John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade listens during a community forum on racism Sept. 12 at Woodward High School in Toledo. The event was sponsored by the Toledo Community Coalition and The Blade. THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
We sat next to each other listening to author and activist Tim Wise talk about racism and white privilege, when a sudden thought occurred to me: I turned to my left and asked John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, if I could interview him about his thoughts on racism and what it’s like being a wealthy white male, whose life is filled with many privileges.
Mr. Block is also vice chairman/group editorial director of Block Communications Inc., whose holdings include Buckeye CableSystem Inc. and five TV stations across the country.
We were among more than 600 people attending a two-hour community forum “Changing Minds and Changing Lives: Combating Racism,” held Sept. 12 at Woodward High School’s Auditorium. The event was sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo Community Coalition.
“Mr. Block, you’re a very wealthy white male, who enjoys privileges most people in this auditorium could never fathom,” I began. “Tonight there was a great deal of talk about depths of poverty, that let's be honest, you probably can’t even fathom.
"What did you get out of this forum?”
Mr. Block acknowledged that “There were some things brought up that I didn’t understand; that are hard to relate to.” “I didn’t agree with everything that was said,” Mr. Block continued. “Whatever the truth is, which is very different in a white man’s eyes than a black man’s eyes, it needs to be dealt with at an individual level.”
He elaborated by pointing out that forums are a good starting point to begin discussing issues, but ultimately individuals must do their own soul searching and decide whether they believe they are racist or are willing to change their behavior.
That also goes for the gang members who were highlighted in The Blade’s highly-acclaimed series “Battle Lines: Gangs of Toledo,” a series that started in April and sparked discussions about gangs and race, he said.
“Getting gangs off the streets is paramount, even if that means incarcerating some,” he said. “It’s not helpful to let kids get off when they do something wrong. It’s not about making excuses, but about ending the threat.”
Mr. Block said one thing that bothers him is how people of color often describe themselves, or are described by others as “victims.”
"We can’t continue to blame everyone else for our problems and have a victimization outlook,” he said. “People are responsible for their own lives.”
He suggested that people of color need to do what people did back in the “old days” and pull themselves up “by their bootstraps.”
I then asked Mr. Block if he was concerned that his comments might be construed as offensive or racist.
“I’m not concerned about saying things to make people unhappy,” he replied
Fair enough, I responded. I posed the question a different way.
Mr. Block, have you ever considered that some people are too poor to afford boots? Have you ever considered that institutionalized racism has often kept people of color from obtaining or possessing “bootstraps?”
He paused for a moment, thinking about our conversation. He then acknowledged that the words he had spoken didn’t clearly explain his primary point.
“My point is we need to get the gangs off the street and try to get these kids in school,” he said. “I want to see them in school, become successful and have a stake in the system.”
Mr. Block was asked if he thought America would eradicate racism. He didn’t directly answer the question.
He said racism is a difficult problem to deal with, in Toledo and in America, adding “You can’t pass any laws that stop people from what they feel inside," but said "We can make overt acts of racism illegal. You can pass a law that prevents them from acting on it.”
Mr. Block sat next to a friend, Pete Culp, a former city housing official and current Port Authority and LMHA board member. Mr. Culp and Mr. Block agreed to disagree on some issues pertaining to racism raised at the event.
“The fact that you’re here, in attendance means something,” said Mr. Culp, an African-American and member of the Toledo Community Coalition, which sponsored the forum. “It adds credibility to our effort to address racism in Toledo."
A longtime journalist, Mr. Block is passionate about the role a newspaper should play in a community. It's not enough to report problems in a community, a newspaper should take a lead role in helping to find solutions to those problems, he told me during a break at the forum.
He likes to insist that he's not "a bleeding heart," but most people never get a glimpse at his compassionate side.
During The Blade's gang series, Mr. Block became so touched by one incarcerated gang member's story that he wanted to help the gang member upon her release. He even suggested providing her with security in case gang members came looking for her. It was then that he realized the scope of the problem, he said. Helping just one person does nothing to solve the long-term problems that encourage youth to join gangs. That's why forums on racism and planned follow-up efforts are so important, he said. It has the potential to bring a community together and save itself.