Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Divisions in the Black Community

BOND: Now I've heard you speak in the presentation that you gave here about poverty. And a few moments ago we were talking about poverty and last night about the difficulty, about the inability so far to have poverty defined as a class, as a protected class. I think probably we Americans are really reluctant to talk about class. Some do. But generally speaking, it's not discussed here. And even though most people will describe themselves as middle class in America, no matter how rich they are. And sometimes no matter how far down the economic ladder they are. It's just not part of our discussion or discourse. How do you get people to talk about this, this economic divide among us?

CHAMBERS: To me it's just as difficult a subject to get people to talk about as talking about race. We are all reluctant to talk about race and we are reluctant to talk about poverty because it forces us to really make judgments on whether we really need to reach out and help. I've never seen African Americans as disturbed as in a session we had once where we were talking about taxing people more to provide assistance for poor people, taxing them to provide health care or taxing them to provide housing. African Americans can be as disturbed as whites in discussions that talk about providing assistance for poor people. And yet, I don't think that we are going to be able to really address our ills until we get so that we can do that – [the question] is, how do we get to that point? I don't know how we can do it unless we just continue to bring this to the attention of everybody.

BOND: But you know, as you say, there is this resistance both because people imagine having a concern for people lower down the ladder than we are, requires some sacrifice on our part that we are not prepared to make, or because they say, "Gee, I did make it." And there must be something wrong with those people. They are not able to come up to the standard I've achieved.

CHAMBERS: Those are two reasons that folk might advance or why they don't want to help or don't want to talk about poor people. But another one could be just disdain for people who are poor. And I fear that that is there among a lot of people. Something wrong with being poor. Always has been. And God didn't bless them or they didn't do what they needed to do to get out from the barriers that they had to face or they are just not our kind.

BOND: But you know almost all African Americans who go back two, three generations in this country were incredibly poor, almost all of them. And yet today we are about two-thirds doing pretty well, and only a third in desperate poverty. What accounts for us having done that well, have overcome that something wrong? Why is it okay for us to have overcome it, and not okay for us to think about others overcoming it in the future?

CHAMBERS: That's a good question. But it's there. And I think will likely be there. But we got the two-thirds group through a lot of efforts that were made by you and others during the civil rights era. And we opened up a lot of opportunities. And it's amazing today to see the number of blacks who are in what I would call non-traditional positions. Getting them to go the extra mile and opening up opportunities for others is going to be a major challenge. But to me it's still possible. It's one of the things that we keep working on. And I think that it would be as painless as it was for us to move from, what was it, 10 percent or less, to the two-thirds now. And so I hope there is a commitment by our leaders today to ensure that the poor, whatever their race really, are provided opportunities to enjoy the fruits of America.

BOND: It seems to me that there's not a great across-the-board commitment to that among leadership figures, that it strikes me that there is an enormous influence on increasing the middle class by creating additional opportunities for the middle class, rather than bringing other people into the middle class. And it also appears to me, and I want to ask you if you think this is true – that there are people in this large middle class who say, "I don't have to help other people, I am demonstrating to other people by my own example. So the fact that I am successful by itself is enough contribution for me to make. I don't have to give money to the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund. I don't have to join the Links. I don't have to do anything. I am. And that's it." What do you say to those people?

CHAMBERS: Well, that they got where they are because someone else stopped and provided assistance.

BOND: No, "I did it because I'm a genius, I'm brilliant, I'm hardworking, I'm clever."

CHAMBERS: There was a period despite how great or brilliant people were when they couldn't advance.

BOND: Well, that was way back then, this is today. "I got where I am on my own merits. Lifted myself up by my own bootstraps."

CHAMBERS: Yeah, they say that. A lot of them even today. And yet we all have to appreciate that no one really advanced without someone else providing assistance. They may not buy that. But, to me, that's true. I like to approach problems like this from to me a legal and a moral perspective. I think morally there is an obligation, however one reached his or her condition, to really reach out and help others to escape. And I always approach it from that perspective as well. And I think that constitutionally or legally that there are obligations to provide assistance for the poor. And third I think we really help ourselves when we help the poor. If all people, as I know Martin Luther King said, are provided opportunities and are free, then all of us can feel free.

BOND: I think that the moral responsibility is pretty well understood, even if it's not obeyed. But the constitutional responsibility doesn't seem to be there. How do you get that there?

CHAMBERS: Well, it isn't there yet. That's what I was talking about last night, that we need to help evolve constitutional principles that would ensure that there would be no discrimination against people because of their poverty status. And that's something that we will continue to work on. But I think we will get there, just like I think Thurgood and others worked to ensure that race was removed as a barrier to opportunity. And I think that we aren't going to get very far in this country until we eliminate poverty as a barrier to opportunity.