Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
Self-Proclaimed Black Leaders Are Refusing to Confront the Community's "Culture of Failure," Charges Author Juan Williams
Fifty years after the leaders of the civil rights movement raised the bar of opportunity for all races, too many black Americans are in crisis-having babies out of wedlock, dropping out of school and caught in a denigrating hip-hop culture.
In 2006, just after the January holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an animated Dr. King came to life on the Cartoon Network's new show "The Boondocks." Animator Aaron McGruder had created an older version of King who stood at the pulpit of a black church, looking out at gangster rappers in a fistfight, high school drop-outs calling each other "the N-word," and unmarried black teenage mothers dressed like prostitutes. "Is this it? It this what I got all those ass-whippings for? I had a dream once," he said, referring to the sacrifices he made during the civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s. King's face twisted with disappointment. His voice dripped with disdain for what had become of his dream.
The words in this cartoon were rooted in a speech that actor and comedian Bill Cosby had given in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. "Ladies and gentlemen, these people-they opened doors, they gave us the rights," he said, praising the lawyers and educators present.
But today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities we have a 50 percent drop out rate (rates among young black men) in our neighborhoods. We have (the highest percentage of any American racial group with) men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because (she is) pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father . . . . Ladies and gentlemen, the lower and lower-middle class people are not holding up their end in this deal.
The problem weighing down black America 50 years after Brown had nothing to do with white people or the racism that clamped chains on slaves. "We can't blame white people," he said. Then he added, "Brown v. Board is no longer the white person's problem." He noted that:
. . . according to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2004, 69.2 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers. That contrasts with 24.5 percent for white children and approximately 45 percent for Hispanic children.
He proclaimed, "Thank God that people who spent their lives breaking down segregation so that black people could have a chance for success don't know what is going on today."
In an important new book, Enough (Subtitled: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America-and What We Can Do About It), Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio, a political analyst for the Fox News Channel, and author of, among other books, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, inspired by Bill Cosby's speech, makes the case that while there is still racism, it is past time for black Americans to open their eyes to the "culture of failure" that exists within their community. He points to proud traditional black values-self-help, strong families, and belief in God-that sustained black people through generations of oppression, and takes aim at prominent black leaders-from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson to Marion Barry.
The negative behavior Cosby was railing against, writes Williams,
. . . was behavior that the NAACP, the black church, the Jesse Jackson activists, and the black intellectuals had long ago decided not to address. Not one civil rights group took up Cosby's call for marches and protests against drug dealers, pregnant teens, deadbeat dads, and hate-filled rap music that celebrates violence.
In March 2006, The New York Times reported on its front page that
. . . a huge pool of poorly educated black men is becoming ever more disconnected from mainstream society and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men.
Williams laments that:
Since the days of Dr. King, no prominent black American had dared to stand apart from the civil rights groupthink and ask, "Where do we go from here?" (this was the title of King's last book). That self-imposed censorship shows in the stagnant pool of ideas from which we black people draw when looking for solutions. It shows in the tired arguments rehearsed from the same predictable ideological positions . . . . Hard-won victories seem in danger for being squandered.
Those who proclaim themselves leaders in the black community, in Williams' view, refuse to articulate established truths about what it takes to get ahead: strong families, education and hard work. He declares:
Every American has reason to ask about the seeming absence of strong black leadership. Where is strong black leadership to speak hard truth to those looking for direction. . . . Who will tell you that if you want to get a job you have to stay in school and spend more money on education than on disposable consumer goods? Where are the black leaders who are willing to stand tall and say that any black man who wants to be a success has to speak proper English? . . . The Jesse Jacksons and Julian Bonds, people who made a name for themselves in the 1960s . . . are still fighting the battles of the 1960s. Then there are the latecomers, such as Al Sharpton, whose contribution is to mimic the aging leaders. Neither the old timers nor their pale imitators recognize that national politics has changed and black people have changed.
Historically, Williams points out,
A streak of self-determination rises at every turn in the history of black American leadership. But since the stunning success of the modern civil-rights movement . . . the strong focus on self-determination has faded, at the moment when its impact could have been the most powerful. In its place is a tired rant by civil rights leaders about the power of white people-what white people have done wrong, what white people didn't do, and what white people should do. This rant puts black people in the role of hapless victims waiting for only one thing-white guilt to bail them out. The roots of this blacks-as-beggars approach from black leaders are planted in an old debate that is now too often distorted.
The most prominent voice for black liberation before the Civil War, Williams points out, belonged to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who secretly taught himself to read, then became a skilled worker in Baltimore's shipyards before escaping to freedom in the North:
It was Douglass who first called on black people to do for themselves when he wrote an editorial titled "Learn Trades or Starve." By the end of the 19th century, as the government's many promises to help former slaves turned out to be mostly empty words, a new black leader emerged. Booker T. Washington picked up on Douglass' legacy by proposing defiant black self-determination as the best strategy for black advancement. . . . The basis of Washington's strategy at Tuskegee had direct links to Douglass' theory of black self-reliance. His idea was that black people should capitalize on the skills and knowledge they had gained as slaves. People who had worked the land for others now had the chance to own that land and take the profits of their work for themselves.
Some Black leaders, Williams believes, misunderstood the later disagreement between W. E. B. Du Bois, who called for a "talented tenth" of black Americans to pursue higher education and the professions rather than the skilled labor advanced by Washington. He writes,
It is Du Bois' respectful criticism of Washington that misled some black leaders to this day to lose sight of the mainstream of agreement in the foundational black leadership tradition. That devotion of self-determination was established by Douglass, Washington, and Du Bois. . . . Du Bois in later writing about Washington, gave him credit by accurately describing him as "the greatest Negro leader since Frederick Douglass and the most distinguished man, white or black, who has come out of the South since the Civil War.
The largest political movements of black people, before the Brown decision sparked the civil rights movement of the1950s and 1960s, Williams declares,
. . . had self-determination as their hallmarks. Marcus Garvey's Negro Improvement Association, with its call for black economic power, worship of a black God, and even a return to Africa to be free of oppression, was an effort to move away from white domination and allow black people to take control of their lives. The Niagara Movement, which led to the creation of the NAACP, focused on strategies for defeating white political control of black people so that blacks could be free to determine their own future. . . . The Brown decision itself is an example of black American leadership focused on self-determination, in this case the right to get an equal share of tax dollars to educate their children. . . . The Montgomery Bus Boycott, featuring Rosa Parks' famous refusal to move to the back of the bus, is another example of black people organizing for self-determination. . . . It was a classic case of self-determination and it ended with a Supreme Court victory over racial discrimination in local public transit that increased the rights of all black Americans. Black pride in taking control of their own fate was defiant rejection of the image of blacks as victims, ignorant and lazy. It was driven by a raw faith in the power of black people to compete and thrive in a democratic, capitalist nation if given the chance to be equals.
The areas where men such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois agreed are crucial to black Americans today:
They both stood, in the end, for black self-help and dignity-and ultimately for full citizenship rights. . . . Black leaders of all ideological stripes agree that the key to racial progress was black people helping themselves. King, for example, said he wanted above all else to get black people to shed the idea that they did not control their destiny, an idea he attributed to the power of racists to infect black people with self-defeating doubts about inferiority and create a psychological need to rely on whites for their well-being.
Rather than confronting the genuine problems facing the black community today, Williams charges, such self-appointed leaders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have seen fit to help themselves:
So far, the "blood of martyrs" strategy has had tragic results for the progress of poor black people, but it has worked magnificently for a few national black politicians. Prominent leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom has ever won an election or held political office, have-through the force of their personalities and rhetoric, and the limitations of their ideas and strategies-slowed the emergence of any new model of national black leadership. Jackson did enrich his family. He got the country's top beer company, Budweiser, which he had boycotted in the 1980s with the slogan "Bud's a Dud," to sell a multimillion dollar beer distribution center to two of his sons. . . . Sharpton did take the Jackson model of black politics to a new low, however. . . . Sharpton took money from a company called LoanMax, in exchange for appearing in ads designed to lure poor black people into their financial web. . . . Sharpton took money from one white-owned company that wanted to force another white-owned firm, a cable television company called Charter Communications, to carry their programming. Having failed to negotiate a deal with Charter, the Detroit firm Adell Broadcasting Corp. hired Sharpton to stage a phony civil rights protest march in front of Charter Communications' offices. Sharpton got out of a limousine in March 2002 . . . to lead three busloads of protest marchers in chants of "No Justice, No Peace. . . . One of the protest organizers working with Sharpton said he got people to join the protest by pulling them out of homeless shelters, giving them a meal and $50. He told the Wall Street Journal that "I like to refer to it as a "rent a demonstration." His usual fee . . . was at least $10,000.
One of the current crusades launched by some civil rights groups, calling for "reparations" for slavery, is, Williams states, "a divisive, dead-end idea." It is particularly erroneous, he points out, to attach:
. . . the impact of slavery to the years beyond 1954 and the Brown decision. In the half-century since Brown, the levels of black education, income, and political power have all grown, evidence that most black people are taking advantage of newly opened doors. Today, half of all black families are middle-class, earning at least twice as much as the poverty line. Only one percent of African-American families made that claim in 1940. . . . To make the argument that slavery is responsible for today's social and economic problems facing poor black people is to take away all of their personal will, diminish their independence, and dismiss their intellect. And how can he (Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks) explain the fact that at the start of the 20th century black people had higher marriage rates than whites? In 1940 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks was 19 percent. Today it is close to 70 percent. If slavery is the cause of today's social problems in the black community, why did black people in closer historical proximity to it do better than today's black community with regard to keeping families together?
When it comes to crime, Williams reports, black people make up 13 per cent of the nation's population, but in 2003 the nation's prison population was 44 percent black, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One of every ten black men between the ages of 25 and 29 is in prison. In fact, more black men were in jail or prison than in college. Where, he asks, is the black leadership?
Instead of speaking out against gangs, drug-dealers, and pimps-and the clothes and hip-hop music that celebrated these outlaws as black heroes-left-wing intellectuals preached against the sins of the white racist American establishment. . . . Never a word was spoken about the need for black Americans to take up their own war on drugs and on crime as a matter of personal responsibility. . . . By 2004 federal data showed that black Americans-13 percent of the population-accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent of murders. Most of the victims of these violent criminals were their fellow black people.
It was because of all these negative trends that Bill Cosby felt the need to apologize to the early civil rights leaders. Williams notes that:
A generation dropping out of school and celebrating the gangster life is a shocking turn of events, a repudiation of hundreds of years of civil rights struggle. It is a rejection of the gift of opportunity. It is a collective act of contempt for the true black American identity-a strong, creative, loving people with deep faith in God, seeking a better life for the next generation.
Black success in the future, Williams writes, depends upon young people finishing high school and college, taking a job and holding it, marrying after finishing school and while holding a job. And the final step is to have children only after you are 21 and married.
In 2005, the Institute for American Values issued a study showing that over the last 50 years, basically the period after the Brown decision, "the percentage of black families headed by married couples declined from 78 percent to 34 percent." In the 30 years from 1950 to 1980, households headed by black women who never married jumped from 3.8 per thousand to 69.7 per thousand. In 1940, 75 percent of black children lived with both parents. By 1990 only 33 percent of black children lived with a mom and dad.
Despite this reality, Williams charges,
There is no trusted source with a pulpit or a microphone telling people in need about the path to a better life. There is no one calling this situation a crisis. . . . The nation's leading civil rights groups are missing in action.
This book is a cry for a new generation of black leadership to fill the vacuum left by those who have rejected the tradition of pride and self-determination. Juan Williams has performed a notable service with this volume, which deserves as wide an audience as possible. *
"People unfit for freedom-who cannot do much with it-are hungry for power." -Eric Hoffer