You have probably heard that Juan Williams has been sacked by National Public Radio. I have mixed feelings.
Like Bill Cosby, Juan Williams panders to white America (and a large portion of prosperous black America) by wailing on the black under-caste. For instance, Williams recently penned a screed lamenting the sorry state of black America: “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It”.
Williams is an authority on the civil rights movement and has been involved with some excellent work in this connection, most notably PBS’s “Eyes on the Prize” series. But, like far too many civil rights aficionados, he is inordinately fond of comparing the courage, intelligence and resilience of the civil rights generation with the irresponsible, dependent and self-destructive tendencies on display in poor black neighborhoods.
Like Bill Cosby, Williams’ responds with prudential morality: stay in school, don’t get pregnant until you have a job, don’t use or sell drugs, and, most importantly, stop blaming white folks for your problems.
This stuff is wildly popular in white America. If you check out the comments section of the Amazon page dedicated to his diatribe against black leaders, you won’t find a single negative review.
You can’t argue with the prudential commentary offered up by the Cos or San Juan, but do these guys really think common sense bromides will solve problems created in large part by poverty, the flight of inner city business to the suburbs, and the war on drugs?
Anyone who has ever worked with underprivileged children from dysfunctional families can understand the frustration that expresses itself in What’s-the-matter-with-kids-today lamentation. These kids can be tough. They are easily distracted. They are almost terminally peer-oriented. They have little capacity for deferred gratification. They tend to be highly fatalistic, resigned to the rigors of the streets and, if male, a rendezvous with the criminal justice system.
I understand the emotional ferment behind the volcanic eruptions we frequently get from people like Cosby, McWhorter, Steele and Williams. The disintegration of the black under-caste is a horrifying spectacle, no question. The liberal media (such as it is) addresses this ugly reality by pretending it doesn’t exist or by bringing in a guy like Juan Williams to assure the public that most African Americans don’t fit the stereotype. Williams can say things white pundits wouldn’t dream of saying–after all, he’s a black civil rights buff, so he can’t be accused of racism.
If these tirades against the poorest third of the black community play well in a liberal setting, imagine how popular they have been on the conservative side of media street. This explains why Juan Williams works for FOX news as well as NPR. Bill O’Reilly can’t bash poor black people without sounding like a racist, so he brings Juan Williams on the show to do the dirty work.
Listen to this comment in which San Juan assures O’Reilly that poor blacks are absolutely terrible people and then opines that liberals are far less tolerant of dissent than conservatives.
NPR’s decision to fire Mr. Williams may give some credence to this claim. Williams has suggested that NPR has been eager to cut him loose ever since he signed on with Fox News, and I suspect he’s right. I am not the only NPR listener who cringes whenever Williams lashes out against white liberals and the black undercaste. His comments don’t frustrate me because I reject his critique; it is the shocking lack of context that bothers me.
It’s true, white liberals really do use political correctness to stifle healthy debate. This is largely because, having given their enthusiastic endorsement to the war on drugs and the policy of mass incarceration, white liberals are unable to address the plight of the black undercaste without confronting their own failings. Most black politicians have the same problem: after all, these guys signed on to legislation making penalties for crack 100 times as severe as the penalties for powder cocaine.
Given these tragic realities, white liberals focus on the two-thirds of black America that has profitted from civil rights reforms. The occasional diatribe from Juan Williams is tolerated (barely), but I have rarely heard anyone on NPR, black or white, address the public policy decisions that placed poor black people in a no-win situation. Instead, a chilly silence prevails.
The same principle applies to the issue of immigration and the experience of Muslim Americans in a post 9-11 world. Williams was sacked for admitting that when he sees people in airports dressed in unmistakably Muslim garb he gets nervous.
Williams went on to say, contra O’Reilly, that our emotions, however understandable, shouldn’t lure us into racially profiling an entire community.
Fair enough. But O’Reilly has been using the same critique Williams aims at poor blacks against Muslim Americans. They aren’t sufficiently patriotic. They support Palestine, oppose Israel and sympathize with the Arab world. Therefore, we need to clamp down on them, watch their every move, and severely punish anyone who is even suspected of supporting or condoning terrorism.
This is the same mentality that brought us the drug war in the early days of the Reagan administration.
It is hard to say which phenomenon has contributed more to the collapse of the black undercaste: a politically correct liberalism that refuses to talk openly about the genesis of American poverty, or a punitive conservatism that denies the reality of systemic injustice.
I would have no problem with the Cos or San Juan lamenting the self-destructive behavior of poor people if they showed the slightest appreciation for the dreadful social impact of public policy decisions . . . apart from welfare. The welfare state can create dependency, especially when the folks on the receiving end have lived for generations on the cusp of starvation. But what about the war on drugs? What about the deindustrialization of America? What about the flight of what remains of American industry from the cities to light industrial parks located near the suburbs? What about the gradual downgrading of American jobs? When people shift from making cars to flipping hamburgers their ability to support children and sustain a nuclear family is sadly diminished.
Do you ever hear Bill Cosby or Juan Williams or Shelby Steele discussing these issues? No, they fear that any systemic explanation for the collapse of poor communities will be used to excuse indivual failings.
Why can’t we talk about individual responsibility and social culpability at the same time? I’ll tell you why. The national debate has been hijacked by the culture war–and that’s a white man’s fight. Few white people, conservative or liberal, want to hear about the impact of the drug war and the policy of mass incarceration on poor communities of color. occasionally, black people will be drafted into the culture war debate in the same way a designated hitter is drafted onto a baseball team, but the mainstream media has no interest in hearing a fact-studded discussion of the war on drugs or the social repercussions of locking up 2.3 million people. This kind of rhetoric has no constituency, no market and therefore cannot exist.
True, Bill Moyers did interview Michelle Alexander about the New Jim Crow; but Moyers has slipped into retirement and there is no sign that PBS is looking for a replacement.
So, do I think NPR was justified in canning Mr. Williams?
Most Americans can’t see it. Even at the left-learning Washington Post, a poll on the question is running three-to-one in Williams’ favor.
This is certainly not a First Amendment issue. Mr. Williams is free to say whatever he likes; but that doesn’t obligate NPR to pay him to say it.
But part of me sympathizes with Williams. The big problem here isn’t that Juan Williams is a racist or that he doesn’t understand the genesis of American poverty. The real problem is that we never hear honest, nuanced talk about how things got so desperately awful for poor people in our country. When one person messes up it’s fine to bring in the preacher for a little moral exhortation. But when entire communities give way to despair we’re dealing with systemic issues that demand a public policy response. Tell the preacher to keep on preaching, but we also need some answers from the politicians.
In a sense, Juan Williams is the victim of massive denial. We are so proud of ourselves for giving black folks the vote and access to the public school system that we can’t face up to the new Jim Crow. I’m sure his new $2 million deal with FOX News will provide a trickle of consolation.