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Kudos to WCCO’s Williams and Strib’s C.J. for thoughtful coverage on the separate reality of black lives

John Williams initiated a conversation over the likelihood of racial profiling in Philandro Castile’s driving record, and Cheryl Johnson devoted a full column to the insights of a black child and his mom.

John Williams
John Williams

To give credit where credit is due in a moment where presidential candidates, prominent national political figures and local authorities are, shall we say “struggling” with tone and content appropriate for a(nother) period of intense racial conflict, let me commend one local commercial radio show and a gossip columnist for doing the right thing.

First, WCCO­-AM’s John Williams, (3­-7 p.m. weekdays) for Monday afternoon’s conversation with callers over Philando Castile’s startling record of traffic violations, or at the very least, traffic stops. You’ve seen the numbers. Castile was stopped 52 times over 14 years and cited for 86 violations, for which he paid $6,588 in fines. Those numbers are just this side of mind­boggling to white motorists, few of whom need more than one hand to count the times they’ve been pulled over in 14 years, and even less the times they’ve been stopped for not having their seat belt fastened or a “broken tail light.”

So Williams, sounding as gob­smacked as most of us are at the numbers on Castile’s record, opened his phone and text lines for calls. As on the internet, talk-radio callers can be anything they want to be, but the first, Juanita, described herself as a defense attorney working in downtown Minneapolis. She said she made the run from home in Roseville to downtown for six months with expired tabs (cops love expired tabs) and was never pulled over, much less cited and fined.

Next came Marie, who urged Williams to check some national data base, the summary of which, she said, showed that blacks are “more likely to speed and not wear seat belts.” That at least was her “understanding.”

So OK, vox populi isn’t necessarily a font of reliable, foot­noted information. But the point is that Williams both initiated a conversation over the extremely high likelihood of racial profiling in Castile’s driving record and didn’t try to hide his amazement at this or what it says about white privilege, in the reverse angle of the conversation.

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I wish I could say I heard Williams’ show live. But I didn’t. I was tipped to it by a friend I met for happy hour who was listening on his way over, and dialed up the podcast when I got home. The pity is that when I do catch Williams, or Chad Hartman (12-­3 p.m.) the content is generally good — sensible, civil, well-­informed. But then, usually as the conversation is building, ‘CCO’s hosts disappear into long black holes of commercial breaks. Hit button. Return to mix CD.

I can’t tell you how often I get into a conversation about local radio and someone, invariably over 45, asks about venerable old ‘CCO, and immediately tells me something to the effect, “I’d listen more but, good lord, the commercials!”

Point being: CBS Radio, which owns WCCO and requires the kind of revenue you only get by selling virtually every second of their hosts’ time slots, is a millstone around the neck of anyone like Williams trying to play a constructive role in a moment that needs the voices of popular commercial media — as well as the wonks of daily print and public radio — to be talking about and shaping conversations around flagrant, culture­-roiling injustice.

But that’s the commercial radio game, and WCCO’s in particular. All that said, good on Williams for going there and getting what he could out of it before having to tell his callers, “I’m out of time” and cutting to an on air­-promo pitch for My Pillow.

Next, and more surprising, Tuesday’s column of Strib gossip writer Cheryl “C.J.” Johnson. Since I have little to no interest in celebrity sightings and hijinks, whether they be local TV anchors or visiting reality TV “stars,” Johnson’s column is not a regular read, for me. But the subject of Tuesday’s column — a letter a little black kid with three smaller autistic brothers wrote and wanted to deliver to the governor — caught my wife’s attention because the child’s mother is a woman I used to work with.

Sheletta Brundidge and I briefly did a radio show together (where to my eternal disgrace I conversed publicly and openly about celebrity sightings and hijinks). A brash and very funny gal, that Sheletta. And media savvy.

Andrew, Sheletta’s oldest, is a bright 9-year-old, so he may very well have written, all by himself, the letter to Gov. Mark Dayton that Johnson ran in her column:

“I think there should be a law saying that officers must have a true and good reason to shoot someone. Plus, they must look at the required license. I myself on behalf of black people everywhere don’t think it’s right. … I have three siblings with autism. One of them can’t talk. I will not let him die because of that. I hope you can make a difference. Sincerely, Andrew Brundidge.”

Whether Mom played copy desk with little Andrew’s letter doesn’t matter. The larger point here is that Johnson devoted her entire column to offering a valuable insight those of us suffering from white privilege rarely get.

Cheryl “C.J.” Johnson
Star Tribune
Cheryl “C.J.” Johnson

Says Sheletta in the column, “We have taught [Andrew] since he was 3 years old that police are there to do a job and you are to respect them and do what they ask him to do — even if you did not do anything wrong. If they say you did something, you follow their instructions. He is a young black boy in the United States of America and he must operate by a different set of rules. It’s sad but it’s true.

“We have seen that play out over and over again and so we have drilled that into his head since he was 3 years old: Do what they tell you to do. … You don’t EVER talk back to police. You don’t EVER plead your case. That’s what your parents are for …. We will plead your case.”

Adding, “Andrew has asthma. He keeps that inhaler on him at all times. … When he was coming out of Wal­Mart he was holding his jacket pocket so his inhaler wouldn’t fall out and when I looked back and saw him I grabbed him … . ‘Son, if you hold your pocket they are going to think you stole something. Don’t hold your pocket. Keep your hands down by your side when you’re in a store.’ ”

There have been plenty of serious conversations about race and the separate realities of whites and minorities, especially blacks in 21st-century America over the past week. But we live in a culture where a very large percentage of the news­-consuming population does not turn to the most sober and empirical sources of information in such times. Lament it if you will, but pop news is a large portion of their diet.

But when people in the pop end of the media spectrum step up and perform a bona fide public service they deserve praise.