Juan Williams Brings the Tough Love for Black History Month
And you sense he likes it that way.
During his regular roundtable appearances on Fox News Sunday, he’s the centrist voice in a sea of conservatives. At the supposedly liberal bastion of news, National Public Radio, he’s the special correspondent who just nailed the outlet’s first exclusive interview with President Bush -- earning complaints he went too easy on the Chief Executive.
And as an author, his six books range from the civil rights history Eyes on the Prize to his current rebuke to modern-day black leaders, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That are Undermining Black America – and What We Can Do About It.
“I can’t stop people from trying to put me in a box,” said Williams, speaking by cellphone from his Washington office. “I’m a journalist. I might be in different environments…but the reason people would listen to what I have to say in any environment, no matter what labels they want to stick on it, is they say I think he’s really trying to be credible and honest.”
During a talk that ranged from Bill Cosby to rap culture and Hurricane Katrina, we discussed his conviction that phony black leaders are keeping America from having the kind of dialogue about race that might lead to increased progress for black people.
And while some have accused him of blaming the victim for institutional racism, Williams feels there’s no greater sin than failing to deliver brutal honesty to disadvantaged people making personal choices whioch may make their lives tougher.
(Williams offers a free talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Fox Hall at Eckerd College. He'll be discussing the implications of his book with me and Tampa Tribune editorial board member Joe Brown, on WUSF-89.7 FM's issues show Florida Matters at 6:30 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday.)
ME: What’s the message you’re delivering to audiences during your speeches these days?
WILLIAMS: “Right now, when we think about race and American society, we’re at a point where we have to change the framework. I just wrote a book…(that’s) a real challenge to black America and white America to say, look, enough of the posturing, enough of the silence, because everybody’s so uptight about race. Let’s really do what needs to be done to help those in need…Why is it that we have a 25 percent drop out rate in the black community today?…Why do we look at the prisons and see 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are black Americans? These are real issues which require new ways of thinking and getting away from being stuck in the rut of the same old racial conversations that I don’t think take us anyplace.”
How should the conversation be different, and what would we gain?
“A prime example would be Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane hit, you had both sides engaging in a lot of rhetoric; you heard black people – especially the official black leadership -- saying, ‘Oh my God, if there wasn’t a Republican in the White House, the government would have done much more and reacted much more quickly.’ The conservatives’ response was don’t glorify these muggers and looters and look at the chaos everywhere…Here’s my thought: if we would have stopped for a second and said we’ve got to get people out of concentrations of poverty…the people who had best chance of surviving the flood were people who were not living in poor neighborhoods, even if they were poor, people who living in strong families, people who had an education. All of this is apparent in front of us, but instead of talking about real solutions, we get caught up in the same old talk show rhetoric.”
But in New Orleans, you had people who had owned their homes for generations. Instead of expecting them to change neighborhoods, why shouldn’t the city improve their neighborhoods?
“People who don’t want to move out of their houses…those people are engaged in self-defeating behavior. At some point, you have to say, well, those people don’t want help and they’re not going to be helped because they don’t want to change their circumstance. For some reason they want to continue to live in poverty and continue to communicate that kind of attitude to their kids. You can wait for somebody to fix the neighborhood. And while you’re waiting, you also wait for someone to fix the schools and you also wait for someone fix the crime, and you will die in this neighborhood. And your children will not be inheriting anything of worth; they will just be inheriting this very negative, dysfunctional lifestyle.”
You offer some steps people can take to help themselves in your book?
“(It begins) with graduating from high school, not getting a GED but really graduating. Second thing is stay in the job market, don’t think you’re going to be an NBA star or a rap star but understand in this economy you have to have an education. And third, don’t get married until your 20s and don’t have a baby until you’re married. We know children born out of wedlock are more likely to fail in school, to not get a diploma, to not have a job, to end up in jail. We know these things, but we’ve got to say it to somebody…Bad decisions lead to bad outcomes.”
You were inspired to write this book by Bill Cosby’s now-legendary speech telling black people to start helping themselves.
“It was the criticism (of his speech) that caught my attention. People saying Cosby didn’t understand racism in America, he didn’t understand systemic racism, that he was a self-hating black man, he was giving ammunition to the conservatives...I thought, this is interesting: Cosby is, like, an icon…I think Cosby was onto some hard truths. I think he spoke from the heart and with true concern. And yet, he was absolutely vilified.”
What did that criticism say to you?
“It said there’s an enforced silence. You are not supposed to say anything that breaks with the orthodoxy. And the orthodoxy is: you can appeal to white guilt, you defend the status quo, but you don’t ever say ‘Let’s really look for solutions that require both individual responsibility as well as change on the part of the larger society.’ Don’t look for real answers, just let the situation go as it is. I don’t know why people would want that? Why would you want to allow people to live in poverty and say that’s just the way it is?”
But isn’t there another orthodoxy emerging focused on blaming black people mostly for black people’s problems? And shouldn’t people be skeptical about buying into that?
“Everybody should be exercising their intellect in judging what’s valuable and finding real solutions. But I think you’re hearing this from smart, caring people. The critics want you to stick those people in a box, call them black conservatives or say they’re on some weird bandwagon, as opposed to saying ‘How can we help people help themselves?”
Some of this criticism has also fallen on hip hop culture, which folks like Cosby have blamed for increasing violence, misogyny and sloppy dress among black youth. But can you convince people to make different life choices if you insult the culture they love?
“What’s the option – to say you are consuming a lifestyle and a culture that’s hurting you, so just go for it? If you dress like a convict with your pants hanging off your (behind), it’s not going to help you get a job. Do you say, ‘Go on and enjoy your dysfunctional negative culture, sold to you by large corporation who are making millions off you…because I don’t want to seem like a bad guy by telling you the truth?' ”
But can you really make a difference if none of the people who need your guidance are listening?
“There’s a grand old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. I haven’t seen that anybody’s delivered the message effectively at all. The mainstream message -- the one that comes from the established national civil rights leadership, says ‘Black people are victims, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing we can do about the culture, nothing we can do about the schools. Wait for the next Dr. King, wait for the next government program.’ I think there’s a lot of lives being lost. I think its time to try something new.
“Here’s the reality, when something goes from being positive and contributing to the community, to something that is corrosive and poisonous you have to call it for what it is. The flower has now been turned into a damaging product. It has been turned into something that is hurting people.”
It seems we're at a moment where there is a transition between two types of civil rights leaders -- old school folks who use conflict and confrontation and newer leaders who use negotiation.
“I think we’re in a moment where there’s new thinking required. You can’t take the strategies that deal with problems like sitting in the back of the bus and apply it to the kind of problems that we have now with a high drop out rate, and high poverty rate. It’s a different set of issues and we need new ideas. I don’t agree with a lot of what you said in the question. I think both Harold Ford and Barack Obama are elected officials. I don’t know who would be the equivalent today. I think (Sharpton and Jackson) are people who really come out of the protest tradition. You’re looking for groups that are trying to mentor kids – you’re looking for people at the grass roots level who are trying to accomplish social change. Those are the heroes in my mind. They’re trying to make a difference in somebody’s life; they’re not just about trying to get on TV.”