Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Cautious Optimism

BOND: As you sit here and think about tomorrow, the next day, the next year, and so on, and think about the black condition, are you hopeful? Optimistic? Pessimistic?

WILKINS: Well, I am wiser than I was when I was young. And I understand the capitalistic system in ways that I didn't as a young person. And capitalism really doesn't have social conscience at the core of its – it's there inextricably responding to the laws of the market and economics. And it does social things as is useful. And the globalization of capitalism has taken away a big asset that we had in the '60s. That is, powerful local business entities that had stakes in local communities. You know, the Chrysler Corporation, which you used to be able to get to do things in Detroit, is now a German corporation, essentially. And they are all looking abroad so that it's much harder to get powerful local – and the people who run these corporations are not necessarily people who grew up in the community and have a stake in it, so it's much harder to persuade the local business leaders to become involved in making changes. And they're the people who can drive change more easily than other people. And they were, for a time, some of our best allies in the '60s.

On the other hand, I live in a country that is just so different than the one that I was born into in 1932. And it's better in so many ways. The number of black people who are born into misery is much smaller now than it was. We see how powerful the economy can be. So, I believe in struggle and I believe that struggle produces change. So I am optimistic that my seventeen-year-old child, who will be about the age I am now in the middle of the next century, will have participated in struggle and have participated in change that will make the country more just. However, the problems that I see – the ancillary but very real problems – are very difficult. Population. I mean, we have got twice as many people in this country now than when I was a kid. And we see crowding most vividly in automobile congestion on the highways. But the brownout in California, the water shortages, just pressure of population against resources is going to be very great. Globalization will continue with less and less loyalty to localities. And an economy that more and more favors quick and nimble intellects is going to be less and less caring about people who are stuck back in a pre-industrial age education. So, the problems are daunting.

But I guess the experience of my lifetime tells me that Douglass, Frederick Douglass, was right. That struggle is necessary. That struggle has to be real. That you have to really clash and upset things. But if you do that, and you do it persistently enough, and you do it intelligently enough, you can make change. And there is, in my judgment, a larger and larger cadre in this society of decent and caring white people. And even though the coalitions between blacks and Hispanics, particularly, are very difficult to make and sustain, the fact is, it's going to be much harder over the years to keep up the fantasy that this is a white country and that all benefits should naturally flow to white people. So I think we are moving toward a more just, multi-cultural society. I just hope that we don't leave that little cluster of poor black people behind in places where they can't be reached.

BOND: So we could end this by saying, "It's been nice to talk to Roger Wilkins, cautious optimist"?

WILKINS: That's fair. That's fair.

BOND: Thank you.

WILKINS: You are welcome.