He called himself a “solutionist.” It’s not what’s “right” or “left” that counts, he would say; it’s what works.
Such even-handed open-mindedness made William Raspberry something of a throwback in our raucous age -- and that’s why I miss his work.
His columns offered an island of calm, sober and often witty reflection amid the rising tide of polarized punditry on talk radio, cable television, blogs and the “belligerent brutopia,” as Australian social critic Clive Hamilton described the vulgarities of Internet comment strings.
William James Raspberry died Tuesday at his home in Washington at age 76. He had prostate cancer, his wife Sondra Raspberry said.
Many remember him as a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. I knew him as a trailblazer.
When he began writing a local column for The Post in 1966, the only nationally syndicated black columnist in the general press was Carl T. Rowan. That was a big deal at the time, as urban riots sparked an informal affirmative-action push for black reporters and photographers.
In fact, Raspberry broke out of the Post’s Metro desk in 1965, where he was one of the newspaper’s first black reporters in that “Mad Men” era, by way of an assignment to cover riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A year later he was a columnist.
Two years after that he was covering the riots in Washington following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Two years after that, his column moved to the paper’s op-ed page and to syndication in hundreds of other newspapers.
Readers who sought predictable, iron-willed ideological cheerleading for the political, cultural or economic left or right were disappointed by Raspberry. He kept us guessing. You actually had to read his column to find out how he felt. Some complainers sounded annoyed by that. I, coming along into the pundit trade in the 1980s, was energized by it.
He demonstrated how a writer who expresses his or her honest views can withstand charges of “racist” or “socialist” from some and “sellout” or “Uncle Tom” from others -- sometimes for the very same column. Speak clearly and honestly, without wishy-washiness, and even those who don’t always agree with you will appreciate knowing where you stand.
As a result Raspberry was quoted by newsmakers on the right and the left as an honest broker looking for answers that would liberate us from endless arguments, even if his suggestions poked the sacred cows of his biggest fans.
Amid clashes over urban gentrification in 2001, he memorably pointed to the supreme irony: how we African Americans get upset when white people move out -- and when they move back in. “If whites abandon our neighborhoods, we say they are segregationists who want us confined to a ghetto,” he wrote. “If they move in, we say they’re taking over. What’s a poor white guy to do?”
He angered some readers when he expressed grudging respect for the polarizing Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, organizer of the Million Man March -- and he angered others when he criticized the “gratuitous anti-Semitism” of Farrakhan and some of his supporters. “Is it too much to suggest,” Raspberry wrote, “that those who demand sensitivity have a duty to practice it?”
He died less than a month after he was honored at a roast and celebration for him at the Post that raised money for BabySteps, an education program for low-income parents and children. He founded BabySteps in his home town of Okolona, Miss., after he retired from writing in 2005 and funded it from his own pocket.
He was the child of schoolteachers, who believed education was “the one best hope black Americans have for a decent future.” He also lamented that “The civil rights leadership, for all its emphasis on desegregating schools, has done very little to improve them.”
In the end he decided to put his time and money where his ideas had been, promoting smarter kids and better parenting. I appreciate his decision. But I miss his voice of reason.