Former broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien led a spirited 70-minute discussion of race in America before nearly 2,000 audience members Wednesday night at SECU Arena.
The former CNN anchor and reporter, who now owns her own production company, opened the event with a 40-minute presentation that included personal references to her own family; her mother is black and Cuban, her father is white and Australian. She used video clips to highlight the differences between how black people (including those whose heritage is traced to islands, rather than to Africa) are often portrayed in the media as compared to Caucasians and other ethnicities. Her opening discussion also underscored the disparities in wealth, education, and economic opportunity between the races.
O’Brien’s comments were interrupted on several occasions by polite applause from an attentive audience comprised mostly of Towson students, faculty and staff.
Following the opening presentation, O’Brien moderated a panel discussion that included TU student Erica Middleton, TU Political Science Assistant Professor John Bullock, and TU English Department Professor Tara Bynum. Audience members posed questions about political power, poverty, unemployment, education, and perceived and real differences between races.
“When you think of structure, power, and competition, I frequently tell my students, ‘Put yourself in positions of power so that you are able to change those institutions,'” said Bullock, responding to a question about how current systems can be changed to empower those who are struggling to be heard.
“I think the place where it all begins is in school,” O’Brien added. “Every story we have ever done in our ‘Black In America’ series—poverty, crime, opportunity, success—runs through our schools. So we need to improve our educational system…if things are really going to change for the better.”
The event ended with rousing applause. Several attendees said the evening was a positive one for the university and its students.
“I think it was important to have an event like this during Black History Month at a predominantly white school,” said freshman Jacqueline Goffney.
Freshman Nashia Holloway called the event a “positive, bridge-building opportunity” for students to begin a dialogue across races.
“I didn’t think the panel discussion was very useful,” Holloway commented, “but overall I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes. I hope students who attended tonight’s event will come away with a different perspective about the issues that were discussed.”
Senior and Student Government Association (SGA) officer Kennard Wallace said he believes the event was another step forward for the university.
“I thought it was very enlightening,” said Wallace. “I have personally followed the ‘Black in America’ series, so I thought it was great to have this discussion here at Towson. Especially with the issues we’ve had here on our campus—that a student-led campaign to promote diversity and acceptance would draw the attention of a [former] CNN reporter is pretty amazing.
“It was nice to see a chance for our students to air their issues and concerns in a positive way,” Wallace added.
Wednesday night’s event was co-sponsored by the university’s Center for Student Diversity and the SGA.
Written by Ray Feldmann