When Juan Williams set out to write his new book, “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America,” he had no idea what he was getting into. Williams’ scathing critique of African American leadership in the post-civil rights movement era, as well as his emphasis on what he calls the “culture of failure” within the black community, catapulted him into the realm of controversy.
No sooner had the book hit the shelves than Williams was met with a hailstorm of criticism. In calling into question the overreliance on “victimhood” by today’s African American leaders and instead promoting personal responsibility, education, achievement and the traditional family structure, Williams was treading dangerous waters. For it has become almost an article of faith among mainstream black Americans that racism is solely to blame for the problems afflicting the black community. To say otherwise is simply taboo.
It didn’t take long for Williams to find himself on the receiving end of the usual barrage of epithets applied to black figures who stray from the party line. During interviews to discuss his book, Williams described receiving a torrent of angry e-mails calling him an “Uncle Tom,” “Oreo” (as in black on the outside, white on the inside) and worse. In other words, Williams was accused of not being a “real” black man. Were such accusations to come from outside the black community they would certainly be considered racist. But for some reason, the assumption that all blacks must think alike has become accepted by the African American establishment.
Conservatives, on the other hand, both black and otherwise, embraced Williams as one of their own. Having long espoused many of the same ideas, conservatives found in Williams’ book both a pleasant surprise and a confirmation of their own political philosophies. All of a sudden, Williams was making the rounds on conservative talk-radio shows and book sales were growing.
But Williams is certainly no conservative. He’s a registered Democrat and a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior correspondent for National Public Radio, neither of which are known for being particularly right-wing. In addition, Williams is one of the liberal-to-moderate contributors in the Fox News stable of political analysts. But on this particular issue, he seems to have bridged the political divide. While black conservatives had been saying largely the same thing for many years, it took someone of Williams’ mainstream stature to bring it to the fore.
Even before his new book came out, many of Williams’ columns on black America struck a noticeably moderate tone. And he is not alone in that regard. Democratic Senator Barack Obama entered into such territory with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama emphasized personal responsibility in “inner city neighborhood[s]” (a euphemism for urban black communities) when he said that the “government alone can’t teach our kids” and that it was up to parents to “turn off the television sets.” He also alluded to Williams’ “culture of failure” concept by urging the community to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Obama was subtle enough in his wording to avoid censure from the black establishment, but the message got through loud and clear.
Bill Cosby Pulls No Punches
Williams’ inspiration for the book, actor Bill Cosby, is hardly known as a conservative, either. Beginning with his 2004 no-holds-barred speech at the NAACP celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Cosby has been making headlines with his blunt calls for change within the black community. As he often points out, schools, social workers and well-meaning government programs can only do so much. It is at heart the family that makes or breaks a child’s future. Cosby has also been highly critical of so-called “gangsta culture” and its pernicious influence on young black men and women. When the lowest common denominator is glorified, it’s hard to imagine that any good can come of it.
While Cosby’s efforts have been met with the usual opposition from African American critics, his cantankerous presence has become a regular fixture in black communities across the country. His speaking tours continue to bring in packed houses, whether or not audiences agree with his views.
According to Williams, poll results show that there is indeed support among African Americans for new approaches to the problems in their communities. But it is the entrenched leadership and the political firmament that continue to hold back the debate.
The Media and ‘Victimhood’
The mainstream media’s constant emphasis on the sort of victimhood model Williams speaks of in his book doesn’t help. Indeed, the one-year anniversary of the New Orleans/Katrina tragedy allowed the chattering classes to once again dredge up the race card instead of examining the part that overdependence on government and poor leadership played. Williams tackled the subject himself with a recent column, “Getting Past Katrina.” One can only hope.
Making matters worse, the mainstream media seems to do its best to highlight the activities of a select group of black figures, while largely ignoring the contributions of a growing number of black voices emanating from the right side of the political spectrum.
To read a newspaper or watch TV these days, one would think that all of black America was represented by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. Meanwhile, the true intellectual giants of the black community are rarely heard from. Such great minds as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Star Parker, Niger Innis, La Shawn Barber and John McWhorter largely languish on the sidelines of public attention, while conservative black activists such as the Rev. Jessie Lee Patterson and Ted Hayes suffer the same fate. It is only on the Internet that conservative black journalists, bloggers and organizations seem to be flourishing.
But with mainstream black figures such as Juan Williams and Bill Cosby basically echoing the same solutions to the challenges facing the black community, perhaps that will begin to change. Indeed, Cosby and Williams may very well represent the coming moderate consensus. Neither is an ideologue: They would simply like to see the African American community return to its roots in excellence, achievement, family and faith.
As someone with a long history of involvement with the black community, including interracial relationships, I have put forward similar ideas myself. As the lone white person in an all-black setting on many an occasion, I witnessed great joy, vibrancy, love, faith and accomplishment. But unfortunately these attributes were tempered at times by a cycle of self-destructive behavior affecting entire generations of families.
Some may try to downplay the importance of fatherhood and marriage in our society, but their lack is literally destroying the future prospects of too many African American children. In some sectors of the black community, marriage has become all but superfluous and fathers no longer play a part in their children’s lives. Boys in particular suffer from having no positive male role models, while the girls eventually carry on the cycle by having children out of wedlock at a young age. What results is the complete and utter breakdown of the family.
As Williams has pointed out, the illegitimacy rate in the black community, at over 65 percent, is the highest of any racial group in the country. This is the elephant in the room and, in my view, the single greatest obstacle to be overcome.
But ultimately change must come from within. That’s why it is my hope that the words of Juan Williams, Bill Cosby and all those who have bravely broken with the pack in order to lift up not only black Americans, but all Americans, will spark such a movement.
As Sam Cooke once sang, “It’s been a long time coming. But I know a change is gonna come.”