Juan Williams on African-American 'Victimhood' Many African-American leaders have lost touch with a hallmark of the civil rights movement — the tradition of self-empowerment, Juan Williams says. Instead, he says, they've embraced "victimhood."

Juan Williams on African-American 'Victimhood'

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This week on MORNING EDITION, we're sampling the debate over African-American leadership. A new generation of black leaders is gradually coming to prominence. At the same time, some black writers have been questioning the direction those leaders should take.

One of those writers is NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. He has written a book called Enough. It attacks what he calls phony leaders, who to him sound different than the voices of the civil rights era.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

These voices have always held up notions of empowerment, of taking pride, you know, black manhood, an ability to help ones self and to face tremendous odds and overcome those odds. Instead, we have a generation of leadership that somehow delights in victimhood. And I think, in fact, it's a turnoff for people who might want to contribute, to offer a helping hand. Instead what they see are conspiracy theories.

I think it's a terrible signal to our young people about who black people are, to have us constantly wrapped in this cloak of victimhood and to have black leadership that in a knee-jerk fashion defends negative, dysfunctional behavior.

When you see black leadership that says, oh gosh, why is there a lesser penalty for powdered cocaine than for crack cocaine instead of saying don't do cocaine, certainly don't smoke crack. This stuff is highly - it will kill you and devastate your family and community. Why is that message not coming through loud and clear from black leadership in this time, when that's a critical issue?

INSKEEP: What did the civil rights generation do wrong?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's not that the civil rights generation did anything wrong. They did so much right, and they had such tremendous success and they spoke to the conscience of a nation. And I think there was a genuine appeal to the sense of uplift and that we can take action.

You have a vital, energetic, young movement that involves people literally putting themselves at risk, marching in the streets, defying the bitter segregationists, sometimes violent segregationists - the likes of Bull Connor. And so this is a vibrant, romantic even, movement.

But as that movement ages, and I think we've come to the point where it's an aged, graying revolution, as I would call it, and a lot of these people have just simply held onto power. And so they have, in essence, delayed the maturation of this younger generation of black leadership.

INSKEEP: When you talk about holding on to power, are you saying that a lot of black office-holders have focused more on the political benefits to them of being in power and less on changing the country?

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. But it's...

INSKEEP: I mean, is the word corrupt too strong a term to use here?

WILLIAMS: No. The word corrupt, for some people, not all, the focus, the spotlight turns on some. And so you get people like a Sharpe James in Newark, or you get a Marion Barry in Washington.

INSKEEP: Two long-time mayors who were criticized...

WILLIAMS: Two long-time mayors who had many people in their cabinet, in their government, go to jail for corrupt activity.

INSKEEP: You in this book write quite a lot about the Reverend Al Sharpton, who, as many people know, started his career as a very controversial civil rights activist. The standard story is that over time he cleaned up his act somewhat. He became a much more respected and accepted figure and even ran for president in 2004.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): It is true that Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, after which there was a commitment to give 40 acres and a mule. We never got the 40 acres. We didn't get the mule. So we decided we'd ride this donkey as far as it would take us.

INSKEEP: That's the standard story, but you write, nope, still a fraud.

WILLIAMS: We have a tradition of great leadership in the black community. But when you start to talk about people like Sharpton, I think that they see an opportunity to simply, you know, kind of like a pale reflection of that past leadership, and for the most part, it's about personal ambition.

INSKEEP: If Sharpton, as your book alleges, takes money from some company to go to homeless shelters, hire homeless people to go out and demonstrate and do this bogus demonstration, does that really make him any different from other politicians in America right now?

WILLIAMS: No, but that's my point, Steve. You know, when we talk about the civil rights movement, when we talk about black leadership over the history of the country, we're talking about people who aren't simply playing politics but are speaking to the American essence, these - the tradition of what I would call idealism, of uplift and empowerment and how people achieve social change.

How you can make a difference for someone in this country and for yourself in your community. And instead, if they're behaving just like other politicians, if it just becomes a matter of ward politics and patronage, then you have basically lowered yourself.

Bill Cosby, in his famous speech on the 50th anniversary of Brown, speaks about there being now people who are making money off of mismanaging you. He's speaking to black people in the country, saying, you know, there are these mayors and others involved with getting funding from government agencies or money from foundations and the like, people who can even get elected on the basis of saying to people, stay in your plight, don't find a way out, I'm not going to stand up and say that we need better schools and make schools that work; instead, I'm going to make it out to be that, you know, genuine blackness is being downtrodden and having this victimized mindset.

INSKEEP: One more thing, Juan Williams, before I let you go. Can you name one African-American leader today who you think is getting it right?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I think there are lots. And it's very interesting, because the concept of black leader, of course, is itself in transition. In the political mode I think Barack Obama is just a glowing example of someone who's getting it right and trying to build bridges, offer positive messages that bring people together and say we can address issues like poverty. It's not beyond our ability to help the poor in this country.

But you know, when you think about it, you don't stop and say, hey Colin Powell is a black leader, but he's black and he's a leader and widely admired across racial lines in the country. You don't stop and say Dick Parsons, you know, the head of the biggest communications company in America, Time Warner, is an African-American. You don't say, oh, yeah, yeah, that's a black man, that's a black leader. Instead, we tend to think of it in terms of people who are specifically involved in civil rights.

And I think that's an anachronistic model at this point, and that's why you get sort of these aging, graying people perpetrating this notion of we have so many victims, we have so many problems, and defending dysfunctional behavior rather than singling out positive examples of progress and how people can help themselves and grow and create children who go on to do even greater things.

INSKEEP: Juan Williams is the author of a book that has a title that seems designed to be shouted out. Enough! Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Enough at npr.org.


We just heard Juan critique a long-time mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Our conversations on black leadership continue tomorrow with the mayor who just replaced him, Cory Booker.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Newark, New Jersey): I represent the next generation, in many ways, of black leadership that owes everything that we are to the generation of black political and social leadership before us. We owe it to the ones who came before us to change the culture, to adapt, to evolve, to reexamine.

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