When Soledad O’Brien was 11 years old, she and her older sister decided to get a professional picture taken of each other for their parent’s anniversary. This led to O’Brien’s first defining experience with racism, when the cameraman proceeded to ask, “I don’t want to offend you, but are you black?”
Such childhood experiences motivated O’Brien to pursue a career in journalism – incidents that included her parents being unable to legally marry in Maryland because they were not of the same race. Her success in the field has set a high bar for aspiring reporters.
Among her many accolades, which include both an Emmy and the George Foster Peabody Award, O’Brien also hosts CNN’s critically acclaimed multi-part documentary series “Black In America,” the most recent installment being “Black In America: Black & Blue,” which delves into the prominent racial issues surrounding the violent displays of police brutality across the country.
On Monday, February 16, 2015, O’Brien visited the Stony Brook University Staller Center during her Black in America Tour to further discuss the issues raised in the film.
O’Brien was joined by a panel of speakers, which included former executive editor of Essence magazine Joan Morgan, former NBA player Etan Thomas, and poet Luis Paulino.
Among the large audience was the newly appointed Dean of Students, Timothy Ecklund, and the President of Stony Brook University, Samuel Stanley.
O’Brien conceded that “There is an element of challenge in telling a story” such as the one being told in “Black & Blue”, because racism takes a more insidious role in modern society then the brazen displays seen in the past.
Paulino experienced police brutality firsthand when he suffered an unprovoked assault from the NYPD in August 2012, caught on video by a taxicab driver witnessing the scene. A former college football player, Paulino has since been unable to complete a single pushup.
“We’re often stigmatized before we get a chance to be humanized,” Paulino said.
During her lecture, O’Brien presented recent statistics that highlighted the inequalities experienced by minority communities, including the fact that male black youths are 21 times more likely to be shot by a police officer, or that of the 4.4 million people subjected to “Stop-and-Frisk,” 90 percent were not convicted of a crime.
“These are not my opinions,” O’Brien said. “These are just facts about an issue.”
Also discussed was “the talk” that many parents of black children, particularly parents of black sons, must have as their children grow older. This “talk” serves as cautionary advisement about the proper etiquette when dealing with police.
The former professional athlete, Etan Thomas, a graduate of Syracuse University, described what he discussed with his young son: “As you get older and you’re tall for your age – so you’re going to be big – society is going to be afraid of you. There are people who are going to look at you as a criminal and know nothing about you. It’s heartbreaking having to tell a 9 year-old that, but you have to have the talk with them at an early age.”
There were families in the audience that agreed, including Michele Reed, an SBU alumni, who brought her two 10 year-old sons to the event. “We’ve had those talks. They already know what to do if the police officer approaches you – what to say, what to do,” Reed explained. “This is nothing new to us, but for them it’s just more confirmation, ‘I’m hearing it not just from mommy and daddy, but I’m hearing it from other people.’”
Photos and reporting by Megan Miller