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.
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.
WORLD: Yet today, you write we have a "culture of accepting corruption and excusing wrongdoing by black leaders." How has that culture developed?
WILLIAMS: Bill Cosby talks about black leaders who "rejoice in your hopelessness because they have jobs mismanaging you." Their goal is not to advance people into good schools and the American middle class but to maintain a large group of poor, uneducated people who are dependent on them. This is civil-rights leadership as a zero-sum game in which it is street smart to tap into poverty programs for money and jobs instead of developing quality schools, businesses, and political power in the name of black people as equals in American society.
WORLD: Why do you write, "Too many of today's black leaders have less to do with Blood of Martyrs than with Blood Money, the equivalent of 12 pieces of silver handed to Judas"?
WILLIAMS: I want to pull the covers off of today's leaders who make money by positioning black people as victims who are unable to compete. Too many black leaders sell blacks as victims to justify increased spending on government programs and grants from philanthropies that produce patronage jobs for their cronies but few results that actually move people out of poverty by strengthening families and schools.
Black America has a tradition of world-class scholars and life-affirming musicians, actors, and artists. People who are struggling to make it need inspiration. It is crazy that too many of today's black leaders prefer to tell people they have to wait on white guilt or wait for the next Dr. King before they can make progress. They tell people to wait for the end of racism and oppose school reform. They do this while sending their children to the best private schools and cutting deals for themselves as a private insurance policy for any white firm that runs into racial trouble.
WORLD: Are black churches, in general, part of the problem or part of the solution?
WILLIAMS: Part of the solution. The black church is a tremendous civic and spiritual asset. The focus in recent years has been on expanding the size and wealth of the church, picking up on the mega-church movement that is prominent among white Christians. There is nothing wrong with that, but the best way to grow the church is to give it voice on the key issues facing the most vulnerable populations, young people and the 25 percent of black people locked in poverty.
In the book I quote [1 Samuel 3:11-13], where God deals harshly with those who see their children taking the wrong path but say nothing and do nothing. Too often the church today is slow to speak forcefully about right and wrong, about out-of-wedlock births, about AIDS, about acceptance of criminal behavior, even about being a good parent. If we can just get the church to find its voice, it will a powerful part of the solution.
WORLD: You describe much of current music and film as "an open sewer throwing up the idea that black men are most genuine . . . when they are getting vengeance with a gun in hand." How would you go about cleaning up that sewer?
WILLIAMS: Speak up and call to account the people who are pumping out that trash. At the moment there is widespread intimidation of anyone who dares to point out the destructive messages being sent to young people. I've been called a censor and out of touch. Whites are told they don't know what it is like to be black. They always have a reason to shut you up. But if people speak out and identify these images as a modern minstrel show that caricatures black people as overly violent, over-sexed, and stupid, it will be a first step in changing the culture.
WORLD: Do you have children or grandchildren? We tend to think of "gangsta" rap as appealing to poor kids, but is there also an appeal to middle-class black kids and if so why?
WILLIAMS: My wife and I are blessed to have three great kids, ages 18, 25, and 26. We don't have any grandchildren. But "gangsta" rap appeals to kids across racial and class lines. In fact, middle-class white kids are the biggest consumers. The middle-class kids identify with the rebellion, the defiance of norms, the outrageous excess. White kids play with racial stereotypes. That is bad enough. But the real damage is to black kids, especially poor black kids told that their place in American life is limited to playing out the stereotype of the black criminal, black clown, and black stud. There is no glorification of people who work hard, excel in academics and business, and sacrifice to raise strong families. Rap culture denigrates anyone who holds to those virtues as a chump. This is poison.
WORLD: You note polls showing that most black Americans think America is now a land of opportunity for all and that too many people are overly dependent on the government. Why then do 90 percent of black votes typically support candidates who favor big government?
WILLIAMS: What you call "big" government still resonates in minority communities as a force for good that put in place a law against lynching and laws that segregated people. The Democrats are still seen as the party that supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act while the GOP's presidential candidate in 1964, Barry Goldwater, was opposing the Civil Rights Act. The Republican Party hurt itself with Hispanic voters with the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2006 mid-term elections.
Then there are the strong big city Democratic political machines, with black and Hispanic politicians. That monopoly on the black vote is just now being challenged by Republicans. Candidates like Ken Blackwell and Michael Steele are at the cutting edge of what could be a major change if Republicans appealed to the social conservatism of blacks and Hispanics on issues such as gay marriage, the death penalty, support for small business, and opposition to government programs that foster dependence instead of strength.
WORLD: You write that the "nation's leading civil-rights groups . . . are locked into arguing that 'the system' is causing the continued high level of poverty in black America." What should the civil-rights movement of the 21st century be?
WILLIAMS: Today's movement should focus on getting the poor out of poverty, and that starts with quality schools. With the increasing class divide in American society it is getting harder to push your children up the economic ladder. It is harder to pay for higher education, for health care and housing. It is critical to get the nation-people of all colors and classes-committed to the cause of keeping the American dream alive for everyone.
We can't allow the poor, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, to fall into a permanent underclass filled with hopelessness and despair. Most Americans want to give those in need a hand up if those in need are not holding themselves back with self-defeating habits such as dropping out of school, accepting criminal behavior, and not looking for a job. Look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There was an outpouring of help with people offering money, jobs, and even going down there to help rebuild. Today's civil-rights movement has to capture that spirit and put it in service to helping the poor out of poverty.