Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Looking Beyond Race

BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race, issues of society, or both? Are these different? Is there a distinction? Is there such thing as a race-transcending leader?

CANADA: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I told you I started my career working with poor white students and it’s probably one of the things that was the most eye-opening for me because I saw those kids as very similar to the kids I grew up with in many ways except for their skin color and after a while, they actually, because this was in Boston in 1974 and 1975 when Boston was going through busing and these kids were the shock troops for the busing. These were kids who had been brought up to be violent and racist. That’s how they were raised, so they get me walking into their classroom as a teacher and I tell everybody it’s the teacher’s equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I walk in there. Those kids are looking at me. I’m like, what’s going on here. I have no idea sort of what this deal is, so what it said to me was that part of the problem in America is the issue of our children. We have categorized as being about black children and it’s not about black children. It’s about all children but people think it’s black children so they think it’s my children so whenever I go out and try and talk about saving children, they hear me saying I want to save black children which means Geoff’s children, not American children which means our children and I think that that has been a real challenge. Now, I used to take some comfort in the fact that people would recognize that black children had a particular set of issues and circumstances which we needed to deal with.

You can’t be in our work and not look at the plight of African American men and say it is different than any other men in this country and we need to focus on that, but as a leader, I think part of my challenge has been to get Americans to understand that we are saving American children who happen to be black and I wouldn’t care if children were in Appalachia or in Mississippi or in Seattle. If they’re poor and if the deck is stacked against them, I think as Americans we need to change that and we shouldn’t be worried if they’re Native American children or if they’re poor white children or they’re poor black children, that our job in this business is to really get Americans to think about their children.

By the way, here’s how complicated this thing is in America. Our new president is considered a black man, right? He’s going to be the first black president. So, this is what I wonder. So black people are very proud of him, right, because like, yes, we’ve got a black president and he’s ours. But we all know his mother is white, right, so do white people claim that? I mean, do they feel like, "He’s ours, too," or have we so brainwashed America that people reject the fact that he’s half black and half white and only see him as black and therefore they don’t feel the same kind of pride in this smart, intelligent person and I don’t care what race he was. I think people would say, wow, isn’t he interesting, this guy’s really smart and together, but I think that’s part of the dilemma around leadership is that so much of it is colored by race that sometimes people miss the issue.

As an African American, do I want to save my children and they are African American? Yes. But if they were all fine, all my kids were fine, would I want to save Latino children, the answer would be yes and if all of them were fine, would I go to the next group, the answer would be yes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to save African American children if you’re African American, but if I just wanted to save them and I could say the hell with everybody else’s children, I think there’s something really wrong with that, so it’s complicated. I hope that we get one day in this country where we just save children and they’re equally at risk not based on race or ethnicity or religion which I think will make the issue easier. Now, you know, it’s not that there’re not — there’re more poor white children than poor black children but you would never know it in the way we think about children in this country.

BOND: There’s more poor white people in this country than there are black people, period.