April Ryan Interview: "This Is Not the America That I Know"
Image attributed to April Ryan
April Ryan, a 30-year journalism veteran, has been the White House bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks (AURN) since January of 1997, covering four presidents. She is the author of the bestselling book, The Presidency in Black and White: My Up Close View of Four Presidents and Race in America.
In the updated paperback edition, Ryan contributes a new afterword, chronicling the country’s growing racial divide, the end of the Obama era, the increasingly contentious Trump White House and prospects for race relations in the Trump presidency. With humor, grace and determination, Ryan shares the highs and lows of her sometimes lonely but rewarding battle to keep questions of race relations in America on the political front burner.
"President Trump came in as a knee-jerk reaction to the hope and change of a black man. There were people with resentment and who were very angry. History shows us that when the rubber band of inclusion stretches to its furthest point, sometimes, there’s a recoil on the rubber band or it even breaks."
In 2017, Ryan joined CNN as a political analyst and was selected by the National Association of Black Journalists as “Journalist of the Year.” She is also the author of At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White, released December 15, 2016.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In The Presidency in Black and White, you took four presidents to task on their handling of race relations while in office, and you gave Barack Obama a B+ rating. What could President Obama have improved on, and what were the differences between his first term and his second term?
April Ryan: Obama first term vs. Obama second term were two totally difference people. In the second term, he did not have anything politically to lose. He was himself. In his first term, Obama had to be a man who was well aware that there were forces in Washington that did not want him there because he was a novice, because they felt he was a Democrat and also, that he was a black man. People were very concerned about it.
Things that happened to Obama have not happened to this president. For example, people are dancing around the “lie” word when it comes to President Trump, who has a credibility issue. In 2009, President Obama was speaking to the nation and a member of Congress stood up and said, “You lie!” So there are different standards for different presidents, I believe, or different types of presidents. But every president could’ve done more.
Obama was tasked with trying to govern at a time when he really had a a hard time because of the matter of race. They did not want to amplify the issue of race; therefore, they tried to keep it out of the equation. They wanted to focus on issues because when you brought race into the equation, it just changed everything, and they knew that early on. He could not specifically target the unemployment rate for black people that was historically high. He had to find different ways of doing it. Black America still has the highest number of negatives in almost every category over other groups.
Obama was tasked with being the first black president and having people spotlight and highlight the fact that he was black. It was a double-edged sword for him. Looking back in hindsight, I’m sure he would say that he could’ve done some things differently. He tried for criminal justice reform. He tried to deal with issues of education. He looked at healthcare issues and yeah, it’s got a lot of problems. That was something they may have tried to tweak before they left. But he wanted to ensure wellness for Americans because wellness went into the issue of the workforce and into the issue of hospitalization.
There are a lot of things he could’ve done, I guess, but maybe he couldn’t have because we see that the Republicans are having a hard time now tweaking healthcare. Obama opened the door for some solutions like, “Let’s work together.” But they didn’t have solutions. With what he had, Obama did what he could. When it came to HBCUs, there are some failings, and more money could’ve been put in there. But, at the same time, you’re working with a Congress who necessarily didn’t like the fact that you’re funneling money into historically black colleges and universities. For everything that he could’ve done, he would’ve been thwarted because of the unique nature of who he was or who he is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How were the attitudes and feelings of the American people different when Barack Obama became president as compared to when Donald Trump was elected?
April Ryan: When Obama became president, you have to remember this nation was on the brink of recession. It was starting to tumble into recession. Economically, we were looking at $4.00 a gallon for gas. We were hurting. People were losing their jobs. Obama was talking about hope and change. These people believed that. People were looking for something. He did help the economy. President Trump is actually feeling the residue of Barack Obama’s economic policies.
But here’s the thing: President Trump came in as a knee-jerk reaction to the hope and change of a black man. There were people with resentment and who were very angry. History shows us that when the rubber band of inclusion stretches to its furthest point, sometimes, there’s a recoil on the rubber band or it even breaks. History has shown us this. We’ve seen it in the Civil Rights movement, in the Civil Rights Act and in the Voting Rights Act. Each presidency has had challenges. But the moment of Civil Rights was huge in the 60s, then you started hearing things later on from Ronald Reagan about “welfare queens.”
When Bill Clinton came, he said, “Let’s deal with the issue of race.” Then all of a sudden the nation came back feeling we had turned a corner and that we were post-racial. We elected Barack Obama. But we were not post-racial. What is happening now has shown us that we are not a post-racial nation.
President Trump plays on the concerns of a certain sector of America, a certain sector of white America that felt like they were left out, left behind, that affirmative action worked for black people, but it didn’t work for them and that they were not included in Barack Obama’s view of change and hope. Trump played on that and he won on that. But that was the smallest segment of America because if you look at his approval rating, his numbers are very low historically as compared to other presidents. President Trump plays on this segment in society that felt they were a part of America that made America, but were not included in that America they made. Trump’s view of America is very different than Obama’s view of America.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that Trump is a racist because he did not single out and only condemn the group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis for the violence in Charlottesville during his last remarks about the event?
April Ryan: I’m not going to say he’s a racist, but he plays to his base. He plays to his base, and if he loses that base, he has nothing because he knows the vast majority of America does not approve of what he’s doing. He’s playing directly to his base. David Duke called Trump out after his first speech and said, “We voted for you.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Should Trump also have labeled the white supremacists and neo-Nazis that incited violence that day in Charlottesville as terrorists?
April Ryan: Yes, anytime you ram a car that’s terrorism. Terrorism means to scare, to make people fear for their lives and to act on it. When someone is walking with tiki torches, it reminds us of a day when the Klan used to walk with their clubs with fire on them as fire sticks and with sheets on their heads going into the homes of people.
It reminds us of the ugly past of this nation. That’s not cool! And they incited it posting those pictures. They wanted to remind us of our past, but this time they have been emboldened to walk without their sheets on their heads. This is not the America that I know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think about Trump placing the blame on the neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the people who were protesting them?
April Ryan: Trump is putting blame on both sides, which I don’t see. If people are going to incite something, people are going to come out and stop it. He’s tearing this country apart with this division of race and it’s only getting worse. We saw it when he was running and it’s getting worse now. In the press conference, he said the racial issues had gotten better with him. He said the way to fix race relations was about the economy, if people are working, and he said that both sides were in the wrong.
There are two sides of the story, but he’s defending the side he wants to defend. Were people not supposed to say something or stop it? Like I said, they came out with tiki torches. They were trying to re-enact the hate of the past like what the Ku Klux Klan used to do. This will not bode well for race relations in this nation. Not at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you feel about Trump comparing a statue of Robert E. Lee to a statue of George Washington?
April Ryan: I mean, he’s going down a road that he really does not want to deal with. He’s going down roads that are really going to cause a lot of problems. If he wants to go down that road with the Confederacy or Confederate flag, people are going to take him up on it. There are people who are willing to do that. You can’t dismiss the pain of the nation. In Trump’s mind, he’s saying that if we want to talk about slavery, let’s go all the way back to Washington. I don’t know.
Right now, I’m angry, and I’m trying not to be. If people still say there are not problems, something is wrong. David Duke said after the press conference, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
Black Lives Matter didn’t walk around in sheets attacking people! Black Lives Matter came as an outgrowth of black people being killed at the hands of police, marching and saying that our lives matter. Every life matters, but people think it’s a joke when Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin died. Black Lives Matter said, “This needs to stop. We matter as people.” They didn’t lynch anyone. They didn’t go out there killing anyone. They didn’t walk the streets with tiki torches. I don’t understand it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you scared?
April Ryan: I am very scared because what’s happening is that Trump’s letting people know that it’s okay to do this. He’s letting people know that it’s okay. It’s not okay. This is not who we are as a nation. Black people and white people can live together, can talk together and not be afraid of each other. But we are now. We’re more afraid than ever. We’re angrier than ever.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the book, you talk about an incident when you were a child and became frightened that some white men with rifles were going to shoot into your grandfather’s home. Have you had any experiences since then with the KKK or white supremacists?
April Ryan: No. But I’ve had death threats after allegedly shaking my head.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Shaking your head?
April Ryan: Yeah. The Sean Spicer thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you kidding?
April Ryan: No, I’m not. I’m not kidding. This is what I’m saying. This has gone so far. I’m angry right now. I’m angry and hurt because we are going back to something that is scary. I’m angry, but as an African-American woman, I’m just trying to push that down and be the journalist. I’m trying not to let emotions rule. I’m trying to look at this objectively.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does it help your feelings at all that an image of you appeared in Trump's latest campaign ad allegedly listing you as an enemy of his?
April Ryan: No, it doesn't. No, it doesn't. I don't feel any better.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You're in the news a lot these days!
April Ryan: I know, and I'm like, "Why"? (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you feel about that?
April Ryan: I chuckle, and I'm like, "It's nice." But at the end of the day, I have to do work. It's nice, but I don't stay on it. I have to do my job. I don't focus on people watching. I don't focus on the accolades. I just keep doing my job because if you get caught up in that, you lose yourself. I'm thankful that people accept my perspectives, but in order to keep my perspectives, I can't get caught up in that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you talk to your daughters about what’s going on in the country with the issues of race and hate?
April Ryan: I try to keep this stuff away from them. They have friends who are all races, and I just want them to know that we are better than the hate we’re seeing now. I’m letting them know certain things because I’m now involved. But I keep them away because I don’t want them worrying about me. I give them hope, and I let them know that everything is going to be okay. They’re concerned.
They’re big girls, and they know what’s right and wrong. They know some of the things that have been said by the President of the United States may not be some of the soundest ideas that society offers because they cringe sometimes. They’re like, “Did he just say that?” I’m like, “Yeah.” (laughs) But I let them know they have to understand that this is America. This is the great part of America. We all have freedom of expression, but that it’s how we express what we express that’s the key.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe that the Trump administration will ever have a serious, inclusive conversation about racial relations in this country?
April Ryan: I have no clue (laughs). It is so sad. I just have no clue. He is the moral leader of this nation, and you would hope he would, but I don’t know if he knows how or if he wants to know how.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can we as Americans do to keep the conversation about race relations going?
April Ryan: We need to open our hearts and understand that we are all different. This is a very bad day. This dialogue we're having is bringing out the worst in us and I don't even understand. Hate does not prevail. It does not.
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