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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,100

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This is the grave of William Raspberry.

Born in 1935 in Okolona, Mississippi, Raspberry grew in the Jim Crow South. He managed to go to college at Okolona College, a two-year college where his father taught, and then the University of Indianapolis, where he graduated with a history degree in 1958. He then went into journalism. He got a job with the Indianapolis Recorder even before graduation and became assistant managing editor. In 1960, he was drafted into the Army, where he served as a public information officer until 1962.

Upon his release from the military, Raspberry took a job with the Washington Post. This was very early for a legacy white paper to be hiring Black journalists. At first, he was just a teletypist, but he rose quickly and was a columnist by 1966 after getting attention for his coverage of the Watts riots in 1965. At this time, only Carl Rowan was a Black columnist at a major paper. So it was a big deal. He stayed at the Washington Post until his retirement.

In many ways, Raspberry was the ideal Beltway columnist. Sure he was a Black man who believed in civil rights. But did he have his centrist positions that gave the precise amount of contrary that so many WaPo editors love? Oh you know he did! He was the biggest self-identified moderate possible. He eschewed partisan positions, even when one side was actually right, for a self-proclaimed middle ground that in itself meant nothing but which made his readers and editors feel comfortable in their own positions. Raspberry supported civil rights but opposed busing, the only thing anyone’s ever come up with to actually integrate schools. There’s of course no reason to expect every Black writer out there to be a partisan activist in the civil rights movement. James Baldwin wasn’t on the front lines either. But then Raspberry was no Baldwin. Baldwin articulated the intellectual voice of a generation whereas Raspberry made sure that as a pioneering Black columnist he would remain nice and cautious. He could drive civil rights leaders crazy by his lack of support.

For example, in 1982, Raspberry ripped the civil rights establishment for not transforming Black education. Talking about the values his parents instilled in him, he noted that education was the best ticket for Black success. Well, yes, everyone already knew this. How exactly were civil rights leaders supposed to transform American education in the face of, say, white resistance to busing, which of course Raspberry also opposed? This is exactly the kind of thing Raspberry liked to do. All the chin-rubbing right-wing intellectuals and respectable Beltway opinion nodded approvingly. He also liked to write columns attacking civil rights leaders for focusing too much on racism. All the eyeroll.

What I find amazing about Raspberry, given what comes after him, is how he so frequently imagined a cabdriver as the person he might be talking to. In other words, he would put words into the mouth of an imaginary cabdriver to create a sort of Middle American. This is ridiculous on the face of it–what does this even mean after all–but the best part is that Thomas Friedman just stole this from him except for claiming the cabdrivers were real. Of course no one can prove the cabbies aren’t really for Friedman, but it’s almost impossible for any thinking human to believe that he is consistently riding in cabs in various countries where the drivers have the exact positions Tommy wants us to have.

Raspberry also took a lot of weird positions that don’t seem to make sense as any kind of political person, He was for gay rights and wrote columns against gay bashing. Good! But he could also be tremendously callous to disabled people and wrote columns against lawsuits by the disabled for discrimination. The Post was flooded with letters over those, most of which they did not print. This seems to have been driven by his stupid support for tort reform, the ultimate of Beltway positions that no one actually cares about. I’m sure Raspberry’s fake cabbie supported it though. Of course Raspberry spent his later career hating on rap music and the backwards baggy pants and the dirty words and all that was going to destroy the moral of the nation through this evil music. In the end, Raspberry really embraced the personal responsibility talk that the Reaganites and white backlash loved when they wanted to prove they weren’t racist. After all, they agreed with Raspberry and he wasn’t even a Republican! Here’s a bit I am taking from the New York Times obituary of the man:

N.A.A.C.P. officials were nettled by a 1989 column in which Mr. Raspberry criticized civil rights leaders, accusing them of dwelling on racism rather than pressing for practical solutions to the problems faced by blacks.

“I don’t underestimate either the persistence of racism or its effects. But it does seem to me that you spend too much time thinking about racism,” he wrote. “It is as though your whole aim is to get white people to acknowledge their racism and accept their guilt. Well, suppose they did: What would that change?”

“Well, quite a lot, as a matter of fact,” replied Roger Wilkins, a former colleague of Mr. Raspberry’s at The Post and later publisher of the N.A.A.C.P. journal, The Crisis, writing in Mother Jones magazine in 1989. “The issue isn’t guilt. It’s responsibility.”

“Like it or not,” Mr. Wilkins continued, “slavery, the damage from legalized oppression during the century that followed emancipation and the racism that still infects the entire nation follow a direct line to ghetto life today.”

To which Mr. Raspberry responded, “Just for the hell of it, why don’t we pretend the racist dragon has been slain already — and take that next step right now?”

I mean, what do you even do with this? Sure, just for the hell of it let’s pretend racism doesn’t exist?????????? I mean……………

For all of this, Raspberry won all the prizes, including the Pulitzer. And I mean, he wasn’t horrible. He was however quite contrary in some of the worst ways. At the very least, he was a pioneering Black columnist and he mentored many other Black columnists and journalists in his career.

Raspberry retired from the Post in 2005, though he did return for a guest column upon the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He taught at Duke quite a bit during these years as well.

It was prostate cancer that took out Raspberry in 2012. He was 76 years old.

There’s more to say about the man, but this seems like plenty.

William Raspberry is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other annoying columnists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I’m not sure where John Leo is going to be buried, but you can bet I will get there to write that post. Otherwise, David Broder is in St. James, Michigan and Robert Novak is in Silver Spring, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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