'Bill Cosby Was Right'
Inspired by the outspoken comedian, journalist Juan Williams offers a bold critique of black America. His message: There's a crisis in the community, and all of us—especially the church—have a role to play in healing the damage.
Interview by Edward Gilbreath, Online Exclusive with Juan Williams
Three years ago, comedian Bill Cosby set off a firestorm of criticism and debate with his speech about black America's failure to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. He addressed the sad state of African American literacy and the growing percentage of dropouts. He talked about the epidemic of out-of-wedlock births and the black community's lack of shame over it. He spoke of the senseless criminal behavior that puts too many black men in prison—or the grave: "People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake!" And he denounced the tendency among blacks to blame racism: "It is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us, and it keeps a person frozen in their seat."
Inspired by Cosby's controversial remarks, National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News commentator Juan Williams wrote a book that adds journalistic weight to the comedian's fiery wake-up call. Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It, just released in paperback, made Williams the target of the same critics who lambasted Cosby. But it has also kept people engaged in a much-needed conversation. Williams, who is also the author of This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience, spoke with Today's Christian editor Edward Gilbreath about Enough and why America should take Cosby's words to heart.
"Phony leaders." "Dead-end movements." "Culture of failure." I think it's safe to say you brought some strong opinions to this book. When did you know Enough was something you had to write?
I've been a reporter in Washington, D.C., for a long time, and lived through the Marion Barry years where you had a corrupt, drug-addicted mayor who played on his civil rights credentials to make himself a hero to people. He led a city government that lacked accountability and failed to deliver on its promises.
In the '80s I covered Jesse Jackson's two campaigns, where arguably it wasn't about winning the presidency but about raising issues that were of concern to people of color and the poor and forcing the mainstream political parties to pay attention to those who had been left behind by Reaganomics. In the years that followed, I looked back at the phenomenon of Jackson's presidential bid and his ensuing work and the question occurred to me, What has he accomplished? He was supposed to raise issues of justice for the poor and disadvantaged, but ultimately what his campaigns amounted to were an airplane for him to fly around in and jobs for his friends and political cronies. His campaigns seemed to have accomplished very little in terms of changing the condition of the disadvantaged.
Both Jackson and Barry led me to wonder, what had become of the civil rights movement and its struggle to achieve American ideals and Christian values in our nation? I just didn't see it. Instead, I saw a lot self-serving people who were posturing as advocates for the poor, but who really, it seemed to me, were enriching themselves.
So you were thinking about the book even before the famous Bill Cosby speech?
I was, but it hadn't formed in my mind how to do it. Then, in 2004, the NAACP invited Cosby to speak in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The expectation was that he would give the standard "nice" speech, but instead he goes off and says these really wild things that, in the minds of some, took poor blacks to task for not taking ownership of their problems. I had been looking for a structure for the book, and because of Cosby's celebrity and the symbolism of him giving that speech, on that date, before that audience, the pieces all came together in that moment.
Of course, the deeper effect of Cosby's speech wasn't felt until critics from within the African American community began bashing him over it.
That's right. In the days following the speech, the critics launched an aggressive attack on Cosby, including the idea that he was an entertainer who didn't understand the power of systemic racism, that he was a self-hating black man, and that he was someone who was giving ammunition to the right wing.
As I heard all this, I thought to myself, What did the man say? I went back, read the speech, and decided that, while Cosby does speak in vivid, wild language, there's a lot of truth to what he's saying. There was a reason the people in the audience were applauding, giving amens, and standing ovations. Contrary to the response that came from critics later on, that audience knew this was a conversation people have long been having within the black community, and one that needed to be taken further.
Why do you think Cosby was attacked for saying something many blacks already believed to be true?
As an observer of politics, I've seen the way issues of poverty are dealt with today—everything from Reagan welfare reform of the '80s, to Clinton welfare reform of the '90s, and then coming forward to the present and events like Hurricane Katrina. I've discovered that there is a poverty industry. People keep pouring money in, and there are certain people who stand up and proclaim themselves to be the representatives and advocates of the poor. But they never seem to truly help people get out of poverty. There's a poverty spirit that takes hold.
In the book, I call it a "culture of failure," where people get caught up in dysfunctional behavior. They blame racism and other external forces. They make excuses, and then point fingers at everybody but themselves when things go obviously wrong. That's why the title of the book is Enough. I'm saying, "Come on, give me a break here!" It's time to stop making excuses and, like Cosby suggested, take responsibility.
Seeing how Cosby was treated, you had to know you would be opening yourself to those same types of personal assaults. And they certainly came. Did you ever have any trepidation about going there?
I gave very little thought to that. My main concern was about making a substantive and convincing case for the points that Cosby brought out in his speech. I thought if I avoided Cosby's explosive language and simply laid out the facts, then I could make it possible for people to engage the issues in a constructive discussion. I now know I was fooling myself. The critics will launch their personal attacks regardless of how balanced you try to be.
Al Sharpton called me a black Ann Coulter with pants. Jesse Jackson implied I was a bad journalist. Others accused me of excusing racism and blaming poor people for their problems. But I'm simply trying to hold today's civil rights leaders accountable for what's happening in black America.
Because of your roles with NPR and Fox News, conservatives have pegged you as someone who leans to the left on the political spectrum. But after the release of Enough, many conservatives embraced you.
One of the biggest surprises for me was how conservative talk radio hosts picked up on the message and began to tell their listeners that this is an important book.
I think part of the sexiness of the book for conservatives is that it's coming from this black guy that they used to regard as being "part of the problem," and now you're coming out with a message similar to what they've been trying to say for years, except you can say it more boldly because you're black. I listened to one interview that you did with a white host, and at moments it sounded like he was using you to affirm other views he had about reverse discrimination, black underachievement, and the evils of affirmative action. Since the book's release, have you felt as though some white conservatives were trying to exploit you as a black man who now "sees the light"?
I certainly have to consider that. But I think what's really happening is that these conservative talk show hosts didn't feel they could speak loudly on this issue because they were vulnerable to the rhetoric that, as white men who don't have any idea what it's like to struggle as a black person in this country, they couldn't criticize the African American community without seeming to unfairly demonize and attack black people and poor people. They've had some black voices like Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and Shelby Steele who have long been ideologically identified as "black conservatives." But now, here I come and I'm identified in their world as much more liberal. That definitely gets people's attention.
To be honest, I don't think anyone who knows me personally would say, "Oh yeah, Juan is the quintessential liberal." If you've seen me on Fox News, where I'm often surrounded by Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, and Britt Hume, I am certainly more left wing than they are. But the reason I look left wing is because they are so far right! [Laughs.] It's like if I walk into a room of short people. I'm not really that tall, but in comparison I'll probably appear that way.
Does all the talk about liberal and conservative politics bother you?
I didn't write this book to please conservatives or to please liberals. I wrote the book because I think what's happening in the African American community is an important sociological phenomenon. And if you care anything at all about poor people getting left behind in this very competitive economy, where there is a larger and larger divide between rich and poor, then it's critical that we address these issues in a new way. I welcome white voices, Hispanic voices, Republican voices, Democratic voices, Independent voices. I want everybody in on this conversation. As Americans, I don't think we should allow the conversation about race and poverty to be limited by reporters who only call Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton when these issues are covered.
You write about how black America has a rich tradition of empowerment in grassroots leadership, scholarship, and in the arts. Over time, you would think those rich traditions would have been passed down and multiplied. How did the African American community end up passing down more dysfunction than empowerment?
Well, to say we've passed down more dysfunction than empowerment is a generalization. Today, black America is more educated than in any previous era, and we have the largest black middle class ever.
Then is it just the media that hypes the dysfunction over the progress?
No. In fact, I think there's a very real crisis. When you look at the family breakdown, the dropout rate, and the fact that 25 percent of African Americans still live below the poverty line, it's hard not to acknowledge the magnitude of the situation.
When I was in Philadelphia last year the front page of the newspaper listed a running body count, because they have such a high homicide rate. In every major city in America, stray bullets from drive-by shootings are killing young children. So it isn't just hype.
The civil rights movement was once rooted in the pulpit and in the church. It spoke across racial lines with the idea of "let's all stand together in Christian service to do what is right."
But part of the reason things have changed in black America is that the civil rights movement left behind what it did best. I think what originally empowered the movement was its appeal to conscience and the best of the Judeo-Christian ethic. So you saw preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy saying, "If you are a Christian, how can you not see us as children of God, also? How can you not see the Spirit of God within us?"
And that was such a challenge to the white segregationists. It cut through to the heart, and I think that is why so much of the civil rights movement is rooted in the pulpit and in the church. It spoke across racial lines with the idea of "let's all stand together in Christian service to do what is right." That message that called us to reach within ourselves and fulfill God's intent for the world is such inspiring stuff. But all of that shifted in the early '70s when the movement was transformed into primarily a political force. Then it became about certain black leaders getting their "cut of the pie." That was such a different message than "We shall overcome" and "We will stand together because God is on our side."
So how do we end this "culture of failure" that has settled over our communities?
To start, we've got to deal immediately and urgently with the 25 percent of the black population that lives in poverty. Poverty is self-perpetuating, so we must find ways to prevent the cycle from taking hold of generation after generation. There are people who don't have the will to take advantage of opportunity or can't find a way to get a grip on that first rung on the ladder of upward mobility. So how do we change this?
In the book, I talk about a government study that concluded if you graduate high school, don't have a child out of wedlock, don't marry until you are employed, and enter and stay in the work force—no matter how small the job—you have an excellent chance of living above the poverty line. I think that's the message we have to convey to young people. You can make it in this country. At the very basic level, you just need to do things that will put you in a position to win. Graduate from high school, and if possible go to college. Stay in the job market. Don't have children before you're ready to care for them. And understand the value of marriage—both in terms of family life and in terms of building wealth and securing a stable standard of living. We need to tell people these basic steps and start talking about how shameful it is to get involved with crime—reintroduce the stigma. Like Cosby said, "They may be building all these jails, but you don't have to go to them."
You mention the church and religion as being a part of the solution as well. Specifically, how do you see churches and people of faith playing a role?
Let's start with Hurricane Katrina. There are still volunteers from every church, every denomination, going down to that Gulf Coast area to help people. Last year, when I was down there, it looked like it was the official vacation spot for many Christian groups. People are going down there to make a difference. In my church, in Washington, we adopted a family of five and made housing available to them on the church property. We gave them the basic necessities, helped them in terms of contacts and getting jobs and all that. And we're continuing to help them now that they've found their own place. This kind of service has been true of churches and religious institutions all across the nation.
The suicide rate and the level of people being emotionally disturbed and upset often spike as a result of natural disasters like Katrina. It's the church that can speak to those different needs and help people cope.
Churches also have a role to play in connecting people across class lines. For example, people who have moved out to the suburbs and who perhaps only come back into their old neighborhoods on Sunday mornings to go to church … Those church members are potential role models and contacts for people who are trapped in those old neighborhoods and need to get out. The notion of a community of faith that can provide a structure of caring and support is a powerful force for helping people. I know, in my own life, I've found this to be true.