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Anderson Cooper at ASU: Community conversations on race vital

Anderson Cooper, ASU's Matthew Whitaker, Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church choir
May 01, 2015

“The issue of race is so much at the core of our society, but people don’t seem to want to talk about it,” observed journalist and author Anderson Cooper, featured speaker at the second annual Delivering Democracy Lecture sponsored by ASU’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, April 25.

“We often hear about the need for a national conversation about race, but then calls for national dialog become quieter and quieter and soon we’re back to business as usual,” he said.

“But it doesn’t need to be a national event – it can be conversations in communities and churches, like this one,” Cooper told the diverse audience of more than 2,000 who had gathered to dialog with him at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Downtown Phoenix.

“We’ll always be a nation founded on slavery and on lands taken from Indigenous peoples,” he continued. “That will always be part of our story. We still have unresolved issues to address about all this.

“I came here as much to listen and to learn, as to talk,” noted Cooper after taking the podium from Pilgrim Rest’s senior pastor Bishop Alexis A. Thomas.

Cooper spoke briefly about how he came to his career and his approach to journalism, and then joined Center for the Study of Race and Democracy founding director Matthew Whitaker in a conversation before taking questions from the audience.

The Q&A was hosted by the Arizona Community Foundation Black Philanthropy Initiative. Foundation board member Lisa Urias, president of Urias Communications, introduced Lawrence Robinson, law professor and member of the Roosevelt School District Governing Board; Reginald Bolding, state representative (District 27); and Robert Branscomb II, member of the African American Strategic Leadership Group for the City of Phoenix and advisory member for The State of Black Arizona; who gathered and posed audience members’ questions.  

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton welcomed Anderson Cooper on behalf of the city. 

“He could’ve been at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner tonight, but he chose to come here,” said Stanton, who used the ASU forum to announce that the City of Phoenix is formally engaging Whitaker to provide cultural competency training for the Phoenix Police Department.  

Following his bliss

It was clear from Anderson Cooper’s remarks that at the heart of his approach to journalism is “trying to walk in other people’s shoes and see things through other people’s eyes.”

After graduating from Yale University with a political science major and not knowing what he wanted to do, Cooper said his mother advised him to follow his bliss, and he spent six months in Africa trying to discover what that might be. 

“It’s where I first talked my way through a roadblock,” he explained. “Africa quickened my pulse.”

He returned to the United States and applied for entry-level jobs in journalism with not much luck.

“So I moved overseas and snuck into Burma with a fake press pass and began producing stories,” related Cooper. He would later go to Somalia, plagued by civil war and famine.

“I knew I couldn’t solve the issue of starvation, but I could bear witness to others’ lives and help tell their stories.

“I say I went to college in America, but I was educated in places like Somalia and Sarajevo,” Cooper said. “The more I’ve traveled, the more I know how little I know.”

His career influences, he said, included photographer and writer Gordon Parks, a good friend of the family: “He fought racism with his camera and his words and showed the world what segregation and poverty looked like.”

Bob Simon, longtime correspondent for CBS News, was a journalistic inspiration.

Our common humanity

Perhaps the greatest inspiration has been seeing everyday people affect change.

He talked about the courage of the bystander who not only captured video footage of the recent police shooting of Walter Scott, but then walked closer to the police officer to voice his concern.

Social media reporting has been good for the democratization of information, he said: “We’re seeing what’s always happened but without documentation. It’s changing the perception of white and black America — seeing other people’s experience makes you realize it’s not an isolated incident.”

On the flip side, he said, “people show up who have an agenda and want to provoke something on-camera so that they can then sell something. If a camera is changing a situation just because it’s there, I’ll turn it off.  

“Back when I was growing up, there were three middle-aged white guys reporting the news. Now people from all walks of life are working in journalism and newsrooms.”

And there’s now the recognition, he says, that we all have biases at how we look at something. Bias is very much discussed and challenged in newsrooms today. 

Cooper was asked if reporting from the midst of war, catastrophes and injustice made him pessimistic about humanity.

“It’s easy to think the world’s worse than it’s ever been because we see acts of horror and terror in real-time. But by every metric, things are getting better: lifespan, quality of health, levels of extreme poverty, fewer wars.”

He says he’s more optimistic than ever before. What gives him hope is what he sees of individuals in moments of suffering and people standing up to help in the darkest of places: “The power of people reaching out a hand, risking their own lives to try to save others, as in the tsunami in Sri Lanka … In Haiti, people who dug through rubble with bloody hands to save their neighbors.

“You expect to see horror but discover humanity,” Cooper said of his work and how extreme circumstances lay bare our commonalities.

“The line that separates the living from the dead and you from me is thread thin,” he reflected. “A trigger, a gust of wind and we fall. Our frailty is not something we should deny. It’s the very thing that makes us human and should draw us closer.”

Pleased with the turnout and enthusiasm for the event – a collaboration of the university, corporations, and the community – Whitaker emphasized, “When it comes to what the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy is all about, the human capital in this room is the bottom line.”