Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Past vs. Present Barriers to Racial Equality

BOND: Now, in 1987, and you must get tired of having your words quoted and asked about things in the past or maybe not -- you said, "Civil rights tempts us to think in terms of distribution and enforcement when we ought to be thinking of discipline and exertion." Talk about that.


RASPBERRY: Well, the words do come back, don't they? And I guess I can't say I was taken out of context. No. I really do believe that, but let me say what I mean about that. There were things that were done during that period we remember as the civil rights movement that were absolutely vital for our future. I think laws were enacted. Practices were installed or stopped. And we called on America to change -- white America -- and it changed. It made possible some things that we couldn't have accomplished without that change no matter how virtuous we were as individuals. The exemplar we used to use, you know, as a description of segregation and housing, for instance, that even Ralph Bunche who was our Colin Powell, I guess, in those days -- even Ralph Bunche couldn't buy a house in a white neighborhood and how awful that was, and he was our symbol of virtue.


We were asserting that our virtue was not the problem. It was racism that was the problem and that needed to be overcome and we made some significant strides in doing that. But what I remember, and what seems to me important, is that there were always both internal and external barriers to our progress. In those days, during the movement, the external barriers were critical. No matter what we did internally wouldn't matter much as long as those barriers stayed in place, so it was a good noble fight and I'm awfully glad we did it and that we won.


We don't know -- haven't quite figured out what to do with that victory, though. In my own view, we've reached the point -- and it's the landmark point -- where the internal barriers are now more significant to our progress than the external ones. The external ones aren't gone, just as the internal ones weren't gone back in the '60s, but they are less an impediment. The external barriers are less an impediment now than the internal habits we've accrued, and we haven't quite got our minds around that.


Because we couldn't change the culture in the '60s, we could only make righteous demand, we made it and it was effective. And that piece says that we formed the habit of believing that righteous demand was enough to address all our issues. Some of the issues, including those that I think predominate now among many parts of our population, don't lend themselves to righteous demand. You can't righteously demand that your children be educated. You can demand a place in school. Well, we've got a place in school, but commitment to learning, to study, the things that really do make education pay off, don't lend themselves to righteous demand.


You could demand a new school or a new traffic light or new anything and while you slept, the government, if you made enough noise about it, might deliver it. You might wake up and look out your window in the morning and see a shiny new traffic light where three kids had been killed, you know, in the years before. You won't wake up in the morning and see a truck unloading education for your children on your front lawn. Your children have to go out there and get it. It has to be there. And we made sure during the days of the movement that it was there. We now have to make sure that our children are prepared to go out and grasp it. Otherwise, it won't matter that it's there.


BOND: This is not a quote from a column, but the researcher who put this together summarizes in this case -- "worse, an obsession with finding examples of persistent racism without inhibits solving more tractable and pressing problems from within." Is that what you were talking about a moment ago?


RASPBERRY: I don't know what that means, but it sounds sort of like what -- yeah, I think -- it's very difficult to multitask on racial disadvantage. King talked about the necessity for what he called a rhythmic alternation between dealing with causes and curing conditions. It's so easy to achieve a position of leadership if you hand the people who're in trouble a scapegoat for their condition. This is the villain who caused the beast. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I can cheer that because it's always right. It's always correct. But it's not always helpful and if you attempt to lead by saying, "They've been awful to us but what needs to be done next is up to us to do and we have to forget them for a little while, perhaps, or let somebody else deal with their sins, and we have to deal with our own shortcomings" -- that doesn't catapult you into leadership. And even people, no matter how well intentioned they may be, find it difficult to resist what I consider the applause lines of blaming the enemy for our shortcomings.


And it's not the reverse of blaming the victims. It's a matter of getting the analysis right, or at least right enough, so that you can make some progress. Because that to me is the name of the game -- moving from the condition we're in to the condition -- to nearer the condition we hope to achieve. If blaming makes that happen, then baby boy blame, but it doesn't anymore make it happen and it's finally necessary I think to change some of the things we do and some of the things we teach our children because we have reached that unprecedented place in African American history where for the first time what we do matters more than what is done to us. It does not say, and somebody will always hear you to say this, it does not mean that what is done to us is insignificant. It continues to be significant, but what we do for the first time matters more.