Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: Now your efforts to try to diversify your institution, I've heard you say, were controversial and there had to be people who had to say, "This is just awful. We are going to lose the character of this school and everything about it's going to change. And an institution that we treasure and value is going to be irrevocably changed in ways that we don't like." I know I asked you earlier how you reassure people who have these views. But you expected, I'm sure, this kind of opposition. And how do you reassure them or tell them, as I think I have heard you say, that these changes are inevitable, that they cannot be stopped, they can't be halted?

CHAMBERS: I mostly tell them the latter.

BOND: But I bet they come back to you and say, "Yeah, but you could slow them down if you wanted to."

CHAMBERS: Well, they do say that. But the best – result for African Americans under those circumstances are to get involved and help to decide how those changes will take place, rather than setting out in opposition and not being involved in the changes. We've seen a number of schools integrated where African Americans have gotten involved in the process and have helped to affect those changes. The results have been much better for African Americans. And so, what I argue, at least, is that these changes are inevitable. They are going to take place. But if you get involved now and help to map out how those changes would take place you can help decide the most advantageous position for African Americans with these changes. And whether I convince anybody of that is debatable, but I think it's the best result.

BOND: That leads naturally into another kind of discussion – race consciousness. You've got to imagine that most African Americans have a fairly high level of race consciousness, because the larger world creates this consciousness and the world in which we live reinforces this race consciousness. Not so true with majority Americans. But how much can you say has race consciousness played in the development of your life and career? How much has the consciousness that you belong to this race and that this race occupies quite often an inferior position and has a history of struggle – what has this meant to you?

CHAMBERS: Well, it is an important factor in my life and in my work. I don't think that we can really help all people without talking about race. I can't point out that one sees too much injustice against black people unless I am talking about black people, unless I am pointing toward the group that is adversely effect. And that requires a discussion, an emphasis on race. And I don't think one can affect change or the kind of solution that I think is necessary without employing race in the remedy. So I would be the first to concede that one has to consider race and race has to be a primary factor in our lives and the determination of violations and in the remedy that we employ. And it probably will continue to be as long as we have this major emphasis on race in this country. What I am suggesting about the integrated society I think is what I would hope would occur in the long run. But I don't expect it to occur overnight either. And in the meantime I think we've got to employ race.

BOND: There are increasing numbers of people who say, some in quite prominent positions, who say, "You know the very fact that you keep bringing this problem up drives us further apart rather than brings us together. If you would only stop talking about race all the time, we would be so much better off, because we could put this problem behind us." What do you say to those people?

CHAMBERS: You know it would be great. But we all have seen too much return to the old ways of doing things when we talk about race-neutral approaches. I watch now as the court and the general public talk about approaching matters in a race-neutral way. And the same group being the first to condone continued disadvantage of black people, for example, and sure, they get upset when one points out the differences based on race. But that's a fact. And they ought to be appreciative of people pointing that out. I watched this last election and saw several African-American candidates defeated by a white candidate. If one were fair and objective, there is no way that one could explain those defeats other than by race. Even people who talk about race-neutral and [who say] we should stop talking about race are there supporting the defeat of these candidates. And I'm not one to stand back and condone those practices and be happy. I would point out that race was a major factor and they engaged in that kind of racial practice and I think it's deplorable. I watched our chief justice in North Carolina defeated in an election in North Carolina. And there is no way to explain it. And I don't care who wants to talk about it other than by race. And those same people who would talk about how tired they are of people always raising the race issue engaged in that practice that defeated our candidate.

BOND: What about people who don't engage in the racist practices and there are some who say, you know, "Why are you always bringing this up? You are driving a wedge between black and white people or black, white, brown and yellow people. You are always harping on this. You are always talking about it. We need to forget about it. That's what will solve these problems. Let's treat each other just as people. Stop talking about this all the time."

CHAMBERS: Well, I have been involved in this area, gee, for forty-five, fifty years. And I don't believe from my experiences and my reading that we can just ignore the problem. It's there. It happens. And we got to point it out wherever we see it. And I think we are doing more and more of that. And I don't agree that the problem will just go away if we ignore it. It doesn't happen. Isn't going to happen in America. And race has been and will be a pervasive factor in our lives. And I think that we get further in just pointing it out when we see it and forcing people to address it.