Five Minutes With
Kai Wright is ridiculously prolific. While reporting on everything from financial regulation to Washington, D.C.’s astronomically high HIV/AIDS rate, Wright has written books on homeless queer youth of color, Drifting Toward Love, and the history of African-Americans in the U.S. armed forces, Soldiers of Freedom, along with countless articles for publications from The American Prospect, The Nation,and the now-defunct Washington Blade, D.C.’s premiere LGBT newspaper that had been reborn as the DC Agenda. Last month, Wright was named editorial director of ColorLines, a national magazine that focuses on the intersection of race and politics.
Let’s start off with your back story. Where are you from, where did you go to school, and how did you get into this business?
I actually started journalism in high school, working from Indianapolis, working for my local black community newspaper, the Indianapolis Reporter. So from the beginning, I’ve done community-based, independent journalism. That’s been my lens on how to do this work from the start. I went to school down in Atlanta at Emory University and I thought I wanted to be a professor, but when I graduated I couldn’t stomach the idea of more school. I took a break and went to Washington to work on journalism, the idea [was] to take a couple years off before going back to school. But I got started and just never stopped.
Was your journalism politically motivated from the start?
Yes. What always attracted me was the idea of explaining to various communities how and why big decisions from policy makers and elected officials matter, how they impact day-to-day life, and how we can be actively engaged in shaping these decisions. That is what motivated me in my journalism from the beginning, and still does today—explaining how these big picture decisions matter to us at the community level.
In your writings you talk about the need to communicate with low-income people and middle-income people who have economic interests in common, but who often aren’t served by policy makers in Washington. Have you noticed any successful attempts to bridge these divides in the face of the economic crisis?
One of the most fertile areas in journalism for me personally—the kind of journalism we have done, and will do more of at Colorlines—is this conversation that goes on at the top level, the people who are supposed to be accountable to communities and the reality that is playing out in those communities. There is a massive disconnect there and it’s larger today than it has been in a long time. Unfortunately, corporate media not only doesn’t close that gap, it often contributes to it. It is often interested in the conversation among elites and not the conversation among working people or between working people and elites.
Because there is a shared anger and anxiety about our leaders' inability to address what is important to working people, there are potential alliances. I don’t see them in existence, but that is a leadership failure. That is a leadership failure on the national political level, and it is a leadership failure at an organizing level.
Do you think there is a way for people on the left to bridge the divide between those Tea Partiers who don’t seem to come from a cultural position that would easily align with progressive values?
Well you have to separate it out. It seems like a good bit of what falls under the Tea Party banner are political operatives using the anxieties and energies that exist in some poor and working class white areas of the country to whip up racist discontent. Tapping into their fears of immigrants, their fears of black people, their fears of people in color in general, and turning that against the Obama administration. I don’t think there is common ground there.
You’ve been a pretty consistent critic, on the left, of the healthcare bills working their way through Congress, but a lot of people in the progressive blogosphere see this as the only way to move forward. In your view are there alternatives to reform along these lines?
It is true that from the beginning, the Obama administration chose to compromise away a lot of meaningful reform from the start. But that is broader than healthcare. The administration’s strategy for the first year appeared to be to tick off as many conversations as possible, as opposed to meaningfully proposing change within them. They had a fear of confrontation, I believe, that left them powerless and wasted their political capital. In a simpler term, the administration felt its time was better spent courting its enemies and pushing its friends away. They misread the country in terms of what kind of reform the country was willing to accept, and wasted that moment.
Isn’t there also the problem of getting that message to people who get their news from the papers or cable, outlets that tend to not have the kind of nuanced coverage you need to crack into a subject of that magnitude?
There is so much doom and gloom about the future of journalism right now, but I think this is a place, for some of us, where it is an exciting thing. For a very long time corporate news has had an outsize influence on what information gets out and how it gets out, because it was very expensive to not only produce but to distribute information. The reality is that the web does change that.
To wrap up, what words of advice do you have for young people who had so much hope after the elections in 2008, but this year have been treated to the spectacle of American politics at its worst?
The year 2008 should not be looked at as something that was about a person. It was about getting a whole host of people who had not been previously engaged in the political system engaged. What we saw through the achievement of electing Barack Obama [was] when we get involved [and] when we are able to get all these new voices engaged. [Then] we can change it. We can make the system do things we didn’t think it possible to make it do. I’m very critical of the Obama administration, but it’s less about what they did and didn’t do and more about keeping all those new folks engaged in the political system, such that the calculus for the Obama administration, or any administration, is different. The hopeful message is: Look what we did when we all got engaged, if we stay engaged we can do all kinds of other things, too.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.
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