I usually tune in to NPR for a few minutes on the way to work every day just to catch up on the party line before switching to the classical music station for the sake of my mental health. And there are few better listening posts in the latte belt than "The Diane Rehm Show."
Her guest this morning was Juan Williams. You may have heard and seen the gentleman before. He's on NPR and Fox News, too. He's the nice, usually soft-spoken person of color (specifically, café con leche) with the little moustache. On Fox, his role is to provide a little balance for right-wing blowhards. A very little.
It turns out that Juan Williams has just written a book (hasn't everybody who's a guest on "The Diane Rehm Show"?) about race in America. So I expected the usual nice, soft-spoken platitudes about how we need more government programs, less personal responsibility and a whole lot more white guilt. You know the drill.
Well, I was amazed. And so impressed I finished listening to the whole thing right there in the parking lot. The comprehensive title of Mr. Williams' book, it turns out, is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America and What We Can Do About It."
Goodness. What happened? Did Mr. Williams suddenly wake up, or has he felt like this all along but kept quiet about it? He sounded like Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams or most of the preachers I listen to when I can't get to sleep in the middle of the night (and learn a lot from). 'Cause he was preachin' that old-time religion in his own soft-spoken way.
Why, the man sounds just like . . . Bill Cosby!
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Mr. Williams talked about the ruination that has been visited on Black America by a culture of dependency. He talked about the ongoing destruction of the black family, the 25 percent of black Americans living in poverty, and the 70 percent of all black children born out of wedlock in this country. (The figures for white and Hispanic children aren't encouraging, either.)
He took aim at the barbaric yawp you can hear in so much of hip-hop and the vulgarity of popular entertainment in general. He wondered why the worst kind of rappers were celebrated in the black community while its corporate leaders and successful entrepreneurs don't have the following they should. He went on and refreshingly on. It made you want to stop the car, raise your hands, and sing and shout. 'Cause he was telling it like it tragically is.
To sum up Mr. Williams' message: "The house is on fire, the train is going off the tracks, and we have to do something now . . . ." If not sooner. Like a couple of decades ago. Juan Williams says he hopes his book "starts a major discussion in terms of race, education, our children, and where we're going in the 21st century."
So do a lot of us.
Juan Williams pointed out the devastation that the lack of a father's guidance has wreaked among so many young black males. Want to see the proof? Just visit any prison. Jail time has become almost a ritual of passage for neglected black males in this country.
Mr. Williams mentioned visiting colleges and noticing all the bright young black women on campus who were just going great guns. He wanted to know where all the bright young black men were. Good father and good citizen that he is, Juan Williams wondered where these young women were going to find husbands they could settle down with and raise a family. In short, he was concerned about the future about posterity.
It is a mark of the far-seeing, or maybe just those of a certain age, to be concerned about posterity. But even the word has acquired an out-of-date sound. In that respect, it would be progress to return to the 18th century, when posterity was much on the mind of the Founders. ("We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.")
I hope it won't do too much damage to Mr. Williams' standing at NPR if I dare to suggest that he sounded like . . . a conservative.
He certainly didn't have anything good to say about Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the whole legion of race hustlers and poverty pushers who have made a career and industry of grievance-collecting.
At one point he even dismissed the notion of reparations for slavery it's hard to believe that pie-in-the-sky proposal is still taken seriously as the distraction it too long has been among the country's black intelligentsia. Black America's best and brightest minds would be better engaged in thinking on how to build self-respect and self-reliance in the black community instead of demanding another government grant.
Juan Williams even had a good word for Booker T. Washington, a hero who long ago was declared persona non grata by our more with-it academics. They don't so much rebut his arguments as just hoot them down. Dr. Washington's central belief the necessity of economic independence for black folks is as relevant as ever, maybe more so, but he has become the forgotten man of black American history. Unlike pernicious influences like Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Louis Farrakhan . . . and the whole, never-ending train of pied pipers who just keep popping up, full of sound and fury signifying very little. In the end, the only form of emancipation that ever really takes is auto-emancipation.
As for Martin Luther King Jr., the basically spiritual appeal he made to white as well as black Americans has been consistently underrated, if not ignored, by secularist historians. It took someone like the University of Arkansas' David L. Chappell ("A Stone of Hope," University of North Carolina Press, 2004) to point out that Dr. King's religious rhetoric wasn't just window-dressing for a political cause but the essence of his thought and leadership. Even in his time, Dr. King was being derided as De Lawd by his young detractors in The Movement, who were so busy pushing Black Power they never understood the awesome might of soul power. They still don't.
I couldn't help wondering, listening to Juan Williams, how long it would be before he, too, would be getting the Booker T. Washington treatment. I bet he wasn't even off "The Diane Rehm Show" before those e-mails started arriving calling him an Uncle Tom, or maybe Capitalist Tool, or some other variation on that old catcall, Traitor to Your Race.
Bill Cosby caught a lot of that, too, when he dared talk about the need for personal responsibility. Mr. Cosby even speaks favorably about such fuddy-duddy virtues as good manners, decent language, respect for women and all those other Victorian arts in this anything-but-Victorian society. Voices like his and now Juan Williams' may be saying old things, but they fill some of us with new hope.