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So What Do You Do, Marc Lamont Hill, Author, Professor and TV Commentator?

The activist talks Fox News, race in the media, and making gaffes in the public eye

By Janelle Harris - July 25, 2012
The hip-hop generation has produced amazingly talented artists, really innovative fashion trends and truly deathless catch phrases like "bling bling." But it's also given rise to a new cadre of intellectuals, like Dr. Marc Lamont Hill. As a Columbia University professor, host of Our World with Black Enterprise, and frequent TV commentator, he's outspoken, progressive and lambasted by conservative opponents as much as he's lauded by the every man and woman he seeks to represent. If you've never watched Hill topple the audacity of an outspoken talk show guest or lend a keep-it-real angle to a conversation with the upper echelons of punditry, you're missing him in his element.

Hill's mission to give voice to the voiceless isn't without its controversy, though. In 2009, he was fired from Fox News after taking heat for sympathizing with figures like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Par for the course, he now says.

"When I walk around and see Occupy Philadelphia, and I'm seeing flash mobbing used in a positive way in digital media and I'm seeing the Trayvon Martin controversy being played out not just on the street but on Twitter, I think our generation has created a new mode of action," Hill says, "and I'm proud of that movement."


Name: Marc Lamont Hill
Position: Academic, commentator, journalist, author and activist
Resume: Associate professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College and teacher of African American Studies at the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Host of syndicated show Our World with Black Enterprise, airing in 145 markets. Author of Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and Politics of Identity and co-editor of Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility and The Anthropology of Education Reader. Currently working on book about the death of black-owned bookstores. Columnist and editor-at-large at the Philadelphia Daily News.
Birthday: December 17
Hometown: Philadelphia
Education: Started undergrad studies at Morehouse College, but finished with B.S. in education and Spanish from Temple University. Ph.D. with distinction from University of Pennsylvania.
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV show: The Wire
Guilty pleasure: Ignorant hip-hop
Media idol: Ed Bradley
Last book read: Baratunde Thurston's satire/memoir, How to Be Black
Twitter handle: @marclamonthill

Universities often require professors to do their own research and studies for academic journals. Are there any recent news stories you've covered that have sparked ideas for your own research or books?
I wrestle with everyday issues in my media work, so I'm thinking, "How does this affect people on the ground? How does this connect to what people are doing in the community? What kind of questions are being raised?" For example, Hue-Man Book Stores, one of the major black bookstores in Harlem, just closed. There's a great journalistic story there but there's also a story, I think, that connects to my academic interests in literacy, public space, identity and political economy. I grew up in a neighborhood where bookstores taught me what it meant to be young and black and male in the age of crack. That shit mattered. So I'm writing a book right now called Knowledge of Self that looks at the role of the black literary counterpublic, the space where literature is at the center of resistance work.

"My goal was to convince the millions of people watching Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck that there was another way to think about the world."

Considering that your views are liberal and Fox News is conservative, why did you want to work for the network in the first place? What were you looking to accomplish?
I wanted to be a public defender. I wanted to intervene; they were having a singular conversation about the world that millions and millions of people were listening to. I wanted to offer a perspective that was reasonable, informed and humane. I wasn't trying to convince Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck that I was right and they were wrong. They don't think that way. They're too stubborn to even consider another possibility. My goal was to convince the millions of people watching Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck that there was another way to think about the world. So, I walk down the street and people say, "I watch you on Fox News. I don't always agree with what you say, but you made me think about immigration differently, or you made me think about voter IDs differently." That was the game changer for me.

So how do you process through criticism? You get plenty of it.
If you're going to be in the public eye, you're going to get beat up. But, if your goal is freedom or justice or moving the ball forward, that's the price you pay. It's about shaking off the mean-spirited stuff and really listening to what people are saying, because even if you ultimately don't agree with the critique, you still can understand where people are coming from. Just because somebody says it from the opposite side doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Roland Martin, CNN Contributor and Host of TV One's Washington Watch?

Joe Williams recently left Politico for comments he made on MSNBC that Mitt Romney was more comfortable around "white folks." What do you think of Williams' statement, and do you think he should have left the publication?
I think there has to be space for conversation. I’m very protective of people's rights to say what they want to say, even if they disagree. I think when we do that, we shrink the space for dialogue, and I think that's a very dangerous practice -- a very, very, very dangerous practice. We must engage each other and ideas, even the unpopular ones that make us uncomfortable. On top of that, we have to determine what's true, because sometimes things that may feel culturally untoward are still right, and we just have to deal with some uncomfortable truths. When it comes to this race talk stuff, people get real uneasy. They're like, "Oh, I don't really like talking about race." But we have to.

That leads me to my next question: How can journalists have an intelligent conversation about race without offending people? Or, does the inherent divisive nature of the subject make that impossible?
The prevailing ideology in this country is that colorblindness is our goal. That's what we're supposed to be aspiring to. The mere identification of race and racial difference can prompt us to be accused of racism. The problem is everyone is so quick to call someone a racist or to be called a racist that they want nothing further to do with the conversation. I should be able to have a conversation about race with a white person and say, 'Here's how what you said is problematic. Here's how what you do reinforces racism,' without them becoming defensive. As journalists, we have to model that kind of conversation without being reductive or antagonistic or offensive or defensive. But there are some painful truths.

The reality is if you're white in America and you've benefitted from white supremacy for the last 400 years, you might be uncomfortable when I talk about unmerited gains or social racism. But you being uncomfortable doesn't mean it's wrong. Just because I say something you don't like doesn't mean that I'm wrong and it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be said. Lastly, white people have to take ownership of this project, too. It can't just be black people talking about race and racism. White folks have to take some ownership, too, because if they don't, then it's always a marginal conversation.

"If you're on TV every day, you're going to say something you regret."

You've also been named a host-producer for HuffPost Live's Shadow Conventions, which will run alongside the Democratic and Republic National Conventions this year. What do you have in store for the conversations and panels you're organizing? How will they differ from what viewers get from cable TV coverage?
We're not just going to talk about what's in the news. We're not just going to respond to talking points. We're going to talk about bigger, deeper issues and we're also going to talk about things that aren't on the table. Poor people aren't on the table. Prisoners aren't on the table. LGBT brothers and sisters aren't on the table. My goal is to have a conversation that gets at every bit of that.

Knowing the limitations of TV and the propensity toward sound bites, how do you get your opinion out concisely without making a gaffe you'll later regret? What research do you do on your "sparring partner" beforehand?
I read a lot, and I try to understand all sides of an argument, so I don't come out as a wing nut or as an overly strident person. If you consistently do that, then when you're approached with today's news, you’re not just reactionary. You're situating that news item in a broader and deeper conversation. If you're on TV every day, you're going to say something you regret. There's no way around it. I don't say everything that comes to my head, but I try to answer questions honestly and with genuine respect for who I'm debating, even if I think they’re wrong. I care about them, too. When you do that, then you're less likely to have that hominem attack because I ain't calling nobody an idiot. I ain't talking about nobody's mama. I'm talking about these issues. And if I do that, then it's kind of awkward to get too personal. So everything I say, I really believe.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Roland Martin, CNN Contributor and Host of TV One's Washington Watch?


Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at www.thewriteordiechick.com.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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