Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race-transcending Leadership

BOND: Let me ask you about race, and I know that earlier you said that you don't think of people's races and you think you about people irregardless of what their race or, as you said, the hue of their skin is. But everybody's got to be conscience of race as we look around. We see this is a black person, this is a white person, and so on. Do you have that kind of consciousness and if you do, how does that affect what you do?


WILLIAMS: Well, you cannot have that. You can't help but have it, given the media's reinforcement of it and it's all around you. You know, I just don't make judgments. You see it, but you make no assumptions about it. I don't make -- when I hear about somebody being racially profiled who happened to be black, that has no affect on me. At all. Now, there's some people who say, "Oh, if that can happen to that brother, that can happen to me." Whatever happens to them, depending on what group you put yourself in --


BOND: You don't think that because it happened to someone like you, it could happen to you?


WILLIAMS: No. It has never happened.


BOND: I know you say it's never happened --


WILLIAMS: And I can only base it on --


BOND: -- but you don't think that it could happen?




BOND: Okay. There's no possibility?


WILLIAMS: In my mind, no.


BOND: Really?




BOND: Now, do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both?


WILLIAMS: Society and race is a part of society.


BOND: And so it would be both, but the emphasis on society.




BOND: A big emphasis on society.




BOND: Now, is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?


WILLIAMS: That may not be a bad thing --

BOND: No, no.

WILLIAMS: -- to be able to transcend. Yes, of course. Experiences can help you transcend and understand there's more to life than the ills of the world and why people suffer than race.


BOND: I was thinking here, we've written all these questions expecting that the person who sits in this chair will be a black person, a man, a woman, relatively young, relatively old, but how does that question fit, if you're asking can there be such a thing as a race-transcending leader and you're thinking about the larger world outside the black world? Can that be so, too?


WILLIAMS: Well, you know, race is just a label that we put on things to understand it. When you say somebody's a racist, I mean, there's so much more that you need to understand. It forces people not to search and really understand the human being. You can just say that's what they are and just dismiss them and never deal with them. That's the bad thing about it. It doesn't force us to encounter and to really understand the human being and why they think the way they think. And I believe that no matter what a person may believe in, what they feel, individuals, a good meaning, an experience of wisdom, can always change them and elevate them, but we refuse to do so because we feel -- because they're against us because they're racist, we don't want to have anything to do with them so we just abandon them, just banish them away from society.


BOND: You have said and said over and over again in this interview that you don't see race, that race is not that kind of function and that given a choice between race and society, society would come first. Race would be a part of it. But when you're talking and writing and advancing your philosophy, it seems to me it's often aimed at black people, at people like yourself as commentary on what they are believing or their leaders are believing, so isn't that kind of a contradiction?


WILLIAMS: Oh, we all have contradictions, but I don't think it is in this case. You know, in order to communicate with people, sometimes you have to go to where they are. It doesn't necessarily mean you're there, but a leader, someone who's willing to test the waters with what they believe because they believe they're right, you've got to go to where they are. People are so consumed with race. They're so obsessed with it.


I write about it because if I write about it in the terms of where they are, they come to read it. But I write about it in a way that -- we give it too much power. There're other things that we can do to change our lives, even in the issue of reparations. The first thing I say that, absolutely, people are deserving of their forty acres and a mule. The government deserves to pay that, but the government will not, so why are you going to focus your time and your energies on something that's not going to ever happen? Why don't you focus your time and resources on something where you can make a difference?


Even in the issue of affirmative action. Affirmative action has become a bourgeoisie boondoggle, and you ask them, "Tell me the black people who are benefiting from affirmative action," because we make it seem like it's the first and it's the [last] and if you get them to answer that question and do research, they will tell you it's probably about 3 or 4 percent of black people in this country that really benefit from affirmative action so how can something like that impact your life. Why don't you focus on things that can really make a difference in your life and can have an impact for generations to come? So I go there to talk about it, but I elevate the dialogue in a different way.


BOND: Well, here's a connected question. Do you have a different leadership style if you're dealing with a group that is all black or a group that's all white or even in the middle, a mixed group? Are you different? Is your style different?


WILLIAMS: I'm always the same.


BOND: Always the same?


WILLIAMS: The same conversations, the same reactions -- yes, absolutely, because then if I do that, then I would have to question myself but I know that happens and I know people who do it and I know people that I've associated with and without my ever saying a word, they'll say to me, they say, "You know what, you're consistent. Your conversation is all the same. I can't believe you said that." They said, "Maybe you have a point."


BOND: Well, I can't believe you said it either not because I distrust you or don't think you're being honest, but because when I speak from the same text to black audience, white audience, I'm different because the audience is different toward me and that makes me different toward them.


WILLIAMS: Well, when you're talking about issues of morality and moral striving and the human condition and personal responsibility and accountability and when you're talking about equality of justice and when you're talking about how to create a society of economics, how you build entrepreneurship and home ownership, that is something that transcends and touches the lives of everyone. And those are my topics. Now, someone may ask me a question in that direction, but in terms of my address, those are not the issues that I find myself talking about.


BOND: I don't want to beat this in the ground.


WILLIAMS: Beat it.


BOND: But I bet you if you read that list to the black audience here and you read that list to the white audience here, both audiences would like it, but the black audience would be saying, "Yes, sir. Okay. Say it. Preach, talk again," and they're back and forth to you in a way this audience will not be back and forth to you, not because they dislike you.


WILLIAMS: But are you saying their expression --


BOND: Their expressiveness.


WILLIAMS: Are you saying that their expression says that they are more acceptable of it than someone who's less --


BOND: No, not at all. I'm just saying they're more expressive.


WILLIAMS: That's true. That's very true.


BOND: And I think it's got to affect you. Because you get a level of appreciation here that you're not getting here, and it doesn't mean these people dislike you or these people like you more. It's just these people immediately surround you with warmth, and these people wait until it's over and then they stand up and yell and applaud.


WILLIAMS: But, see, the difference there is, is that when I speak to the evangelicals I get the same reaction.

BOND: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: And so it all depends upon their upbringing and what they were shaped by.


BOND: Okay.


WILLIAMS: That's the difference.


BOND: Well, see, I never talk to the evangelicals.


WILLIAMS: See, I do, often, and they have a lot of -- I mean, they're jumping on their feet. You can hardly finish a line, so I'm accustomed to seeing it. They react the same to the message and sometimes people don't react if I'm not in an audience that understands my philosophy or supports my philosophy. They're a little more suspicious before they give you anything, but once they begin to trust you and believe, "Well, you know what, he's not anti-black, he's not pro-white. He just has a philosophy for everybody," and then they begin to give you, because I've found this out in Chicago a couple of weeks ago when I was there. This audience was very distant from me. They had made up their minds they were not going to even give me anything, a clap, but after about eight minutes into the speech, it just turned around because they got to know me.