doesn’t like to talk about race.

“We like people to just ‘get over slavery’ already. But when we talk about current events today, discrimination, economic inequality, education equality, all those things have their roots in America’s challenging history around race.”

Historical slides and videos set the stage for the following conversation. Included were Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” story and clips from O’Brien’s film “BLACK & BLUE,” which explores the police officers and white vigilantes (George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn) who are accused of racially profiling young black men.

One clip, filmed in 2011, focused on Keeshan Harley, who was then 18, and had been stopped by police more than 100 times since he was 13 in New York City. For Harley and other young men of color, constant discrimination and criminalization affects them psychologically.

“It’s hard to stay calm when you have someone slamming your face against the wall,” Harley said.

His mother reminded him, “No one has that power over you. You can’t let that change you, ‘cause the first time you do, they win, you lose. Self-preservation.”

O’Brien said there is a great power in bringing together a conversation and that the youth need to be brave enough to confront society’s issues. The first step, she said, is to open the discussion.

“I don’t mind diving in and asking that uncomfortable question, and I hope students feel like ‘OK, there are some things we need to confront. How do we have a (productive) conversation?’” O’Brien said.

“I think it should be respectful… (but) the end goal here in Houston is a different end goal (in other cities).”

Malveaux said she believes the youth are paving the way to political evolution.

“When you think about Houston and Barbara Jordan… you really do see this political evolution,” Malveaux  said. “When we talk about young people, I think part of it is to encourage young people to be involved in the political process.”

Twelve-year-old Victoria Lopez, a writer for Empower Magazine and founder of For Kidz by Kidz, rose the issue of young citizens feeling powerless in the political process.

“When I was younger, I asked to save the rainforest.” Lopez said. “We got a whole bunch of people together, and they still cut down the trees because we were children. When are children going to turn it all off and go ‘I don’t care anymore’?”

O’Brien said it’s important to understand that change is a slow process.

“I think the key… is (to) not let other people around you become apathetic or disenchanted,” O’Brien said. “To be that voice reminding them that sometimes you win very few of them, but eventually you win one. And that one is enough to sustain you for the next round.”

When “that one” doesn’t seem to be enough, it’s easy for proponents of change and equality to give up.  Baynes cautioned the audience against that.

“Remember what our ancestors all went through – many of them were awful things with slavery and Jim Crow – and we survived,” Baynes said.

“There are opportunities for all of us to work toward reform and to work toward change, to solve some of the situations we are in today. It’s very important not to lose sight of hope… there may be bad things, but there is always hope.”

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