Williams urges blacks to rely on themselves

September 02, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Hurricane Katrina is back.

Well, the talk about Hurricane Katrina is back. Americans observed the one-year anniversary of the disaster this week. Once again, there was talk about poor black folks in New Orleans. But mercifully, a new voice has been added to the discussion this year.

Enter Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and a political analyst for Fox News. Williams is also an author whose works include Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 and Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. But it's Williams' latest book that's creating quite a buzz.

Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It is Williams' diatribe against black "leaders" of the Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton model, which is to say the self-serving, race-hustling type. Williams also takes to task reparations advocates, black criminals and rappers who are responsible for the most viciously stereotypical images of black people to have ever come down the pike.

Williams also devoted an entire chapter to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. He dispelled the notion that the response of the Bush administration - or the lack of one - was based on race. Once that was done, Williams quickly posed the question of why poor black folks in New Orleans were still poor 40 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty.

"Overall, about 35 percent of the city's black population lives in poverty," Williams writes of New Orleans. In another passage, he notes that "one-third of black people in the city never finished high school."

Williams was kind enough to give me a telephone interview yesterday. I asked him about those two figures, which matched almost exactly. Is there a link between the number of poor black people in New Orleans and the number of blacks who don't finish high school in the city?

"Oh, yes," Williams responded. "And there's a connection between people who don't finish high school and the prison rate. I don't remember what the exact figures are."

Williams seemed genuinely surprised - and not in a good way - when I told him about how Baltimore's leaders are crowing about our town's stellar 60 percent graduation rate, which would put us some 7 percentage points below New Orleans, one of the poorest cities in the poorest region of the country.

"Yes, they are," I told Williams. "They're proud of it. They're strutting around like peacocks with their chests poked out from here to Havre de Grace."

Once we got done discussing what passes for leadership in Baltimore, Williams and I got back to the topic at hand: Why had he included a chapter on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans blacks in Enough?

"It seemed to me to be a moment in contemporary American life where people could deal with serious issues of poverty," Williams answered. "And to describe how we missed an opportunity to deal with poverty."

Williams gave the details on how we missed that opportunity in the book. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Williams said, "never got around to [talking about] steps the poor could take to help themselves." The one man who was talking about it, and the one Williams praises throughout Enough, is Bill Cosby. Williams still remembers the controversial remarks Cosby made two years ago in Washington on the 50th anniversary remembrance of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

"What [Cosby] did was he used [Brown] as a marker in time," Williams said. "What I remember most about his speech was his question `What the hell good is Brown if nobody wants it?' That really resonated with me."

It may have been Williams' Afro-Antillean roots that were resonating. His father was Jamaican and his mother from either Grenada or Barbados. (Williams said he doesn't remember which, but it's worth noting that both of those islands in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean are known for having people who cherish education. The literacy rate in Barbados is said to be 98 percent. Higher than Baltimore's, you can bet.)

Both of Williams' grandfathers went to Panama and helped build the Panama Canal. Blacks from Caribbean islands who settled in Panama are called Afro-Antilleans. Another black American with Afro-Antillean ancestors, Kenneth Clark, figured prominently in the Brown case. Clark was the psychologist whose study of how black children preferred white dolls over black ones provided the basis for Supreme Court justices ruling that segregated schools fostered inferiority.

Over 50 years ago, a black American with Afro-Antillean ancestors helped get us out of a mess primarily of the government's doing. Today, another seeks to help poor black folks get out of a mess by urging them to rely primarily on their own initiatives, not the government's.


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