Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Black Underclass

BOND: As I said a moment ago, I think the larger public view of you is as a writer and a thinker – a public intellectual. A phrase we didn't have until you became one.

WILKINS: I think Noam Chomsky and others who got there first.

BOND: Yes, they were. But you see this amazing rise of black public intellectuals, the most celebrated of which of course is Henry Louis Gates. But there are many, many others – Cornel West and many, many others. And you've continued this role as a television commentator, as a writer, as an opinionist, if I can make up a word. And a couple of themes that we've seen throughout your writing I want to talk about. One is the relationship between this growing black middle class of affluent, educated, well-fixed people, not multi-millionaires, but just solid citizens – two-income families, two college-educated, graduate school perhaps – people making it for all intents and purposes. And the relationship between them and this underclass. This stubborn, persistent underclass which, despite best efforts of government and private sources, just won't go away. Talk about the relationship – what it ought to be, what it is, and what you've argued for.

WILKINS: Well, it certainly comes – my concern about the underclass comes from my parents and my experience as a welfare worker in Cleveland and then my work in the U.S. government. I think it's a continuation of the civil rights movement. I don't think the civil rights movement ever died. It never – didn't accomplish everything that it wanted to accomplish. And I don't think that just because you make some money and are lucky that you can sign a separate peace. The people in the worst precincts in this society – their ancestors came over in the same slave ships that my ancestors came on. The only difference is that I'm luckier. And if I go through my ancestry, I can look at the points at which – from my great-grandfather, who was born in slavery in Mississippi – in which the Wilkins family just, my strand, just lucked out. And all of a sudden, here I am on this earth no better than some of my cousins who were left back in Mississippi except that we were lucky and they were not. Well, I might have used that good luck just for me. I don't think so. I don't think that is the right thing to do. I think that you use your leverage that your good fortune gave you to help save other people. And my judgment is that there are a lot of white people that do not like the inner-city people at all and use them as reasons to cut back on social programs. If black people aren't seen to be really in there struggling on behalf of those people, you cannot expect to move the consciences of whites at all, ever. So then you'll have the creation of a permanent, untouchable caste in this society, and I think that's just hideous. I just think that's – I think it's sinful. And I do not think you can – and we're destroying children. We have let children's potential atrophy by inattention and by providing the worst in our society for them to grow up in. And I live here. This is my country and I can't just sit by as a fat, happy witness to it.

BOND: Here you are arguing that others like you in your circumstance ought to be engaged like you. This is a Progressive in 1988. And you write, "As successful blacks are increasingly integrated into mainstream America, their interests and energies come to resemble those of the dominant society." On the one hand, that's expectable. That's natural. As you do better, you are better educated, you are able to escape some of the vicissitudes of poverty and the harsh life that all that entails, then you do begin to consider yourself – and should – consider yourself part of the larger society, and your interests become that of the larger society. What's wrong with that? Let me be the devil's advocate. What's wrong with that? Isn't that the way America is supposed to work?

WILKINS: Well, there are two answers to that. I don't believe you have to wear a hair shirt. I drive a big, expensive European-made sedan, which I love driving. My wife and I own a beach house on the Delaware shore. It is not poor. I don't think I have to live a life of poverty. I enjoy middle-class American life, and I enjoy it very much. But I also think I must spend a part of my energy and effort in reaching into those places where my conscience tells me it is essential for me to be engaged if we're ever to expect the change that you and I were engaged in when we were young to continue to occur.

BOND: Let me be Shelby Steele and answer – go ahead.

WILKINS: Let me talk about the young people and what I really meant. We struggled to change Harvard, Michigan, all those places, so that the opportunities for younger black people would be greater. I'm delighted when I go to these places and see young black people. Then they come out and they go to law firms. And they get focused on making it in the law firm. And they do what their neighbors, their white contemporaries do, and they get themselves a mortgage. And then they get themselves a spouse. And then they get themselves a private school bill. And they don't have the advantage that we had when we were growing up – a weird advantage, but of segregation to make us conscious of racism, of the struggle – to make us conscious and want to be involved. And what I am trying to do in that piece is to provide a kind of a discussion, and generate – lead, if you will – a discussion that tries to substitute for the things that gave us the consciousness. Because my argument is the job isn't done. We are not close. And it will not get done if the best and the brightest of the black community, instead of forming SNCC, instead of going to the U.S. Government and doing civil rights, now gives all of their energies to create American corporations, AOL or to big financial –

BOND: But isn't that what we want, is people to work at AOL or General Motors?

WILKINS: Yes, we want them there, but we also want them giving money to the NAACP. We also want them clamoring to get on the board of the NAACP to get rid of that old fossil leadership, you know. And we want them to mentor kids. We want them to give money to start charter schools. We want them to be involved in church programs that are trying to help young, poor blacks learn about responsible sexuality. All of that stuff. They can be as rich as they want to be if they will also give a part of their energy to the part of our community that is left behind.

BOND: Well, why don't we just follow the advice that Shelby Steele, I think – and I'm sort of back and forth with you to another column – why don't you just tell those people who have been left behind to pick themselves up, clean themselves up, go to school, get a job, stop living on the street, join the society? Why don't they just do that?

WILKINS: Why don't I be like Shelby Steele? Because I am not stupid. That's number one. And number two, the structures of opportunity for these people are totally clogged. I'm on the school board in the District of Columbia now. And I go out into the far reaches of Southeast Washington, across the Anacostia River, where progress of the city has consigned the poorest blacks. Their schools are lousy. Their streets are lousy. Their city services are lousy. There are no jobs anywhere in sight. Masses of these kids are going through the schools and coming out illiterate.

BOND: And Shelby Steele would say, "Well, hey, the schools are run by black people, the teachers are all black, the students are all black, you know, these are not white racists having done these things. These are black people doing these things to other black people. You can't be shouting racism and Jim Crow like you could twenty or thirty years ago."

WILKINS: I do not think that I have said racism and Jim Crow in this conversation, or in that piece.

BOND: No, you did not. But he'd bring it up anyway.

WILKINS: Well, my answer to that is two-fold. That the demoralization of the people who run the school system – that the disintegration started when the white people were running it, but the demoralization of the people who are in the school system is, in fact, a part of the depression that a lot of black people have as a result of being black. It is true that there are black slackers in the school system, which is one of the reasons I went on the school board at my advanced age to see if we cannot change and revitalize that. I do not accept – I do not accept black slackers who destroy poor black people with any more warmth – with really, a great deal more hostility – than I do white people who fail to serve those people. And I believe that black people who have been exposed to excellent places like Brown and Amherst and places like UCLA have a responsibility to bring back the passion for excellence into these institutions that are failing. Because sometimes black people who have come to those places have only come for a paycheck and not for the kids.