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Zahn: Show on racism provokes strong reaction

By Paula Zahn
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- After ex-"Seinfeld" star Michael Richards' bigoted tirade at a comedy club last month, my staff and I started talking about what could possibly drive a person to say such vile and hateful things.

This discussion raised a series of questions we decided to explore on our program: Is there an inner racist in many of us, just waiting to explode? And is racism thriving today, just underneath a well-masked surface of political correctness and civility?

As we started gathering research on these questions, we read about Vidor, Texas, an East Texas community of 11,000 formerly known as a "sundown town," a place where African-Americans weren't welcome after dark. Like many other towns around the United States in the early 20th century, Vidor was rather open about being closed to blacks.

So we decided to find out what this town looks like today and how its legacy of racism has affected its efforts to integrate and heal the wounds of years past.

We sent correspondent Keith Oppenheim, who filed a memorable report from Vidor last week showing that much progress has been made.

Last year, for example, schools in Vidor created a billboard that included the face of an African-American girl as a way to make blacks more comfortable with the idea of moving to or living in Vidor. City leaders also point out that in the days after Hurricane Katrina, Vidor reached out to the hurricane's African-American victims and provided temporary shelter.

But Keith's report also exposed mixed feelings among the town's white residents toward blacks, with some still not open to complete integration.

His story included this memorable quote from a Vidor resident: "I don't mind being friends with them, talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that's where I draw the line."

After the show aired, we were flooded with e-mails.

Some viewers thought Keith's piece was fair and honestly showed how racism still exists in Vidor, while emphasizing that it is not as rampant as it once was. Others blasted us for exploiting Vidor and its past sins and making too much of residents who still harbor bias towards blacks.

So we decided to expand the conversation and host a town hall meeting in Vidor. At least that was the plan until city officials rescinded their invitation this past weekend, citing security issues and concerns that they would not get a "fair shake" during the broadcast. That's unfortunate, because my intention is to have a very balanced discussion about racism.

Tonight, our town meeting will go on, in neighboring Beaumont, with or without Vidor's participation. We still welcome the participation of Vidor's mayor, if he changes his mind and decides to join us.

In the weeks ahead, we will broaden the discussion to look at issues of discrimination and intolerance in American against other groups of people -- Hispanics, Muslims, Asians, gays, women. And we will reveal some of the surprising places these biases surface, from the workplace to the silver screen to the voting booth.

We think dialogue that includes many points of view is important and can ultimately help us all better understand each other.

Paula Zahn

CNN's Paula Zahn asks: Is there an inner racist in many of us, just waiting to explode?

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