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Williams: It’s time to move beyond old civil rights discussions

Juan Williams spoke March 7 at the ninth annual Union Forum. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Juan Williams spoke March 7 at the ninth annual Union Forum. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.March 9, 2007 – Juan Williams is tired of the same old discussions about race relations. He hurts to see the breakdown of the family, especially among the African-American population.

And he hopes to convince others that the day has come for a new level of conversation – among people who really care about their communities.

“I hope that all of us start talking, and start talking with a sincerity of heart,” said Williams, author and National Public Radio correspondent. “Start talking with an understanding of race consciousness that suggests we’re all children of God, and that if we’re truly to fulfill God’s mission for us, we have to build a stronger community. It requires that we keep our eyes on the prize.”

Williams was the guest speaker at Union University March 7 for the second installment of the ninth annual Union Forum. Nationally syndicated columnist Mona Charen spoke at Union Feb. 21 to open this year’s event.

Williams is the author of “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movement, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America – and What We Can Do About It.” In his address at Union, Williams said Americans need to understand where they are in history and act accordingly. Too many people in the past didn’t recognize opportunities -- like the civil rights movement – for what they were, Williams said, and they missed out on being agents of change.

“They didn’t understand where they were in history,” Williams said. “They didn’t understand the opportunity that had been given to them to put their hands in the muck and mire of American life and to sculpt or shape what was to come.”

Williams recapped a speech by Bill Cosby in 2004 at a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Cosby spoke directly about the problems he saw among African-Americans, including the fact that 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock in the United States, compared to only 25 percent of white children.

Cosby also criticized the threatening, violent imagery of black young people promoted by music videos on BET.

“They’re all dressed like they just got out of jail, with their pants hanging off them like they don’t have a belt, the do-rags on their heads, a lot of the tattoos,” Williams said. “It looks like jailhouse fashion. … Imagine the damage being done in terms of young black people who are seeking some affirmation of themselves as strong, capable souls, and seeing that this is what is being glorified, this is what’s being elevated in the American mind as authentic black behavior.”

But many people accused Cosby of blaming the victim, Williams said, and argued that Cosby didn’t understand the problem of institutional racism in America.

“Cosby was pretty much marginalized, his message condemned,” Williams said, despite the fact that “so much of what Cosby said seems to me to have roots in reality.”

Williams also spoke about Oprah Winfrey’s decision to spend $40 million to open a school for young black women in South Africa. Some critics questioned why Winfrey would go overseas instead of spending her money to help black youth in the United States.

“When she goes to these American inner-city public schools, the kids want iPods, they want sneakers, they want to be on her TV show,” Williams said. “But she said when she went to schools in South Africa, the black children there spoke to her about wanting books, about wanting better schools, about wanting the opportunity to learn and to become leaders in their society, wanting the opportunity to travel, to get to know people, to learn other languages. She decided that that was a better place to invest her dollars.”

Williams also pointed to the recent resignation of Bruce Gordon as head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, because of his dispute with the NAACP board over the direction of the organization.

Gordon thought it was time for the NAACP to enter a “post-civil rights era,” Williams said, “in which people would actually be addressing the economic and education issues as a way to erase racial issues, to bring people together on equal ground and to help them understand their common destiny.”

But the NAACP board disagreed, and holds to the position that people still need to march and to sign petitions, instead of getting involved with real problem-solving.

“This is the kind of debate that I think is appropriate here for the Union University Forum, because all of you are Americans engaged in a time of change in this community,” Williams said. “It really comes down to making the most of our people here at home, to making sure that we are embracing our children. That we’re being good parents. That we’re saying – even if we’re not particularly biological parents but part of the larger community – that we love our children. That we believe in them and in their capacity to learn and to succeed. That we make maximum use of every soul on this earth.”

Charen, in her Union Forum address Feb. 22, said the United States must strengthen its resolve to win the global war on terror in which it is engaged.

“We are in the midst of a struggle against Islamic extremism that is taxing us militarily, economically and psychologically,” Charen said. “We live in fear of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of enemies whose savagery continues to shock. And yet, life in Washington, D.C., sometimes appears to be more of a sideshow than the center of the free world.”

Charen criticized liberals for their lack of support for U.S. military efforts. “There is a tendency among many in the West that is worrying, and it’s a tendency among liberals to see every conflict as somehow America’s fault,” Charen said. “There is a spirit of surrender on the Democratic side that is deeply disturbing.”

She described demographic developments in Europe which could result in a Muslim majority on the continent within the next 50 years. Europeans simply aren’t having children at replacement rates, Charen said, while Muslim families are growing exponentially.

By 2005, for example, Charen pointed out that “Mohammed” was the most popular boy’s name in the United Kingdom, as well as several other European cities.

“The world we and our children face going forward is a world in which we will no longer have to debate about whether or that policy has the approval of our allies, the Europeans – because the Europeans will no longer be our allies,” Charen said. “Although, in the case of the French, it will be hard to tell the difference.”

President George Bush has his faults, Charen admitted, but she remains convinced that he understands the urgency of the conflict the United States is fighting.

“This president has, in my judgment, a far better grasp of our overall strategic situation than do his critics,” she said. “He recognizes that a withdrawal from Iraq would be a defeat, and that the consequences of such a defeat would be felt for generations to come.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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