Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? I mean, race consciousness has to have been a part of your life from the moment you discovered that you belonged to a race, but how does it affect you today?

CONYERS: Well, it does affect me and has always affected me, and I'm not likely to see it change it soon. But, you know, to me -- I've had the kind of experiences that have led me to realize you cannot judge a book by its cover. You're in a room and you're looking at a guy and this guy is probably from Mississippi looking like a redneck and this guy probably never had a kind word to say about black people and their struggle in his life. And over here this lady looks like she's from New England and she's probably been a sympathetic -- I don't know about anybody else, but I can tell you, it doesn't work for me. I cannot -- I have people, and they come into my office and they write me and they e-mail me, and from places that I know I haven't been there to talk with them, and I know they don't know me personally, but they align themselves with my struggle. They congratulate me. They encourage me. They will tell me that they're not a person of color. And so it encourages me to keep reaching out. You know, there comes a point where you can be so insular that you forget that you've really got to go out here. And to me, that has become an increasing challenge in my life. When I bring somebody on my staff I need somebody, of course, that's sympathetic with my goals, but the color is really secondary because if you're on my team, I know we've gotten past the color question.

BOND: What about in your idea of who you are? Are you representing black people? You explained a moment ago how your district has changed and now you've got more people who aren't African Americans, and you're trying to formulate a program that appeals to anyone, no matter whom they are. But, at the same time, do you feel any special responsibility to represent African Americans?

CONYERS: Not only all the black people in America, but people of color throughout the world. You know, the condition of black Americans is just a reflection. Fifty-three countries in Africa which get a pittance of the great resources that we export to the rest of the world. It's so embarrassing. I just came up when I was coming back from a vote yesterday. There were several limousines full of Africans who had been to a meeting and I didn't know they were here, I was -- because I always like to -- if I don't do anything but go to their ambassador or to their leaders or their elected officials and just identify myself and shake their hand and let them know I'm a part of the Congressional Black Caucus. We're now finding people of color who were brought from Africa to Latin America in Brazil. We have the question of reparations. They're asking me about my reparations bill that languishes in the Congress since 1989. And we're planning an international meeting of all the activist scholars and lawyers on reparations around the world. One of the reasons that they didn't want it raised in Durban when the United Nations met on the question of racism was that there were so many other countries struggling with the concept, and I was astounded to meet people from South America and other places, who are asking about it. And that's where we decided that we had to make this global. And so the question of people of color in the globe now attracts my attention.

BOND: Is there divisiveness if you segment out a section of the population and say "This is my particular concern, this is my special interest"? Does that lead to divisiveness? Some people think so.

CONYERS: Well, first of all, it does. And I regret to say it, and you with your profound political background know that we're now having places in America where Hispanic and black political aspirations are colliding. And there's some sharp antagonism: "No, it's not your turn. It's our seat and you shouldn't be in this because we're going to be divided and neither of us will win." I've made -- I've taken special pains to develop, for example, the Hispanic community, which is growing in numbers, as we all know. I campaigned for Loretta Sanchez in her classic race which she confounded again the talking heads who didn't think she could win, but then I went back in when her sister, Linda Sánchez, ran in a part near Los Angeles, and here was Juanita Millender-McDonald and I campaigning for Linda Sánchez in just this little small part of her district that was African American, because we have to build up these bonds, we've got to get beyond race. And we can do that but not give up the cause. African Americans, statistically -- in every statistic -- we're always on the bottom. So I can't say that let's disregard that, so we've got do both. And we've got to find a way to do it that minimizes the friction that is almost inevitable in that kind of struggle.