During Sunday's broadcast of C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Heather McGhee, a black woman who is the president of the public policy organization Demos, was presented with a surprising and difficult question about race from a caller. His question, and her response, have produced an unexpected viral sensation.
"I was hoping your guest could help me change my mind about some things," the caller explained. He continued:
I'm a white male and I am prejudiced. And the reason it is, it's something I wasn't taught, but it's kind of something that I learned. When I open up the papers I get very discouraged at what young black males are doing to each other, and the crime rates. And I understand that they live in an environment with a lot of drugs. You have to get money for drugs. And it's a deep issue that goes beyond that. But when—I have these different fears, and I don't want my fears to come true, you know? So I try to avoid that, and I come off as being prejudiced. But I just have fears. I don't like to be forced to like people. I like to be lead to like people through example. What can I do to change, you know? To be a better American?
McGhee didn't miss a beat, first thanking the caller for his honesty and praising his ability to admit what others might not. Here's how she responded:
So what can you do? Get to know black families who are not all, and not even any majority, involved in crime and gangs. Turn off the news at night. Because, we know that actually nightly news in many media markets that have been studied actually over-represents African American crime and under-represents crime that happens by white people. Join a church, if you are a religious person, that is a black church or that is a church that is interracial. Start to read about the history of the African American community in this country. Foster conversation in your family and in your neighborhood where you are asking exactly those kinds of questions.
Since airing on C-SPAN, McGhee's response to the caller's question has become a viral hit. According to the Washington Post, video of the exchange has been viewed over a million times on Demos' Facebook page. It's a wave of interest McGhee never expected
"I’m surprised that it’s become so popular," she told me over the phone. "In the moment that the exchange happened I felt deeply moved and glad that the exchange had happened. But I also then had 10 other calls, many of which were also about race or politics or the economy…I didn't know when I walked off the set that it would reach millions of people."
When asked to explain the video's popularity , McGhee attributed it first and foremost to the caller's sincerity, and the way the exchange subverted the expected trope of a combative call-in show.
"I think it makes sense that it’s resonating with people because of his bravery in admitting something that had become taboo," she said. "And then I think because our news media so thrives on conflict, the viewer’s expectation may have been that I would have responded in an angry way. But, anyone who knows me and the work that we’re trying to do at Demos wouldn’t have been surprised at my response."
While McGhee said that she'd heard similar anxieties from people around the country, she admitted that "it’s never been televised before." She said her answer came "straight from my heart."
Given the massive popularity generated by the exchange, I asked McGhee what people—and particularly white allies—could take from this instance moving forward. How, in other words, could this single clip of C-SPAN dialogue be used as more than just a feel-good viral video?
McGhee's response was unequivocal.
It’s time for Americans, and maybe even particularly my generation, to join things. It’s time for us to take the act of citizenship as a verb and recognize that it is our highest challenge at this moment of demographic change and growing demonization of our diversity, or growing vilification of our diversity, to get involved in our community and create a sense that America belongs to all of us…now is the time for everyone to choose sides and to choose a side that’s inclusive.