Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Race Consciousness

BOND: That's a natural transition to the next series of questions. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there always a distinction? Is there anything — such thing a race-transcending leader?

WILDER: Well, people describe things as they will. I always try to look at what the issues are. If we list — if we are talking about healthcare, or we are talking about education, the criminal justice system, the question is how has race affected any group any more disproportionately than it should have. You've seen it in education when we were talking about Brown v. Board. So when you're talking about remedies, you're not talking about remedies for African Americans, you're talking about everyone having that equality of education. When you're talking about the justice system you're talking about one bets for all people. You're talking about affordable housing, you want to make certain that all people have it. Automatically, you'd be lifting up those disparaged, those who have been left out of the equation. The more important thing is to make certain that having a seat at the table is not just empty. That you're not there because of your color, nor should you be there because of your color. And that's one of the things that I think you as an elected official have experienced as much as I have. Sometimes people expect that you would be going more heavily on one side than the other, and even when you are being as fair and as open-minded and as balanced as you can, those accusations will come. The real thing is, are you doing the right thing? Are you making certain that no one is disparaged by your political decisions? Because equality in government is so essential to good government that you can't but leave it out.

BOND: You know, while we're sitting here, democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is preparing to make a speech on race triggered, I think, by charges against his supporters and allegations against him that he's come to where he is only because of his race. A couple of speculative questions without even knowing what he's going to say, because neither of us knows that, do you think this is a wise choice for him to try to lay out his thoughts about race right now? Or does it remind people that he is a black candidate? You know, when he started, people used to say, "Is he black enough?" And now some people say he's too black. So it may be a no win proposition.

WILDER: It's a very, very tricky situation. As it were "sticky wicket". It's going to be interesting to see how he does it. First of all, how do you start it out? I know you were at this point now because I am, I don't get up in the morning to look at my hands, look at my face to say, "I'm a black person." I'm a human being! I don't — race is so transcendent with me in terms of my everyday activity that my job is to hope that others likewise see in that way. Now, how does he cross that chasm? To be critical of those who inject ways that he should be lucky, that'd be a [inaudible] and I'd never heard anything like that in my life, and by the same token, to throw his minister under the bus because of some disparaging remarks he's made. Or do you point to this lack of equal treatment in terms of John McCain supporters — with John Hagee and the others who [are] on the wild side, relative to certain groups — or do you repeat what people think you are, in terms, not being the racial candidate and how do you say it? It's a very, very tough sale for him. I'm going to be looking at it as you are to see what it is.

BOND: Do you have any idea of what you might say if you were in the same position?

WILDER: The real question is would I be saying anything —

BOND: Yes.

WILDER: — if I were in that same position, and I don't know if I would. I had never done that. When I ran for office I said I'm not going to have use race as a badge nor as a barrier. And as you know, I had any numbers of friends who said they would have come in and campaign for me and I said, “Fine, I don't mind that. But if you do, it's not going to be to the extent of saying, ‘You're voting people, so we're going to make history.'" History doesn't pay the bills. Making history doesn't make your taxes lighter, doesn't make the, your defense stronger. So, it — I would weigh it very carefully. Today, if it were me, I don't know if I'd be making that speech today.

BOND: Not at all?

WILDER: I might not.

BOND: You know, I sort of have the same feeling, but of course, I'm not him, and —

WILDER: Oh, and I'm not either.

BOND: So I just don't know. Coming back to you, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white? Are you different on these occasions?

WILDER: No, and I've been criticized on occasions when I've said that black issues are not really black issues. They are issues where people have been disproportionately affected because they may be black. Education, healthcare, affordable housing, crime, etc., etc. I say the same thing to a Chamber of Congress meeting that I would to a Baptist Church that I belong, the same thing I would say to an NAACP gathering. I don't ever want to be divided in my own thinking. I don't ever — because that would detract from me as a person. I don't want to think of myself as a “Today I'm this person, tomorrow I'm that person.” And you and I have been around long enough to know that if you say something one place one way, it's going to come out some other place when you're saying it a different way. And so far, I haven't been caught in that trap, and I don't think the trap can be baited for me because as I've told you, when I get up in the morning, I told you who I see. I see a human being who wants to treat other human beings the same way I want them to treat me.

BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen writing about a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender. He says, "Until we learn to use again the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country." So is there a danger of divisiveness, when we focus on the very concept of black leadership? No one would deny, or I don't think they would, you are a black leader.


BOND: Is that a healthy thing to call you that, to describe you in that way?

WILDER: I have some questions about it. Because I feel that if a person — leadership as we've described it before, but if I am a black leader, then that means I'm not a leader. And that —

BOND: You're a qualified leader.

WILDER: That's exactly it. That is the detraction. So Allen might have a point to the extent of pointing out, and I think we've discussed it here, today, in the absence of freedom, you want equality. You want freedom. You want rights. No more nor any less than anyone else. If that's there, then you're making the cut. Some have complained, and I do too, that it's taken a long time, far too long. And yet we are a young country still in this experiment with democracy. That's why we got to continually challenge the precepts, and the making of America, the dream that so many people wanted it to be, because if it's ever fulfilled, and we're working towards it — and it still is! There is no place like this place in the world.

BOND: Do black leaders, using the term advisedly, have an obligation to help other African Americans? Or is there a point of when that obligation ends and a leader can pursue his own ideas or ambitions?

WILDER: The question is who do you lead? If you are visualizing it as you pointed out, if it's the philosophy that you have, then the implementation means that yes, you have a responsibility to — to whom much is given, and much is expected, as you know. You've got great talents, you don't go into a crowd and say, “I've done all my job.” You've served in an elected office, you teach on a regular basis, you write, you serve in other positions that God knows that if you were serving on these rich corporate boards, making tons of money, but you've giving up your time and your effort because it's in you. That's a drive that was put into you by your parents, by your community. No one had to tell you, say, "Julian — " And that's why you don't stop! You know you can't stop! Because that spirit force would never let you stop.

BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?

WILDER: Again, to the extent that I've been given opportunity, I've not abused it. To the extent that I've had chances to occupy positions, I've shown that it's possible that people to serve in these positions and be fair, be judgmental to the extent of exercising the fairness that some people thought might not have been the case. But as you likewise point out, to provide opportunities for others to follow, that's why I was so happy to be brought up to Massachusetts last inaugural for Deval Patrick to say, "Thank God, at last we got another governor!" Show them the possibility. Likewise even with the calamity in New York with Eliot Spitzer, that the state could move on. A big state, with the expectancy that they see in David Paterson. It means a lot to me, more than I could adequately describe here.