What Americans Can Learn About Racial Reconciliation from Archbishop Tutu


By Ford Rowan | January 10, 2022

Racism has infected every area where European colonists subdued native populations and it has fueled slavery. Racist Apartheid oppressed Black people for generations in South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a leader in addressing racism not only in his own country, but as an example of what might be done in the American South.

My memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu will always be intertwined with my respect for the first African American Episcopal bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton. That is because Tutu visited Baltimore as a celebration of black progress in the US and Sutton’s election as bishop.

During his visit a dozen years ago, I asked Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation program he had championed in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation process was widely viewed as preventing mass violence even though there were serious outbreaks and deaths in South Africa.

Bishop Sutton was forming an initiative here and calling it the Truth and Reconciliation process, so I was interested in lessons Tutu learned from his own efforts. We were scheduled to visit Tutu in South Africa last year, but the pandemic forced cancellation of that trip.

Truth, Tutu said in our first conversation in Baltimore, was key to avoiding massive bloodshed in South Africa. Reconciliation would take a lot longer, he acknowledged. Truth was purchased with amnesty for white officials who testified publicly about crimes against humanity. Whites had to listen to the laments of Black victims. The foundation of his efforts was built on truth.

I was interested in how Tutu approached this problem because I grew up in a racist society. I was born in Texas, grew up in New Orleans, and was educated in North Carolina. As a news reporter, I covered civil rights marches in Louisiana and Mississippi and the prosecution of white defendants accused of killing protestors. No one had made the perpetrators in the South listen to those they had tormented. Traumatic memories persisted across generations. In 2021, white politicians in the South still seek to silence the teaching of such things as Critical Race Theory.

As a young reporter, I covered the integration of the University of Mississippi and the riots that were triggered by white students when a black man, James Meredith, was admitted by a federal court order. What I did not know then, but learned much later, was that Meredith and I are related.

We were both part Choctaw. The tribe, before it was forcibly removed to Oklahoma, owned large areas of Mississippi. The tribe was matrilineal, and the women had leadership roles. There was open intermarriage between Choctaw women and the white men who settled in the area and between Choctaw men and the black women who escaped slavery in New Orleans.

Meredith will always be labeled a Black person, but he was proud of his Choctaw roots. In his autobiography, he traced his ancestry back to his great grandfather who married an African princess brought to Mississippi by the French as a slave. Meredith’s great grandfather, Sam Cobb, was a leader in the tribe. By the time of the Civil War, at least 60% were mixed with Black blood.

My Choctaw ancestors trace back to Greenwood Leflore, the chief who eventually signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which forced most of the tribe onto the Trail of Tears and eventually to a reservation in Oklahoma. Cobb opposed the treaty and his son helped many of the Choctaws, including the Meredith family, hide in the woods, thereby avoiding being removed from their lands.

James Meredith grew up in a place where the color of one’s skin determined one’s status. He was a second-class citizen in the Jim Crow South. “His ancestors were the creators, benefactors, and victims of white supremacy,” Meredith Coleman McGee writes in James Meredith: Warrior and the American Society That Created Him; “His bloodline included African, Choctaw, English and Scottish Irish.”

Unfortunately, white Southerners linked identity to color. Mixed blood notwithstanding, large group Identify was based on the color of one’s skin. I remember being told by a fourth-grade teacher that one drop of black blood in a person would make him 100% black and deemed inferior by whites. Persons of mixed race, like James Meredith, were considered troublemakers by many whites. When he was a student at Ole Miss, he was regularly denounced with the N-word.

Large group identity is often bolstered by disliking and criticizing “the other,” a group deemed different. For some of my friends, this amounts to “we are not like fanatical Muslims; we are not like crafty Jews; we are not like low-life rioters; we are not like evil tycoons.” Whether the stereotypes are true or not seems irrelevant; one group’s labeling the other in these stereotyped ways serves the purpose of cementing the identity of one’s own large group. And, the need for an adversary, as Vamik Volkan has noted in his most recent book on Large Group Psychology, sometimes includes “ruin(ing) the chances of the enemy in an activity in which supremacy is being sought.”

Thirteen years ago, when I met Tutu, I was interested in how the oppressive system in South Africa was like (or different than) the oppressive system in the American South. Race was the dividing line for group identities. But Tutu shared a worldview called Ubuntu which appealed for the peaceful cohabitation of people of different identities. Ubuntu was central to Tutu’s own sense of identity and community.

What Tutu believed was that peaceful transition to end oppression required large doses of truth telling. Large group identities are so strong that communication – honest dialogue – is key to reconciliation. No progress could be made without recognizing oppression and talking about it.

In his own country, Tutu suggested that Ubuntu sought synthesis while Americans preferred analysis. Ubuntu sought stronger community while Americans craved individualism. Ubuntu recognizes when someone has wronged you, Tutu said, but “what you long for is not revenge,” but rather “a healing of relationships” (quotes are from Michael Battle’s book, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu).

In the United States in the early 1980s, Tutu said “blood became thicker than water. You really can’t trust whites.” He feared that in a crunch, “whites will stick by their fellow whites.” What was needed in the US was a stronger sense of faith in transformation and redeemed identities. Tutu’s religious faith prompted him to have charity toward those whites who oppressed Black people.

I wanted to ask him if his views about American racism had changed, so I jumped at the opportunity to accompany Bishop Sutton to South Africa. I wrote down a question: Do you still think American whites will stick with whites and oppose racial reconciliation? Upon reflection, I realized I was asking for an analytical response. Knowing he preferred synthesis over analysis, I reframed the question: What can help American whites reconcile with those they have oppressed?

COVID-19 forced me to cancel the trip to visit Tutu in South Africa. Last night I dreamed that I was with Tutu, and Greenwood Leflore and Sam Cobb were there too. I asked my question and eagerly awaited Tutu’s response. THE ALARM CLOCK WENT OFF. Damn, I thought, I will never get an answer.

After a cup of coffee, I realized he had already given an answer. It was what he did with his whole life. Retribution was a dead end. Facing the truth was essential. He called for a harmony of different voices. Dialogue would help. Only reconciliation would lead to justice. Desmond Tutu was under no illusions that it would be easy, but he showed us the way.

Communication in Covid-19 at the Potomac Institute and International Law Institute Webinar on April 29, 2021

Communication in Covid-19 at the Potomac Institute and International Law Institute Webinar on April 29, 2021

By Ford Rowan | April 29, 2021

Presentation by Ford Rowan.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk about a subject I have grappled with since 1965 when I became a reporter.   I reported for 20 years before practicing law and consulting on risk management.

The topic is the challenge of communicating in a health emergency.  Some things I will cover:

Risk communication is distinctly different than normal news media coverage.

News Media coverage amplifies the risk – invariably by drawing attention to a crisis and sometimes triggering anxiety.

Cable news is incredibly biased for reasons that involve money more than politics.

Social media – Facebook, twitter, etc. is hopelessly biased and suffers from Gresham’s law, that the bad drives out the good.

Let us start with the last item.

Social media is less likely to reflect reality than the news media.

Social media messages stir emotions of fear, including misinformation, spread conspiracy stories, and highlight contradictory political statements that trigger outrage.

Why is social media worse than news media?  The news media is sometimes biased, particularly in deciding what topics to highlight.  The great anchorman David Brinkley was once asked to define “what is news.”  His answer: “News is what I say it is.”  In the past the bias was all about what topics journalists decided to cover.

The news media is in the business of mediating reality.  The underlying media ethos is about accuracy.  The facts usually catchup with the claims.

Social media is not mediated by professionals seeking accuracy.

When I worked as a news reporter, accuracy was 100% and my opinions were zero percent from day one of my employment in the news business.

My boss told me to always double check everything.  “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

My managing editor also said, “I don’t care about your opinions and I damn well do not want to find out watching your reporting on television.”

Like most old guys, I think it has all been downhill since I left.

Let’s look at how traditional news coverage is related to communication about risk.

Why is risk communication important?

COVID-19 has been so disruptive and – for many people traumatic.

So many people have died from the coronavirus. Thousands of family members were not able to visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes. Thousands could not be present with a dying father, mother, wife, husband, or child. The funeral has not been scheduled.  The body may be in a refrigerated truck somewhere.

Grieving has been disrupted.  Mourning is essential for psychological health.

When talking with someone who lost a loved one to the virus, it is easy to slip. It is easy to inadvertently say something that triggers a traumatic memory. Triggers can hurt.  There is an epidemic of suicides in this country.  During COVID-19 there has been a growing number of suicides.  Including suicides of health care employees, first responders,  law enforcement and veterans. Drug overdoses have soared as well.

Knowing what to say – and most importantly, what not to say – can have a life-or-death impact.  The drumbeat of bad news can trigger trauma.  It can require “psychological first aid,” something that is taught at the Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland.

I taught for a dozen years at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (in DC).  Several of my students are now news media reporters, including one that’s  doing a great job on television talking about the pandemic.  But I never taught students about psychological first aid.

How does communication about risk affect psychology?

Slide 1.

Prior to COVID-19, I studied 4 health emergencies:

  • The Anthrax attack if 2001,
  • The SARS outbreak of 2003,
  • Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (where I helped respond in the aftermath in New Orleans),
  • The 2009 Influenza pandemic (where I helped train state/federal public health officials before and during the emergency).

Now, in COVID, I have worked with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins on such things as how to allocate life-sustaining ventilators when the need escalates, and if the supply runs out.

Slide 2.

Psychological issues are aggravated by political partisanship.

  • They are complicated by scientific uncertainty.
  • They are fueled by fear of the unknown.
  • The public wants answers, but they hear many falsehoods.
  • Misinformation has triggered resistance to being vaccinated.
  • Social justice has been undermined. (the coronavirus risk to persons in prison is much higher than those in the free world and some ethnic groups have been especially plagued with illness.)
  • Accurate risk communication is crucial.

Slide 3.

National Academy of Sciences defined risk communication:

  • “An interactive process…
  • exchange of information and opinion….
  • the nature of risk…
  • concerns, opinions, reactions to risk messages….”
  • It is not just about science.

Slide 4

Why do some risks seem very risky?

  • unfamiliar risks v. familiar risks
  • risks I cannot control v. controllable risks
  • involuntary risks v. risks I chose
  • risks with no benefits v. risks with benefits
  • risks that seen unfair v. risks that are shared broadly

Slide 5

This is not just about science. It is about power.

  • Who knows?
  • Who decides?
  • Who controls?
  • Who benefits?
  • Who must pay?

Slide 6

Accuracy is crucial

  • Empower people to make decisions
  • Leaders must communicate honestly with the public.
  • Transparency is crucial.
  • Appeal to people’s own best interests
  • “Shielding” families  is better than “lockdown” (a term from prison).
  • Inspire people to help each other.

Promises unkept are the dark side of trust.

Once lost, trust is extremely hard to regain.

Do not wing it.

In Conclusion:

Communication has undermined public trust during the pandemic.

  • News media coverage has amplified the risks.
  • Social media messages have stirred emotions of fear.
  • Contradictory political statements have an angry tone.
  • Erroneous information fuels distrust.
  • Conspiracy stories have caused outrage.

Aristotle’s Advice About Effective Communication:

  • Understand the listeners’ concerns, fears, and hopes (“pathos”).
  • Demonstrate the speaker’s ethical character (“ethos”).
  • Utilize effective reasons (“logos”).
  • The logos must align with your ethos to address their pathos.

In other words, effective communication about health risks must:

  • Ring true with the public.
  • Be true for you, the speaker.
  • Be true period.
  • To resonate it must be authentic and accurate.

Put aside the news media and social media and let’s consider face-to-face conversations.

We can all help people face anxiety when they must go back to work or school while the virus and its mutant variants are circulating and causing illness and death.  Here is how:

  • Overcome uncertainty through meaningful engagement with others.
  • Overcome pessimism by encouraging others do things they are good at.
  • Fight feelings of powerlessness by joining in productive activities.
  • Encourage folks to collaborate.

Cohesive communities are resilient communities.

So let us empower people with information:

Listen to their concerns and address them.

Enlist their support with honest information.

That is because victims feel powerless.

Survivors often feel like victims.  The goal:

Turn survivors into rescuers.

Rescue other people. Help others in need.


Anxiety is as contagious as the virus.  Each of us may not be first responders, but we can respond and help others.  Volunteering can be contagious too.

For the past 20 years I have been volunteering in prisons and in reentry programs to help inmates when they are released back into society.  In one way, reentry after prison can be like reintegration in the workplace after  a lockdown.

People who are released back into society often feel adrift.  They succumb to some bad habits like alcohol  abuse and drug addiction.

Right now, deaths from opioid overdoses are higher than in previous months.  I am concerned not only about the coronavirus pandemic but about the opioid pandemic which has killed hundreds of thousands of people over many years.

That is another reason to reintegrate people carefully in this reopening process, train personnel to level with them, help them to fight feelings of powerlessness, and encouraging them to do productive things.

Helping others and doing a good  job are good for our health and good for all of us.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

By Ford Rowan | March 1, 2021

The most important happening in the last week of the Trump Administration is that something did NOT happen. The outgoing president did not pardon any of the persons who attacked the Capital.

This cleared the way for the Justice Department to enforce the laws against insurrection and get a clearer idea of what transpired before and during the attack on January 6. This is important for several reasons.

  1. Homegrown terrorism is a growing threat. We need to find out how it may have contributed to the violence in the Capitol.
  2. A large minority of Americans think that the election was marred by fraud. Former President Trump still claims he won. We need clear answers and an impartial investigation is essential to persuade the public, if indeed the vote counting was honest or not. Our democracy depends on electoral integrity.
  3. Some of the suspects who have been charged with crimes at the Capitol claim they were following the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. They fully expected him to fulfil his declaration at the morning rally that he would be with them on the march on the Capitol. Several have said they expected to be pardoned by Trump.

He left office with no pardons for those who stormed the Capitol. This removed what could have been an impediment to investigating what happened.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives has talked about Congressional investigations. What is needed is not just a bipartisan study, but a nonpartisan one by persons of proven integrity with no personal stake in the outcome. We all have a stake in learning the facts.

There has been a lot of talk about fake news, fraud, and conspiracies. Let’s get a presidential commission to dig deeply into what happened.

Covid-19 and The Role of Communication

International Law Institute Webinar
Rowan participated in an interdisciplinary panel discussing the use and misuse of communication by governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations during the pandemic.

Uncertainty, Disunity and Injustice

IDI Podcast
A conversation between psychoanalyst Ed Shapiro and journalist/humanitarian Ford Rowan about Uncertainty, Disunity and Injustice.

Racial Trauma

A Dialog on How We Can Heal
With The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Beyond Isolation

Webinar: Returning to an Undistanced Workplace During COVID-19

The 6th Sunday After Pentecost

St. Anne's Church - July 4, 2021
Rowan was the guest preacher at St. Anne's on Independence Day.