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Descent into destruction

Black History Month | What's holding up black progress in America? Journalist and author Juan Williams points to black leaders and icons who turn away from black family values

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

Juan Williams, author of Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America-and What We Can Do About It (Crown, 2006), is a senior NPR correspondent and a FOX news analyst. He worked at The Washington Post for 21 years and saw firsthand what he criticizes in his new book's subtitle.

WORLD: You praise Bill Cosby for drawing attention to the crisis among blacks. How did he do that and why?

WILLIAMS: Cosby deserves great praise for using his celebrity to advance a critical but difficult public debate over the breakdown of family life, a dysfunctional culture, and acceptance of crime in America and especially among poor black people. Speaking at a 2004 NAACP gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Cosby dared to say out loud what most Americans and most black Americans have been saying privately. He said too many poor people are not taking advantage of opportunities to help themselves. He reminded the audience of the tremendous sacrifices made by civil-rights heroes from Thurgood Marshall, the lead lawyer in the Brown case, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Cosby spoke openly about the minority high-school drop-out rate, now 50 percent according to some estimates, and asked what good is Brown when so many young people today choose not to get an education. He took a risk by pointing out that there is something wrong with kids dressing with their pants hanging off their butts and rags on their heads as if they were prisoners denied a belt and a comb. He asked, "Where are the fathers?" at a time when 25 percent of white children, half of Hispanic children, and about 70 percent of black children are now born to single mothers.

WORLD: What in your background or beliefs led you to step up and write this book that substantiates what Cosby had to say?

WILLIAMS: I grew up a poor black kid in Brooklyn, New York, the son of immigrant parents with a passion for education. Neither my mom nor my dad graduated from the fourth grade. Yet it was clear to me that striving to succeed in school was the key to getting out of poverty. There was none of this craziness in which good students were accused of "acting white." There was no "culture of failure" in which going to jail was celebrated as a "rite of passage," or drug dealers, pimps and criminals were glorified as heroes.

The idea that a young black man has standing only when he calls himself an "N" and displays a menacing, angry face along with a gun and a lot of "bling-bling" around his neck was dismissed as a racist stereotype. Now it is celebrated by too many musicians and comedians, many of them black, as authentic black culture. This is a descent into destruction and contrary to black traditions of self-determination, uplift, and love of family that shined through the darkest days of slavery.

WORLD: You note that as early as 1780 black leaders formed groups to advance the right of black people to self-determination . . .

WILLIAMS: Exactly right. You are referring to the creation of a black political group called The African Union Society of Newport for the Moral Improvement of Free Africans. That group's political purpose was to fight for equal rights for black Americans by insisting on our equal rights as citizens to be free of slavery, to educate our children, and to hold political power. This is the great tradition of black America's movement from slavery to full and equal standing in every part of the American dream.

You can see it in Frederick Douglass' insistence that black people be allowed into the Union Army to fight for their own liberation. You can see it in Booker T. Washington's push for self-reliance, in which black craftsmen who once worked as slaves would build wealth as carpenters, blacksmiths, and veterinarians, and use that wealth to buy land and build schools to educate their children. You can see this brilliant tradition in W.E.B. Du Bois' call for developing black intellectual leadership to spearhead the fight for equal opportunity.

Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Dr. King-all of them saw America as an opportunity society and fought to open the door for black people. Today's emphasis on grievances-what the government is not doing and which social program is not sufficiently funded-is in direct contradiction to the history of black leadership's focus on black self-determination.

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