The Solutionist  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1994

The Solutionist   

In an era of shrill certainty, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry doesn't hit readers on the head with his opinions. He's just trying to solve some tough problems.

By Linda Fibich
Linda Fibich is a former Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service and a former assistant managing editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune.      


He has written opinion pieces for one of America's most influential newspapers for nearly 30 years, and his work has been syndicated since 1977. One-hundred-eighty papers carry his column each week, papers as large as the Los Angeles Times and as small as Tupelo's Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in his native state. In April he won his first – some would say overdue – Pulitzer Prize.

But ask William Raspberry how many columns he has written, and he fixes his gaze in a manner that doesn't give away his sense of humor. Yet.

"Six," he says.

"All the others have been permutations on those six. Six may be too high a number. There are not that many ideas out there, and I think most of us are born with probably four or five pretty good ones, at least most of us who get into this business.

"After that it's a question of filling in the blanks: Who's the president? Who's the head of state? Who's the chairman of the school board? What is the particular education issue, the particular criminal justice issue that prompts the column?"

Sitting in Raspberry's office at the Washington Post, I'm not sure I'm not being had. It can't be that simple. But Raspberry talks on, warming to the subject.

"I didn't know I was doing this until I started doing commencement speeches, and it occurred to me that there's only one commencement speech. Yet you can't, you know, say the same words all the time."

Then he reveals one of the handful of discoveries that gird his work:

"It's all right that there's just one commencement speech, just as it's all right that there's only one homily to deliver at a wedding. The trick is to say it in a way that it can take.

"And that means saying it and being mindful of the occasion, of the particulars of the occasion, the uniqueness of the participants in this manifestation of the occasion, the political or social context in which the thing is taking place. All these give you new clothing to put on the old idea.

"The people who get in trouble," he concludes, "are the ones who think they have to say something new."

Raspberry, 58, is a black op-ed columnist. Beyond that, he is tough to categorize.

At times he seems liberal, at others conservative. He says he's neither. He will admiringly invoke figures from both ends of the ideological spectrum, sometimes in a single column.

He's tough on crime. But at the same time, he is deeply concerned about the loss of human potential and the acknowledgment of failure that toughness concedes. And while he is not a religious man, he decries the lack of spirituality in America.

In one recent column, he stops just short of supporting anti-welfare guru Charles Murray's argument that the Aid for Dependent Children program should simply be abolished, forcing indigent mothers to seek the help of such private benefactors as family and church. The stand wins him fans among conservatives, but leaves liberals shaking their heads. In another, more recent, column he suggests that the cooperative, low-stress learning methods used to retrain the American workforce have a place in schoolrooms. The stand wins applause from liberal educators and puzzles conservatives.

In the past, Raspberry has broken with the advocates of black English, and with those who believe an anti-black conspiracy is behind everything from AIDS to the political fall of former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry. He called on black leaders to break their silence when a young white woman was nearly beaten to death by wilding black youths in New York's Central Park. He has prodded such noted black conservatives as the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell to state what they are for, not merely which social programs they are against. And when the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the country that Americans of African descent would prefer to be called "African Americans," Raspberry wrote that he'd been quite content being black.

Raspberry's own six-column count is probably sardonic, but he writes about relatively few subjects. "Looking Backward at Us," a 1991 collection published by the University Press of Mississippi, featured only four: education, criminal justice, family and race.

What sets Raspberry apart from other columnists, says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., is "his sense of sort of middle-class to upper-middle-class America. Black and white, but particularly black, which is a voice that is not much heard across America, particularly in the media.

"On top of that, Bill is a wise, careful person. He's not an ideologue. He's not polemical... Which is not to say that he's a tepid voice."

Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor at the Atlanta Constitution, adds that Raspberry's tone is "very down to earth, avuncular, calming."

Tom Plate, editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages, runs the column now and ran it while at Newsday on Long Island. Raspberry, he says, "brings tremendous credibility to evaluation of American racial questions... That crystalline intelligence and fairness – it's extremely valuable." On an op-ed page, "he's the jury you want to have."

Raspberry doesn't write exclusively about race, or even about other issues as race touches them. But as Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist at the Chicago Tribune, says, "The black perspective is not irrelevant to his work... African Americans look to him with a special interest, because we look at every African American who's got a high profile with great interest. He is extremely, widely admired across the country."

Many op-ed columnists are predictable. You read one because she reinforces your views, one because he makes you burning mad. Raspberry, say many observers, surprises.

"I think [Raspberry's] is one of the best columns in journalism today," says L. Brent Bozell, chairman of the conservative Media Research Center. "Why? Because while I might not agree with him all the time, he is always thoughtful, always mannerly, and always well meaning...

"I'm sure conservatives do this, too. But in the Washington Post, read Richard Cohen, read Michael Kinsley, and you know what they're going to say almost word for word. They're as predictable as running water. Raspberry isn't."

Ellis Cose, contributing editor at Newsweek and author of "The Rage of a Privileged Class," a recently published book about black professionals, is hard-pressed to compare Raspberry with anyone. "I think his voice is very much his own," he says.

Roger Wilkins, a professor of American history at George Mason University and a former journalist, observes that "a lot of what [Raspberry] is, is an old-fashioned black person" – in the tradition of black parents telling black children that discipline and hard work, character and brains are both shield and sword against old-fashioned American racism.

"I think a lot of times he bends over backwards to adhere to the center of that tradition," Wilkins says. "And I think that he works hard not to be a cheerleader for black activists, or a reflector of all the values of the black activist."

And it is here that Raspberry meets debate over his work: Is his approach helpful or harmful? Supporters say he speaks truths that need telling. Critics say he supplies fuel to conservatives eager to cut support for social programs, or worse, ammunition for racists.

Raspberry quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald from "The Crack-up" to describe what he tries to do: " 'The mark of a first-rate intellect is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.'

"I came across that after I had reached some of the same conclusions. It has been my discovery that on virtually all the important social questions, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides.

"I like to write pieces that give people permission to examine the suppressed side."

James B. Parks, a Washington spokesman for the AFL-CIO, met Raspberry about four years ago after calling him in reaction to a column. They've since had regular, "spirited discussions" of public issues.

"What Bill does is to raise an issue in a way that is designed to make people think," even to the point of venting an argument with which he may not completely agree, Parks says. The goal seems "not to get them to follow the Bill Raspberry dictum, because I'm not sure there is such a thing as a Bill Raspberry dictum... I think you could categorize him as someone who wants to see what works. And if it works, let's do it."

Page agrees. Raspberry is "someone who's looking not just to complain about our social problems, but looking for prescriptions. Like a good reporter, he goes around looking for people who contribute something to the debate."

If anything, Page adds, Raspberry "holds back a little bit in his columns, to arouse our curiosity... In an age of Rush Limbaughs and Howard Sterns, and people who want to beat you over the head with opinion, it's nice to find someone who doesn't."

Tucker, in Atlanta, says she can almost see Raspberry struggling with every subject he writes about. "That," she says, "is very valuable to me, both as a reader and as a writer."

Ellen Goodman, a syndicated columnist at the Boston Globe, calls Raspberry an explorer, a sharer. His column, she says, seems to convene a discussion among readers "to raise ideas rather than resolve things." In writing social commentary in the 20th century United States, she observes, "you're not going to come up with a 10-point plan unless you're stupid, and Bill is very smart."

Bill Raspberry was born in 1935 to James and Willie Raspberry of Okolona, Mississippi. Both were educators. "My mom was at one point my English teacher, and my dad was my shop teacher... Mom helped me to develop my interest in the grace and power of words, and my dad had more of a practical bent. I attribute to him my sort of baseline question, 'Does it work?' "

Raspberry likens Okolona to the setting of "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Utterly segregated," he says. "Pleasant. I mean, kids managed to have fun."

The town had no public high school for blacks in the 1940s and '50s. Raspberry attended Okolona College High School, affiliated with a junior college run by the Episcopal Church. It was, he says, Okolona's "biggest advantage... That tiny school managed to infuse a little bit of sophistication into us."

But he was "determined to leave Mississippi to go to college," he says. "It was what one did in those days." He settled on Indiana Central College in Indianapolis (now the University of Indianapolis), majoring in history, minoring in philosophy.

He didn't consciously decide to become a journalist. "I developed an interest in journalism after I had a job on a newspaper," he says. "And I got the job on the newspaper because I had to have a summer job to get my way through college."

The job was reporting for the Indianapolis Recorder, a black weekly. Raspberry began in 1956, doing everything. "I'd spend Monday and Tuesday making assignments and Wednesday and Thursday carrying them out."

He stayed at the Recorder two years after graduating, then entered the Army. The service brought him to the Washington area, where after his discharge, "I came looking for work at the Post. I discovered that my Recorder experience didn't count."

Raspberry was hired, however, as a teletype operator. Raspberry credits Joe Paull, an assistant managing editor and "what these days we'd call a mentor," with giving him his next break: "The big announcement came when he told me, 'Starting Monday, you're doing obits.' "

Raspberry went from obits to general assignment to covering the riots in Watts in 1965, for which the Capital Press Club named him journalist of the year. His most memorable assignment in those days, he says, was covering the preparations for the Great March on Washington in 1963.

"I'm of an age so I remember quite clearly the number and variety of people who found a way to participate in the civil rights movement," he says. "The young people. The college students who went down from the Wisconsins and the Harvards..elderly people, white people, black people, all found a way to be part of solving the problem."

The movement had an indelible impact on his thinking. Raspberry calls himself "a solutionist," often in print. The term covers his approach to all subjects, but especially the issue of race.

He says the current tendency to identify enemies rather than problems is destructive. "Now, the likelihood is that we will define our difficulties in terms of what the enemy is doing, and the only role for whites to play is that of villain. They don't want to play.

"We take their refusal to volunteer for the villain's role as proof of their racism. And we've convinced ourselves that there's a resurgent mean-spiritedness in America, that there's a resurgence of racism, that things are going backward...

"I think that what really has happened is that we talk about our situation in a way that denies decent people any role in solving the problem."

Four decades in the business has convinced Raspberry that journalism is a force in solving such problems.

"I believe that journalism can change the world and can save the world," he says. "I think any particular journalist is very unlikely to do much of either. And yet we ought to, I think, as a matter of routine, behave as though we have the power to nudge the world in one direction or the other."

The columnist's vocation, he says, "is to pull us together... It's one of those things that seems such an obvious part of my work and of my attitude that I'd be stymied if you asked me why it's important to pull people together." He laughs. "It's almost like what Louis Armstrong said about jazz: 'If you have to ask, I can't tell you.' But I worry a great deal about the needless splintering of society."

He worries about other things, too:

-- The negative tone of American newspaper reporting:

"Our reporters really do manage to give the impression not merely of objectivity, but of indifference to outcome." In a column last fall, he recounted a meeting with the editorial board of an unnamed newspaper, at which he asked his hosts to point out something positive that had recently happened in their city. They could not.

"It wasn't that the question was difficult," Raspberry says. "It was a reminder of how rarely we ask ourselves in this business, 'What went well?' "

-- The lure of black separatism for African American college students:

"There are people who withdraw in order to gather and pool strength," he says. "You know that's where people from Malcolm to Marcus Garvey have come from. It may be a manifestation of giving up on white people to do the right thing, to be fair. Or it may be giving up on one's self, a product of doubt that I can compete in the real world.

"Now, on the surface, they look alike. But they operate in quite different ways. The one who has given up on the system, on the ability of white people to be fair, may go into something really quite significant. The one who gives up on himself, while shouting all the right slogans, is very unlikely to accomplish anything worthwhile."

-- The plight of young, black males, and the attendant plight of the black middle class:

"I look at people like myself, who've done well – and there are a lot of us," Raspberry says. "But we are like the shiny tile roof of a fancy house whose foundation – the children – is crumbling. And no matter how slick and lovely we look today, we could all wind up in the same pit."

He illustrates what he means. Both his daughters attended Hampton University, a historically black school. Their classmates were predominantly, even overwhelmingly, female – many the first members of their families ever to go to college.

"But," and here Raspberry pauses, "these girls have brothers, who are not at school. They're back home. If they're not dead, they're working in nothing jobs and ducking the police, living on the margins, hustling, getting over on people or in prison. So while in four years their sisters will be members of the middle class, the prospects of these boys becoming members of the middle class are so remote as to be beyond discussion.

"Question: With this kind of loss in the pool of eligible males, with whom will my daughters form families?"

Bill is a man who has been informed by the hardships of a troubled past," says Bob Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who has known Raspberry for 17 years. "Instead of using it as an excuse for why he doesn't do things, he uses it as a reason for everything he does."

But if Raspberry has seen troubles first hand, he doesn't let on. He is formal in an interview, guarded about his privacy.

The attitude seems to spring from what novelist Ralph Ellison called a black American tradition "which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain;..which abhors as obscene any trading on one's own anguish for gain and sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done."

Raspberry writes frequently about "the internal barriers" to African American progress, pushing his reader to get beyond the acknowledged fact of racism and accept control over his or her circumstances. Fixing social problems requires the larger society's good will or forced participation. But that can go only so far.

"The thing that the '60s civil rights workers sought, they could deliver to me with no exertion on my part," he says. "They could get their heads smashed, and I would have the right to ride the bus. They could get arrested and jailed in Greensboro.., and I would have the right to have a hamburger without ever going near Greensboro.

Raspberry argues that once the civil rights movement won – and it did win, he stresses – the theater changed. The movement obtained equal rights for all African Americans, even those who played no part in the struggle. But just because those rights exist on paper doesn't mean that individuals will automatically enjoy them without effort.

"To move from the basic right to the fruits of that right requires my participation," he says. "You can't do that one vicariously."

Woodson says the internal barriers theme "occupies probably half of the conversations" he and Raspberry have. And like Raspberry, Woodson believes that "the victimizer might have knocked you down, but it's the victim's responsibility to get up."

The AFL-CIO's Parks shares Raspberry's Southern upbringing, his generation, and, he says, certain values. "One of those values is this: Racism is always going to be there. But you don't let it stop you... You don't use it as an excuse. That message is at the core of what Bill Raspberry is about, in his writing and his politics."

Plate, from the Los Angeles Times, notes that Raspberry isn't the only black writer making this argument today, but that he was in the vanguard. "Many of the things that Raspberry's been saying for years, Jesse Jackson is just saying now," he observes. "If Jesse Jackson had said it 10 years ago, he would have been denounced as an Uncle Tom."

Raspberry, Plate says, "has really earned people's respect, just for staying in there."

Raspberry believes simply that black Americans can't wait for racism to end because it will never go away.

There are insidious consequences for youth, in particular. "We spent the better part of a generation saying to white people that their racism was behind all of our problems," he says. "Children saw no sign of cessation of racism. The logical conclusion they drew was that they couldn't make it."

Plate, Parks and others are certain that Raspberry takes heat for his stand. Asked directly about criticism, Raspberry says only that there is "some. But not much. Not that much."

To Newsweek's Cose, the internal barriers issue is what earns Raspberry a conservative label from critics who don't mean it kindly. "There are some who believe that the minute you acknowledge some problems within the family, so to speak, you hand weapons to the enemy," he says.

A certain type of reader will hear only part of Raspberry's message, he says. Whites will seize on the call for individual responsibility and ignore the larger context; blacks will think he is letting white people off the hook.

Wilkins puts it in stronger terms:

"When Bill says that we overemphasize racism – which is where we battle – no, we don't. This is a profoundly racist society... I still think that racism is a central, core element in American culture, and it is slaughtering black people by the tens of thousands."

Donna Britt, a Washington Post metro columnist and a Raspberry fan, says the weak point of Raspberry's internal barriers argument is this: Tension between what holds someone back from within and what bars him from without isn't unique to blacks; it's "a dilemma that every human soul has to deal with." But, "You don't read white columnists exhorting people to divulge those interior battles... Everyone feels comfortable telling us how to feel, where to go, what to do.

"Even though there's great truth to what Bill is talking about, it holds black people to a different standard and it can appear to focus on one side, in some sense the easier side... When you tread on this bruised ground, people are going to be infuriated."

Raspberry's response is, typically, an even one. He refers to his "great discovery: that on all the important questions, thinking people tend to believe both sides. Everybody I know both agrees with [the internal barriers argument] and disagrees with it...

"And yet there seems to be some great value in having white people 'fess up to sins they don't feel they've committed. To me, it comes back to a question of pragmatics."

He offers an allegory: You're walking through the downtown of an American city, and pass a homeless person. When he catches your eye, he launches into a diatribe that noisily blames you for all that has befallen him. Then he stops, and asks, "You got any spare change?"

"You don't," Raspberry says, "reach into your pocket." l

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