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Author Jeff Chang Says People 'Really Want To Have' Conversations On Race

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next week, I'll be in Cleveland, Ohio, with our partners at WCPN Idea Stream for a live and hopefully very real conversation about race in America. Our guests, people from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, will talk about the racial climate in this country - what they see, what they've experienced, what they hope for.

Journalist and author Jeff Chang has been thinking and writing about race for years. His previous books "Can't Stop Won't Stop" and "Who We Be" describe the cultural movements inspired by young people of color, the so-called hip-hop generation. But his latest book, a collection of essays, takes a look at recent tragedies and protests that speak to race. He draws crucial links between social movements like Black Lives Matter, hashtags like #oscarssowhite and historical shifts like the Great Migration. His book is called "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes On Race And Resegregation."

We thought a conversation about this book would tee up some of the things that we want to talk about in Cleveland next week. And he's with us now from Berkeley, Calif. Jeff Chang, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JEFF CHANG: It's great to talk with you again.

MARTIN: You've got a chapter called Is Diversity For White People? Tell me about that.

CHANG: So it's not that I object to diversity at all. I'm all about diversity, but I think what's happened is that we've been content to sort of satisfy ourselves with the picture of diversity. The picture of diversity substitutes for the push for equity. And so we can be happy with having pictures of our nation sort of in a happy rainbow kind of a place and see this in our TV shows and that kind of thing, but sort of overlook that as the U.S. has become more unequal over the last half century, the front line of that has been racial inequality that the gaps between the races have been widening, not shrinking. And I think that that's what I was trying to point out. Is diversity the type of thing that makes white people feel good? Because we do need to get back to the question of equity ultimately.

MARTIN: But you also do make the point that there are a lot of white people in this country who are not experiencing good times. I mean, you make the point about the opioid, you know, epidemic for example. I mean, you do say it's not a little ironic that the movement for black lives had opened up a fresh discussion about white mortality. But, I mean, what do you say to people who say, look, my life is not so great. Why should I care about this?

CHANG: I would say that if we can understand that the greatest gaps are here - right? - between the races, between black and white specifically on health, on wealth, on income, on premature death, on life expectancy - then if we are able to resolve the problems that impact black lives, we're going to be able to impact our lives. And I think that, you know, it's the kind of thing where we have to see us all as connected.

MARTIN: Tell me about the title - "We Gon' Be Alright." Are we?

CHANG: You know, I think we're going to (laughter). There's so many things that are going on that are so despairing, so many reasons to be angry, I think, so many reasons to be pessimistic. And that's, I think, in part why so many folks have kind of come to this song by Kendrick Lamar, right? "Alright" - the song is called "Alright," and it's the blues. It's the modern blues. It's - 95 percent of the lyrics are about struggle and really feeling in the struggle, but seemingly out of nowhere he pulls this line - but we gon' be all right. If you got me, if I got you, if God's got us, we gon' be all right. And I think that that's why it's been adopted by, you know, so many young folks as their anthem. Despite all of the stuff going on, we have to have each other. We have to have solidarity. We're going to make it all right.

MARTIN: That's author and journalist Jeff Chang. He joined us from Berkeley. His latest book is "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes On Race And Resegregation." Jeff Chang, thanks so much for talking with us today. Hope the dialogue continues.

CHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.