What Gwen Ifill Knew About Race in America
“If I weren’t a better person … I swear, I would worry about our lovely nation,” she once told me.
Gwen Ifill and I used to exchange hate mail on a semi-regular basis. Not our own, of course. I loved Gwen the way so many people, both in Washington and across the country, loved Gwen, and like so many people, I found myself broken by her death earlier this week. I don’t have the temerity to characterize her view of me, except to say that she cared enough about my happiness, and my reputation, such as it is, to offer up behavioral guidance whenever she felt it necessary. This guidance often consisted of two words: “Stop tweeting!”
The hate mail we shared was directed at us by racists and anti-Semites. Gwen, of course, was a singular figure of extraordinary prominence. Try to name the African American women at the summit of the television news business, and you’ll likely struggle to produce a long list, or, for that matter, a list. Gwen’s fame, her charisma, her obdurate adherence to fact-based standards many people now consider antediluvian, and her top-tier intellect combined to make her a figure of adoration for many, but also a target of loathing for others.
I spent some time this week rummaging through our old email and text exchanges, an exercise that reminded me of her humility, her gift for friendship, her good humor, and also her perspicacity. Because Gwen, it seemed, knew what was coming. I was brought up short by one exchange in particular that grew out of the reaction to an article I wrote in early 2012. The article concerned the practice of dog-whistling, the use of coded, ambiguous language by politicians to appeal to the prejudices of certain voters. Dog-whistling now seems so very 2012; one of Donald Trump’s many campaign innovations was to discard dog-whistling in favor of more straightforward appeals to prejudice. But at the time, Newt Gingrich’s criticism of President Obama as the “food-stamp president,” to cite one example, seemed worthy of comment.
Gwen warned me, soon after this piece was published, “Brace yourself for the crazies.” And the crazies came. Some of the critics believed that my Jewishness disqualified me from commenting on American affairs: “You Jews should remember that this isn’t your country,” one such emailer wrote. “Stop using black criminals to ruin the great United States!” Another correspondent wrote: “You are part of the race problem, not any solution!!! Just keep writing!! Eventually your own specious diatribe will out you for the vitriolic whore that you are!!!”
Gwen found the profligate use of exclamation points amusing, but she also sensed, in this sort of discourse, ominous signs about the direction of our politics. She wrote, “Someday, we will have a drink and I will take your anti-Semites and match them against my racists. If I weren’t a better person … I swear, I would worry about our lovely nation.”
We ended up having lunch a few weeks later, in which we joked about the menagerie of miscreants we seemed to attract. Being with Gwen was always joyful—her smile was a thing of wonder—even when the subject at hand was hatred. As David Brooks wrote earlier this week, “When the Ifill incandescence came at you, you were getting human connection full-bore.”
Gwen’s moral imagination allowed her to worry about all forms of prejudice, and when I was targeted by Jew-haters, she would reach out to check on me. She would sometimes do so in ways that made me laugh: “I found a dreidel in my house the other day and thought of you,” she once wrote.
Gwen also had earnest advice for me at lunch that day. “Just keep your head down and keep writing, because that’s what they don’t want you to do.” Like many African American journalists, she was not surprised by the intensity of the invective poisoning the American conversation, but she still seemed a bit shocked, in the way that optimists find themselves periodically shocked by reality. Though she was a hopeful person, Gwen was not the type to believe that the election of Barack Obama heralded America’s entrance into a benign post-racial future.
Earlier this week, I asked Gwen’s great friend, the journalist Michele Norris, if I was correct to argue that Gwen predicted the rise of Trumpism well before the rise of Trump. “I am not so sure I would say that she ‘saw this coming,’” Norris wrote by email, “because she understood that what we see in the open now has always percolated below the surface.” Gwen, Norris went on to write, “knew she had the power to drive not just the narrative around race but to highlight the nuances that most journalists simply missed, even though they were right in front of them … She was very humble and so she might dismiss the notion that she was prescient. She was pragmatic. I can hear her saying, ‘I just saw what should have been obvious.’”
An insufficient number of people have recognized what is obvious. Gwen’s death is a punishing blow to her family, and to her wide circle of friends, to her colleagues and to her viewers. But it is also a cruel blow to her profession, which hasn’t recently covered itself in glory. And it’s an especially cruel blow to her lovely nation, which is right now in need of her bravery, her farsightedness, and her willingness to tell the truth. Hers is an incalculable loss.