Bill Moyers examines the status of black Americans, particularly in light of the rioting in Los Angeles that followed the Rodney King verdict. Featured in the program are rapper Sister Souljah; Robert Woodson, Chairman of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda; and Michael Cross, of the Detroit Urban League.
BILL MOYERS: Last week, a new set of televised images entered the archive of our collective memory.
LOS ANGELES PROTESTOR: No justice, no peace! No justice, no justice!
1st LOS ANGELES STORE OWNER: They shot all of our windows out. My mother…they were back there and they couldn’t get out.
2nd LOS ANGELES STORE OWNER: Well, we’re saving our store. This is what we worked our life for, you know. We’re not going to see it just burn down to the ground.
RODNEY KING: [at press conference] I just want to say, you know, can we all get along. Can we get along?
BILL MOYERS: Tonight, we’ll go beyond those pictures and listen to Americans discuss how to fulfill our common destiny.
Welcome to Listening to America. I’m Bill Moyers. It wasn’t, as people of my generation know, the first time Los Angeles erupted in violence and anger. Perhaps, though, it could be the last if the rioting can be used as a turning point, but where do we go from here? We’ll put that question to some activists and scholars, including three authors of a monumental study called A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society.
First, though, let’s hear some voices of Los Angeles as the ordeal unfolded. They were reported on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and on Los Angeles’s public television station KCET.
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS, Actor/Director: Last year, there were 771 gang-related murders. What did you expect from these children? Did you expect these children to say to you, “My God, another injustice.” Did you expect that? Did you?
HUGH HEWITT, Host, KCET: No, no, no. Absolutely not.
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: Good. Then you expected this to happen.
HUGH HEWITT: What I expected is that there would be trouble if an innocent verdict came in but that the social contract would hold, that the institutions like the first ANE church
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: Did they hold in the political structure of this country?
HUGH HEWITT: No, they failed absolutely.
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: Then how can you ask them to hold in the…amongst the people?
DIANE WATSON, California State Senator: The 12 jurors made a costly error and this is emotion that you can’t keep under wraps.
JOE HICKS, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: Folks knew about this. In fact, if the president and the governor had listened to the voices that were working in the community, the warning of this for years…I mean, this didn’t take brain surgery for us to figure out that there was seething anger in inner cities throughout this country and in Los Angeles, yet nobody paid attention, and when people tried to raise that, people simply didn’t listen.
1ST RESIDENT: I don’t think the Rodney King trial was right. I think they should have proved that them cops Were guilty, but then again the black people shouldn’t go terrorizing everything like they do. I don’t think that’s right either.
NEWS REPORTER: What are you doing today?
1st CHILD: Just going around watching everybody, watching all the stupid fools burn up everything, looking at all that stuff.
1st WOMAN: Just to do all of this to innocent people…I mean, these people may be supporters of Rodney King as well as they are. They may not like what happened to Rodney King, and so when you’re doing this, you’re losing the support of the very same that you need.
JOE HICKS: I was in the city when Watts went up in flames in 1965 and let me tell you the conditions there are worse today than they were then. The conditions in East L.A. are worse today than they were then. Who’s been watching this?
NEWS REPORTER: Are you frightened?
1st CHILD: Yeah. In a way.
NEWS REPORTER: Why? What do you think’s going to happen?
1st CHILD: Something’s going to burn up over my house or something’s going to catch on to my house or where my mother lives or by her job or somebody in my family might get hurt or something.
NEWS REPORTER: Are there people trying to stop this stuff from going on?
1st CHILD: Now here’s your store here. It’s got black-owned right on the front of it and that door is still broken out. Did you think that sign would protect you in some way?
1st MAN: No, no. I didn’t think I would be standing Friday morning.
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: Our kids are armed. We have found hand grenades. We have found pipe bombs. We have been saying this for years, that our children are armed. America, wake up.
NEWS REPORTER: What do you mean by this and what do the people who are honking their horns mean?
2nd MAN: What do we mean?
NEWS REPORTER: What are you trying to say?
2nd MAN: We’re trying to make noise. OK. Noise brought you here. Noise brings the media here. Noise brings attention here. Upon making the noise, we hopefully, we can get some response.
NEWS REPORTER: Is this an endorsement of the violence that we’ve seen?
2nd MAN: No, it is not. You do not see no one advocating violence here.
1st WOMAN: There’s a lot of harmony that goes on that never makes the news.
NEWS REPORTER: Why do you think it never makes the news?
2nd WOMAN: Because good news isn’t news. Just bad news is news.
3rd MAN: People of Los Angeles are taking back their streets. We’re we want to clean up our neighborhoods. We care about where we live and that’s the message that has to go out, is…instead of this home-looting network stuff that has been aired on the TV.
3rd WOMAN: We’ve been here since early this morning. We live in the neighborhood and…we just came out to shop here and this is our neighborhood so we just came out to help. We’ve been out here since 9:00 this morning. We’ve got blacks, Latins, we’ve got Koreans, we’ve got Armenians and we’re all here working together. So, it’s not a racial thing.
4th MAN: We live here in Hollywood. We are so proud to live in this city. We are trying to make this boulevard shiny like it was before and with me is my family, my children. That’s what I teach them, respect and cooperation.
4th WOMAN: We want peace. Thank you.
6th MAN: We came here, we saw this and there was no way we couldn’t stop and get involved with this. This is positive.
RUBEN MARTINEZ, Journalist, “L.A. Weekly”: What about the possibility of coalitions? I mean, there’s been attempts at bridging the gap between African-Americans and Korean Americans with the tensions that erupted with the death of Latasha Harlans last year, the young girl who was killed in the Korean convenience store. What about the possibility of a coalition between African-Americans and Latinos?
JOE HICKS: See. I don’t think it’s a question of can minority folks coalesce because there have been efforts over the years to do this and folks in this city I mean, look, I know everybody here. You know, you’ve got guests coming up that we work all the time with on these kinds of efforts.
RUBEN MARTINEZ: But why hasn’t it worked in the inner city then?
JOE HICKS: The question is…because the federal government and the state governments have never reprioritized the resources in the country to deal with Americans living in American cities,’ We bailed out Kuwait, what, a country run by corrupt sheiks.
1ST MAN: Something good’s coming of this and I’m predicting that there will be a coalition of Korean, blacks and Asians.
NEWS REPORTER: Now wait a minute. See—
1ST MAN: It’s coming from this.
NEWS REPORTER: Why leave me out of this thing?
1ST MAN: To make it racial which it is. It is the white man’s responsibility. It is the whites, the white power structure in this country that brought all of this on.
NEWS REPORTER: But, see, I’m white and I didn’t bring this on.
1ST MAN: I didn’t mean you individually, but we were never looked at individually. We were always looked at as a group. So now we’re going to take the same view.
HUGH HEWITT: All night last night, I was up writing an OpEd for this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times that tries to go beyond being a rich white Republican to talk about raising the sales tax, to talk about enterprise zones to rebuild Los Angeles. You know, what’s coming on real strong, is that “OK, rich affluent people of other different races, it’s your fault.” I’m sorry. It’s not my fault. I just moved here three years ago. I have worked in the government for six years at no wages to try and bring people together and I…you know, I don’t think that’s
ANGELA OH, Korean American Bar Association: You’re misapprehending the message here and I think that you need to be very careful as to whoever these listeners are on this program. You need to be very careful about making those kinds of statements publicly. What you’re hearing here to my right is a piece of the truth. The other piece of the truth is that not all white people are bad, not all Republicans are bad, not all rich people are bad. There have been some very wealthy people in each of those categories that I just named off who have been terrific in terms of helping in this effort, but the reality is…and I don’t think even you can deny it…that this system has ignored people of color.
HUGH HEWITT: I agree.
NEWS REPORTER: What do you want me to do? What can I do?
1ST MAN: You’re doing it right now. You are doing what you can do, giving us a chance to speak. Now let’s hope someone listens.
BILL MOYERS: Those interviews occurred during the riots and during the cleanup now underway. People did start to listen. My own impression is that the violence in Los Angeles has provoked what could be one of the most useful discussions of our nation’s race relations in 30 years. The best discussions we’ve heard haven’t been official. They’ve come from people on the bus, from New Jersey, on the subway, among people in the halls of their offices. People are asking each other questions they were too self-conscious to ask before Los Angeles.
Last night, our station in Los Angeles, KCET, brought a number of citizens there together in a town meeting. We listened by satellite and collected a sample of what was said.
RICHARD KIM, Business Owner/Victim: Our store was basically looted and burned down the second day of the violence, and while we were trying to, I guess, stop the looting and that process, my mother was shot in the leg and, fortunately, it’s not serious, but…well, soon afterwards, the place was looted and it burned to the ground.
NEWS REPORTER: And what kind of a business was it?
RICHARD KIM: It was a TV…video…appliance store and the sad part is when I went back to see the damage, most of the major appliances were still there but badly burned. I would have felt much better if they had been taken and it would have been put to some good use.
RICHARD RIORDAN, Attorney: What happened is the growing fission between the haves and the have-nots in this city…it’s grown dramatically in the last 25 years since Watts and the have-nots, which I think a lot of people call the underclass, are feeling very hopeless with good reason. They’ve been poorly educated. They’ve come from culturally disadvantaged families. They don’t have the tools to compete in society. There aren’t jobs for them and they have nothing to look forward to in life.
NEWS REPORTER: What does culturally disadvantaged mean?
Mr. RIORDAN: It means that they came, for example, from single-family households. They were not taught the difference between different colors before they went to school. They don’t know what a pair of scissors are. These are kids that we have failed to give the tools to compete in this highly complex society and what can you expect of them?
JERRY YU, Korean American Coalition: I think this…what happened here in L.A….this is a microcosm of what’s happening here in America. If you look at who was doing it and the communities that were hit, you’re looking at the people who are the bottom of the economic ladder and have been there for decades and generations.
MIKE DAVIS, Author: What’s happening is our big cities are being turned into a criminalized third-world nation and I guess I must say for myself that the principle lesson of the country’s first multi-racial riot is you can build…rebuild the stores, but until you can deal with the pain and despair in the hearts of our children and change that, we’re not going to change anything and I have one simple proposal which is…the President of the United States said he’s willing to keep the Army and Marines here as long as necessary. I think we should say to him, “Thank you very much. You can have the Army and Marines back. Just give us the money to hire the children and the unemployed kids in our community and let them rebuild their neighborhoods.”
JOHN MACK, President, L.A. Urban League: One of the areas where there has been a tremendous amount of discussion and debate back and forth between Korean Americans and African-Americans centers around rude treatment, for example. One of the complaints that I have constantly heard from people who live in my community, people who are served by the Urban League, is that whenever they go into stores owned by Korean American merchants that some, not all, but some are rude toward them. Another issue centers around employment, the fact that they make their money in this community but only hire Korean Americans or to a large extent and it goes on and on. The point is that if…you don’t have to speak English to treat somebody courteously and to smile.
RICHARD KIM: There are definitely cultural differences and it’s…there are cultural differences. It’s not rude. It may look rude because you don’t know that what they’re doing is not really rude in their culture and I was trying to explain that and I think John Mack understands that, but I think most of the community may not.
STEVE DOWNING, Retired LAPD: I think it should move on from something so specious as who is courteous when you go into a store. I don’t care what store you go into in Los Angeles. It depends on the organization and how the people are trained. Some stores will be courteous. Some won’t.
JOHN MACK: I think it has a whole lot to do…and it may seem small in some respects and it’s not specious. It’s reality for the people who have fewer…they don’t have as many options as maybe you and some other people have when they go shopping. What is the old adage, the customer’s always right, and then that…and I would say if you believe in this country and believe in capitalism, I would think you would believe in that basic—
STEVE DOWNING: I certainly agree with that because if you don’t treat your customers with courtesy and they resent the service you deliver, they’re not going to do business with you, and when you see the guy next door getting the business and you see his technique, I think that—
JOHN MACK: If you have the option.
1st WOMAN: You’ve got to have an option. You’ve got to have the…t’s about choices. As long as you have a choice, you can make that decision. When you don’t have that choice, it’s just like being in bondage. It’s just like slavery. In our community, we don’t have those choices. Right now, you’ve got to go six or seven miles to a grocery store, but where you live, I bet you have a choice. You have a grocery store probably on every comer. It’s a matter of choices.
OSCAR WRIGHT, Small Business Administration: I’m really surprised at what’s beginning to take place here. You brought the question of race-all of a sudden, bitterness. That’s the same thing that we just went through. What we need to be talking about is how do we take the indigenous diversities that we have and form a global community in Los Angeles that can compete in the 21st century.
2nd WOMAN: It is not by trying to outvictimize each other.
OSCAR WRIGHT: Many of our communities have something to contribute. The black community has something to contribute and has. The Korean community has something to contribute and does. We can have a thriving business community here but not if we sit here and try to rehash the 1968 Kerner Commission that was never completed. So, if we’re going to end up with another Kerner Commission for 1992, I’d rather leave right now. If we’re going to talk about rebuilding Los Angeles and working in the black community to create a small business infrastructure—
XAVIER HERMOSILLO, “NEWS for America”: Until you begin addressing what occurred here. The trigger was the verdict. There is hopelessness, but what occurred was by hoods and the good people stayed home. It was hoods and I think we have to remember that. They were hoods of all colors. I think—
NEWS REPORTER: Posit a question. You seem skeptical.
SAMUEL PAZ, Attorney: Yes, because even assuming we build, we get money, are we changing the basic nature of the police-community relations? Do we still have to live through another 27 years of police brutality before we get back and burn it down again?
WILLIAM VIOLANTE, President, Police Protective Agency: I think it’s really important to understand here that the police are not the enemy. I mean, we are…we’re parents, we’re fathers, we’re brothers, we’re sisters, we’re, you know, grandparents.
2nd WOMAN: Mothers.
WILLIAM VIOLANTE: We’re mothers. We’re grandmothers. We’re grand-mothers. I mean, we are part of the community and it’s important to understand that and we have a job to do and one of the things that has to be understood is that we have to be included in what’s going on in the community.
KERMAN MADDOX, Community Activist: I don’t know that there’s anybody in this room, and I’m including myself, that truly represents that group of people that participated in the activity that took place Wednesday and Thursday. So, you can build buildings all you want, you can have committees all you want, but unless these young people who participated in that activity Wednesday and Thursday night believe that they have a stake in this society, and it starts at the highest levels of government and the private sector, you can rebuild and they’ll tear it down again.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that discussion took place at a town meeting in Los Angeles last night and I’ve asked some people I respect to come to this table to discuss what they were talking about and where we go from here.
Robert Woodson is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. He spearheaded tenant ownership in low-income communities. He’s also chairman of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda. He works at the neighborhood level trying to bring about affirmative change at the grassroots.
Robert Woodson, what about those young people we just heard are going to tear it down if we don’t change reality?
ROBERT WOODSON, Center for Neighborhood Enterprise: The only worthwhile comment that I heard in that last segment was from the last presenter because what we traditionally do, as we saw in that piece, is that we diagnose that the husband has cancer and then we sit and ask the wife…apply the cure to the wife, but we have got to stop listening to those who are estranged from the problem, who are separated and we’ve got to bring those people who the young people respect. In other words, not…first of all, not all young people are in crisis even though they may live in low-income communities. Not all of them are burning, not all of them are criminals, but some have to seek family life in a gang and whatnot and what these young people are looking for is someone to call them to themselves. For instance, in th parable of the prodigal son, it says he took his family’s riches, squandered them, became penniless and poor and then it said he came to himself and it was at that point he was prepared to receive his father’s riches, but the people who call young people to responsibility are the indigenous leaders, the people in Los Angeles with names like Leon Watkins, Sweet Alice Harris.
BILL MOYERS: People we didn’t see at the—
ROBERT WOODSON: We didn’t see.
BILL MOYERS: Who are these people you’re—
ROBERT WOODSON: These are indigenous leaders. They are the healthy, the community antibodies.
BILL MOYERS: Right down to—
ROBERT WOODSON: Right down to sharing the same ZIP code as the people experiencing the problem. They are names like Raoul Gonzalez. They are people who kids look to for support. Unfortunately, when we look for solutions, we only…we do not turn to these people. We turn to the kind of people you saw in the studio, outside professionals, people who market in the problem, but we do not turn to the grassroots leaders who can…who have an influence on…with those kids because they’re available to them, they’re accessible. Their own behavior is a model for what the kids should emulate. They’re morally consistent. These are the people who have been ignored by policymakers from both sides of the aisle and are seldom the objects of support.
BILL MOYERS: You said that…you sort of muttered during the discussion and said these people that we saw in the video would be seen as carpet baggers down—
ROBERT WOODSON: Some of the people from Los Angeles called me when they were watching the television show. They said, “Bob, please tell the American public that we don’t see these folks in our community all year when we’re experiencing the problem, that we only see them when there’s time of crisis.” They show up on television as legitimate spokespersons for the black community, and when resources are given out, they’ll be the first ones with their hands out saying, “Give us the money to help those people,” and we’ll have a repeat of what we’ve experienced in the past 25 years.
BILL MOYERS: Well, one of the reasons…what you’re saying is one of the reasons we’ve…I’ve invited to this table our next participant, because she is an activist with music, and just as The Washington Post said this morning, “The new leadership among these people you’re talking about is coming from rappers and entertainment people,” and many of the young adults living in urban America who don’t remember the uprisings of the 1960s are getting their messages, their images from videos, videos that foreshadowed and expressed the frustration that some people say broke out last week.
Let’s look at this little video before we talk to our next guest.
SISTER SOULJAH, Raptivist: The time for scared, lip-trembling, word changing, self-denying, compromising, knee-shaking black people is over / If you have something to say, speak up with authority and permission / If not, sit down and shut up / We have to have the power to tell the truth to say whatever is necessary, to do what needs to be done, whatever it is, no matter who it may hurt
BILL MOYERS: That’s Sister Souljah who calls herself a raptivist who works, as I said, with music to reach young people and that video was called ”The Hate That Hate Produced.”
What’s the truth that hurts so much? What must people be told?
SISTER SOULJAH: People must be told that this is a question of power. A lot of the conversation that I hear is white people wanting sympathy for all the evil deeds that they’ve done for all these years and it’s not a question of us giving them sympathy. It’s a question of us having power and access, also that I haven’t seen anyone on television that represents the voice of young people so far and I think that it hasn’t been said that these acts were done for revenge and these acts were done after black people waited patiently for the criminal-justice system, which doesn’t usually work, to work because they thought it would because this time we had a video and caught the criminals red handed.
BILL MOYERS: How would you like me…I’m white…to interpret your work?
SISTER SOULJAH: Well, I don’t make my work for you to interpret it. I make it for black young people so that they can understand that we are at war, that we have to be strong minded, that we have to be productive, that we have to be unafraid of expressing ourselves and getting what we want in this society.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t there a danger in telling young people, encouraging them to be militant? Aren’t you taking them down a track that can only lead to a cul de sac, and at the same time, alienating a lot of people who really don’t understand or accept or even grasp that militant language?
SISTER SOULJAH: Well, what most people who know my work know is that I don’t only teach young blacks to be militant. I teach them to be intelligent, substantive, to make analysis. I think that America has to stop painting young black people as being uncivilized and irrational which is what they’ve done in the coverage of this story in Los Angeles. I think that we have to look at the fact that black people didn’t just run outside and burn up their houses because they were angry. The Beverly Center was wrecked and that’s in a white area. Korean businesses were targeted be. cause that Korean woman shot and killed Latasha Harlans and she was convicted of the crime and she did not one day in jail and we’ve got 25 per. cent of our black male population behind bars doing exorbitant sentences for small crimes and we don’t get justice. These are the reasons why people were attacked.
BILL MOYERS: Describe, as you see it, the gap between those young people and the rest of society.
SISTER SOULJAH: The gap between young people and the rest of society is that young people don’t have hope. Jesse Jackson says keep hope alive, but there is no hope because they look at the leadership, number one, and they say, “OK. To get along in American society, you have to be a sellout. You have to be…put on a suit, talk like a white man, ask for what white people want, say what white people like, to be successful,” and young black people don’t see that as something that they want to strive for. We want to be able to be who we are, talk how we talk, walk how we walk, live how we want to live and be producers and providers for our children in the future. We want to be African.
BILL MOYERS: Didn’t you want to go into politics once? You went to Washington and worked, didn’t you?
SISTER SOULJAH: I went to Washington and worked, but once I found out that there was no work going on in Washington, I decided that I didn’t want to be part of that scenario.
BILL MOYERS: What did you see? What do you mean no work going on?
SISTER SOULJAH: What I saw was a lot of fake people, a lot of phony people. There are ways that I could intellectualize it, but I wouldn’t even do that because I’m not trying to show you my skills. I’m trying to tell you the truth.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I know from reading about you and from the young people on my staff you have skills other than music, but What do you think about this, Robert Woodson?
ROBERT WOODSON: Well, I think…I wish the issue were as simple as the young lady is putting it. When I ask myself then, if power is what we were striving for, that was the call in the ’60s…why is it in my city in Washington, D.C., we have been in control of the courts, we have been in control of the City Hall, school boards, zoning commissions and yet poor blacks in that city are no better off than when they were controlled by whites? The same has been true in Los Angeles. The same is true of Atlanta. The issue is and so that we are failing our own people in some cases and so it’s really in some cases…as I see it, it is the rules of the games that have to be changed, not just the sex of the ruler, because if you areif you take over a government structure, that is that is not fair to poor people, that emphasizes downtown development where 80 percent of all the development dollars that flows into these cities develops downtown, none in the neighborhoods, yet the neighborhoods and the violence there is used as a rationale for getting urban action grants in the ’60s and ’70s. When that money comes, it does not go in the neighborhoods and some black officials who are in control of it make sure that their friends are taken care of and so that it doesn’t matter then who controls it if what they do is corrupt.
SISTER SOULJAH: I think the thing that we have to be clear about is the definition of power. I don’t consider Mayor Dinkins to be powerful. I didn’t consider Marion Berry to be powerful. I don’t even consider the black woman who’s there to be powerful. Tom Bradley, the guy in Los Angeles…I consider him to be pitiful, not powerful.
BILL MOYERS: Who is powerful then? Who is powerful?
SISTER SOULJAH: Powerful is when you can deliver resources, services and substances to your people and not compromise. The only black people who can become mayors of these cities are people who compromise with the white power system and deliver the resources to other places other than our community.
BILL MOYERS: That…let’s go to Detroit to take a look there because Detroit was the sight, as we all know…so many of us know, of riots in the 1960s and many of the young men in Detroit are watching your video. So, I want to talk to somebody who works with those young men, social worker Michael Cross. He is the director of the male responsibility program for the Detroit Urban League. For more than 12 years, he’s been working with these young men trying to prepare them to make it in urban America.
You work with these men. Are they as hopeless as Sister Souljah says?
MICHAEL CROSS, Detroit Urban League: Well, I think that they aren’t hopeless. It’s just how they’re viewing reality and life, that there’s no hope for them, that they’re excluded, they’re isolated, that they are looked at as less than human, inferior, unintelligent, as criminal. A person feeling like that day after day after day…they have to develop some way of responding to that reality and I think that what we’re seeing is that…you know, what we call about…black males being cool and black males being indifferent and ice cold is part of that response. I mean, it’s a lot of pain that’s there and these brothers are dealing with that pain and one of the things that we need to do is we need to realize that it’s a painful situation.
BILL MOYERS: Then what do we do next? After you realize that, what happens? What practical steps can be taken to empower, to use her word, these young black males who many people see as a symbol of the crisis?
MICHAEL CROSS: Well, the first thing that you have to do if you’re going to be productive is that you have to be alive and you have to have some degree of respect and values and some degree and understanding of who you are and where you came from.
BILL MOYERS: In the violence in the community?
MICHAEL CROSS: Now I’m just telling you about in general, and in 1987, the Detroit Urban League, following the initiative of the National Urban League, established a male responsibility program. I can remember at that time that people felt that it was hopeless. Detroit had the…was number one as far as homicides were concerned and people were just saying, “No program for black males is going to work in this city, It and, ”Why are you trying to do something like that,” but over the past five years, we’ve worked with approximately…about 40,000 African-American males. We have made a difference. We are looking at these young men and these younger males as our brothers. We are reaching out to them in a very, very real sense. We are telling them the truth. Yes, we wear suits, but I’m not of this suit. I wear the suit. I make the suit. This suit does not make me. I tell the truth. I’m not going to compromise. I was raised a certain way. I’m very proud of being an African-American. I understand that we have very varied differences among us as a people, but that’s healthy and I think that realistically we shouldn’t be too hard on our political leaders. Yes, they deserve criticism, but we’ve only been involved in the political system for about the past 25 years. We inherited a system that had been robbed, that had been literally raped of its resources and yet we are expected to do the same thing. I think that is horribly unfair.
BILL MOYERS: Some of the problems that we’re taking about have been documented time and time again and most recently and most powerfully, in my judgment, in this book, this report which was four years in the making.
It’s called A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. It documents what these men and women call the unfinished agenda of a nation still coming to terms with the consequences of its history.
It’s an exhaustive study that examines the relationships between black and white Americans that we’ve been talking about here, economic status, political system, schools, families, health and how all this impacts on the community. We have three guests here who helped put A Common Destiny together. One of them is the editor of the book…one of the coeditors of the book, Gerald Jaynes, who is a professor of African-American studies at Yale. Do you believe…after the last few days, do you believe in a common destiny?
GERALD JAYNES, Professor of Economics, Yale University: Yes, I do, Bill. The idea of a common destiny, from the point of view of the authors of the book, was simply that if we look at American society, in particular if we looked at the changing conditions of American society over the past 20 to 30 years, what we find is that the conditions which are affecting black people primarily are the same conditions which are affecting the rest of society, white, brown, yellow, red, that
BILL MOYERS: Those are? Those conditions
GERALD JAYNES: Those conditions primarily during this period has been the extreme deteriorating economic conditions affecting all of American society, but in effect affecting black Americans and others at the bottom of the society most. This deterioration, the deterioration in the wages of adult men, black or white, whatever…black men, white men in this society who are high school graduates are today earning less in purchasing power terms in their weekly wages than they were in 1969.
BILL MOYERS: Well, given that, Mr. Jaynes, what…what’s the basis for your hope that we can have a common destiny if this gap, as your study says, is getting wider, economic gap?
GERALD JAYNES: Well, first of all, it’s not a hope. What we are saying in this report is that we have a common destiny, whether anyone likes it or not, that we are going to all go down together or we are going to all solve these problems together and I would point out that the young men who were involved with the most violent activity on the streets of Los Angeles last week are individuals who are saying that “We’ve been cut off from society. We have been told by this society that we do not count for anything,” and that the most connected part that they have with this society is basically the criminal-justice system. At the end of the first chapter of A Common Destiny, we said that it was very likely that there would be violent episodes in American cities in the forthcoming future and that they primarily would begin through occurrences in the criminal-justice system because that is the area where it is clearest to black men and women that they don’t count for complete human beings.
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about fairness and that’s a subject about which Jennifer Hochschild has written and talks. She’s a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and she participated in A Common Destiny.
What role do you think politics this is a political year. What role do you think politics will play in trying to fulfill an affirmative common destiny or can it in a political year?
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD, Professor of Politics, Princeton University: I think it can, but I don’t see much evidence of that at the moment. I mean, what I see mostly happening in the political realm right now is dominant society, which is to say most whites, are running away from these kind of problems, that people don’t want to think about them. They’re extremely difficult. They’re complicated. If you look at survey data, if you talk to people on the street, at least the stereotypical response of most whites is, “We dealt with this stuff 25 years ago in the last round of riots. Now let’s just get on with our lives. We individually have moved to the suburbs. We shop in malls. We go downtown if we need to, but we mostly avoid it, and after all, we’ve passed the right laws, we’ve promulgated welfare systems. Let’s just get on with our lives,” and, “Why can’t these people get their act together?” That, I think, is the dominant political view. I don’t think it’s the appropriate one at all.
BILL MOYERS: But you’re not going to change it, are you? We’re not going to change it, are we? I mean, those…you’re not going to get people moving back from the suburbs. You’re not going to get them accepting inner-city people out there, are you?
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: I think there’s a possibility of it. I mean, if anything hopeful comes out of the last week and…I’m grasping at straws here, but I think that’s what we need to do, it’s…people are going to be forced to realize…they’ve got to realize the fact that they have a common destiny, that…if you want to put it in sort of highfalutin terms, the cities are the center and the soul of the culture and the economy and the politics of our nation.
BILL MOYERS: A new poll, survey this week says that the majority of American people really don’t care about the cities.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think that’s right. I think they’re just wrong. I mean—
BILL MOYERS: They live in the suburbs.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: I think they do live in the suburbs, but if you look at certainly nations throughout history, they’re largely, not entirely, but largely identified by what’s happened in their largest and dominant cities. You can put it a little less highfalutin terms which is to say we can’t afford a nation in which we have, I would say, a small minority of the population, but nevertheless a non-trivial minority, who hate us as much as these people do and for good reason.
BILL MOYERS: One of the men who has been watching these events as long as I know and have is Charles Hamilton. He’s been speaking and writing about racial justice in America since the early 1960s. He’s now a professor of government at Columbia University. He too was a member of the team that put together A Common Destiny.
Reports like this, talk like this sometimes reminds me, as someone said early this morning, of a fellow who says, you know, “Let’s have lunch,” and never calls after that. I mean, one more study. Is there ever going to be lunch?
CHARLES HAMILTON, Professor of Government, Columbia University: That’s not the question you said you’d ask me.
BILL MOYERS: The discussion moves me along.
CHARLES HAMILTON: I wonder if we would be sitting here or if Bush would have gone on TV…President Bush…if there’d only been a verdict and not a riot.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think about that?
CHARLES HAMILTON: Well, I think we would not be.
BILL MOYERS: All right. Why?
CHARLES HAMILTON: Because the concern in this country is substantially with the rioting and the violence and not with the essence of that verdict. But, fair enough. Secondly, I think that there’s no question the common destiny is there whether we acknowledge it or not, but the problem we’re faced with…and that’s why I want to get quickly into solutions and programs…is that we really do face a fragmented political system. You’re going to get…and as I was saying earlier, this is one of the worst times to have this issue on the table.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
CHARLES HAMILTON: It’s a political season. It’s the epitome of the American political experience. Democrats are going to be blaming Republicans, liberals are going to be lashing out at conservatives and vice versa and we’re going to get that whole notion…both in the future and in the past, there’s enough blame to go around. I think that if there’s any agenda immediately, it is for a lot of us, all of us to insist that we somehow or other…I don’t know how we’re going to do this…raise this issue above partisan politics.
BILL MOYERS: Can we…have we done it, though, on the issue of race?
CHARLES HAMILTON: Of course not. Of course not.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve done it on foreign policy at times of war, but not on—
CHARLES HAMILTON: That’s right, but for a brief moment from time to time, you know, we’ve done this. We did it very briefly, I think, when Dirksen and those people on one side of the aisle joined with the Democrats on the other side and we got some good civil rights legislation in the ’60s. There was bipartisanship there and it couldn’t have been done without it.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: There’s one other occasion I would…I can think of or one other kind of occasion in which you have predominantly conservative southern judges promulgating orders for school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. You can argue about whether school desegregation was, in fact, the right way to go and I think there’s evidence on both sides of that question, but it does seem to me that there have been moments in American politics, mostly on foreign affairs, but not entirely, in which people have risen above either partisan politics in the electoral context or their own personal backgrounds, over their own traditional ideologies in order to see that this is an occasion where we simply must be more heroic than—
CHARLES HAMILTON: It usually takes a crisis to do that, but I think we can. There’s enough evidence to suggest that it can be done.
SISTER SOULJAH: I don’t think the electoral system is even the question…the political system…is even the question for the majority of blacks that participated in that rebellion that happened in Los Angeles and I think the reason why we wouldn’t be sitting here if they would have delivered the right verdict is because white people wouldn’t have been hurt, white property wouldn’t have been damaged and America wouldn’t have lost to the tune of a half a billion dollars.
In terms of solutions, however, for young people, I see it as black people having to put pressure on the system, continued and consistent pressure, and we need to—
BILL MOYERS: For?
SISTER SOULJAH: I’m going to tell you what for. What we need to do is get our experts together, make an economic assessment of our relationship to America, our contributions to corporate activity and divest from America as a white racist institution. Black youth…we spend a lot of money on sneakers, we spend a lot of money on gear, we spend a lot of money on jewelry and we’re going to have to be unified. For the first time in Los Angeles, we saw unity between the Bloods and the Crips. We need that. We need black unity.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but,
SISTER SOULJAH, they were…these two gangs out there were unified in looting the community. They temporarily abandoned their own enmity between each other and helped to ransack their own community.
SISTER SOULJAH: But that doesn’t mean that I give up hope on their ability to become politically conscious. I think that black youth have been neglected and they’ve also been looted which is why they’re looting.
ROBERT WOODSON: Let me just say there’s some valuable lessons learned if you look into black history. The questions that I…power, as it used to be defined in the black community, wasn’t what white people did or did not do. Power was defined in the black community…well, how we controlled ourselves. Up until 1959, 78 percent of all black families were whole. Less than 2 percent of black children were raised in households where the mother never married. This was at a time when we were being lynched every day, driven out of towns. So, we never allowed, historically, whites to determine our destiny and so we had…when we weren’t treated at hospitals, we had our own 230 hospitals. When we couldn’t borrow money from banks, we had our own banks.
SISTER SOULJAH: But that was before integration and migration—
ROBERT WOODSON: Let me finish. No, no, no. All I’m saying to you is that the lesson here, though…power does not come from what someone concedes. It’s controlling your own behavior. When…and that there are two levels of cooperation. We talk about a racial cooperation at this level. On the street level, people are less concerned about racism than they are getting to the store past the drug dealers and you have
SISTER SOULJAH: Right, but the drug dealers are there because of racism because young brothers and sisters—
ROBERT WOODSON: Listen. Let me tell you something.
SISTER SOULJAH: do not have money and they sell drugs to—
ROBERT WOODSON: Listen. You know, we can keep—
SISTER SOULJAH: for survival and we shouldn’t be dishonest about that.
ROBERT WOODSON: No, but we can keep talking about somehow the destiny of these young people is determined by something external. The young Muslims
SISTER SOULJAH: Finance in America is the number one reality for black people. Finance.
ROBERT WOODSON: The young…let me tell you the young Muslim brothers, the young Christian brothers who associated with teen fathers in Columbus, Ohio, where 200 of them under Charles Ballard have married the mothers of their children. They’re reaching out to 2,000 others—
SISTER SOULJAH: I think that should happen, but once they marry—
ROBERT WOODSON: to show that they can—
SISTER SOULJAH: they need to be able to put food on the table.
ROBERT WOODSON: Wait a minute.
BILL MOYERS: You can’t hear with two people talking.
ROBERT WOODSON:…so that they…Kenilworth Parkside in Washington, public housing residents, 680 kids in seven years have gone on to college. Teen pregnancy is almost eliminated. In other words, there are efforts like this where people who work with teens and others say…power, first of all, comes in controlling yourself. If you cannot control yourself, you cannot control your society.
BILL MOYERS: What works in Detroit, Michael Cross? What works?
MICHAEL CROSS: What works is the whole question of power and power coming from you understanding who you are, where you came from, where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, though?
MICHAEL CROSS: For people of African descent, it means that we are basing our activities and living our lives…and that’s a big difference. As Sister Souljah is saying, many African-Americans are talking and saying that they live according to the Afri-principles of African-Americans, but they don’t, but respecting each other, but, see, that’s the—
BILL MOYERS: I need to see specifically what it is that’s working.
MICHAEL CROSS: That’s a hard thing to get. Everybody’s looking for the magic and the magic is the relationship of one human being to another within the framework of families, teaching respect, teaching values, teaching individual self-control, teaching individuals that there is hope, somewhere to go, and we have to do that.
SISTER SOULJAH: 1 would like to respond because I grew up on welfare. I grew up in a female…a single, female household. 1 grew up in Section 8 project housing. I grew up in the Bronx. I’m respectful. I’m intelligent. I’ve attended Cornell University, Rutgers University. I’ve traveled all around the world in almost every country. I did all of that as a welfare recipient and a scholarship student. At the same time, I am also intelligent to know…I’ve also built programs in the community. I commend you for your work, Mr.Woodson, and I commend you, but let’s be honest here. I can affect maybe 80 kids, 100 kids in my program. You can affect maybe 1,000 kids, maybe 2,000 in your program and you the same. The point of the matter is
MICHAEL CROSS: Forty thousand.
SISTER SOULJAH: Forty thousand. The same. The point of the matter is that if you count the numbers from New York to L.A. and in the Midwest region, we are talking about phenomenal numbers. We’re not talking about handouts for the sake of handouts and because we’re not moral people. We’re talking about big dollars and resources that need to be committed to people. People are dying not because they’re not moral, not because they don’t have spirituality. I grew up in the black church, I have friends that grew up in the black church and the bottom line is there are some real economic problems in this country and the reason why we haven’t gotten solutions is because when people sit down to the table, they are dishonest about the reality of the condition of African people, the majority of us.
BILL MOYERS: Gerald Jaynes, what about…you grew up a black man in an all-white community, right?
GERALD JAYNES: It’s an interesting sort of thing because I grew up…if we go back to this whole idea of the justice system and the justice system really being symbolic of black people’s place in the country, I grew up to respect police. There were no police problems in the small black community where I grew up surrounded by whites. Soon as I became of late-teen age and left that town and went into the cities, I got hassled by the police. There couldn’t have been a more straight, all-American, 18, 19-year-old that I was, bucolic country boy, but I got hassled by police. When I was a…in my 20s as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I used to like to jog at night. My wife always said, “Please don’t go out and jog at night.” She was not afraid I was going to be mugged or attacked by gangsters or hoodlums. She was afraid that the Philadelphia cops were going to stop me and I would get my head busted.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you have hope for?
GERALD JAYNES: So, what we can say…what I want to say…I want to draw a conclusion from this. What I want to say is that the criminal-justice system cannot treat black people fairly because the typical white American cannot understand that kind of viewpoint about the criminal-justice system, that kind of viewpoint that a Rodney King could have as to how he may or may not be treated by police, whether he is in fact guilty of something or not. I am apprehensive every time I drive…I’m driving in my car and I see a police car come by, although now I know I’m truly middle-aged.
SISTER SOULJAH: Every black man in America.
BILL MOYERS: But let’s bring that back to…we will leave people frustrated unless we bring you back to your issue which is economic. All of you in one way or the other are talking about economics, money. That’s power. What specifically…you know, George Bush says this morning it’s…welfare is the cause of the riots out there. Welfare is a form of money. What must we do economically to help the people all of you are concerned about? Charles Hamilton?
CHARLES HAMILTON: Enterprise zones in its various forms is one.
BILL MOYERS: Encouraging business to move into these areas.
CHARLES HAMILTON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Or to develop businesses. OK.
CHARLES HAMILTON: And I think that…we can build bipartisan, bi-ideological support for that and we ought to do it, you see. Now conservatives and liberals want that. Blacks and whites want that. So, why don’t we just move on just that one? Now, incidentally, I think that…I don’t agree it’s not come up here, but there…we’ve heard that a lot of…that the great society programs essentially fail. Well, be careful. There were some good ones and let’s not be too facile in rejecting those. I think Head Start worked. I think that Meals on Wheels worked. I think that a number of those kinds of programs worked, but I also agree with you, Bob, that there was an awful lot of wastage.
ROBERT WOODSON: A lot of the great society did more harm than it did good. Durham, North Carolina that was considered the black Wall Street didn’t lose one business to the depression in 10 years nor did it lose any to, you know, being burnt out by the Klan, but in less than two years of urban renewal, 100 businesses went down, 600 homes, 70 acres owned by blacks was razed, 50 acres are level today. That decimates an entire social and economic structure that took decades to build up and the same thing’s true with Miami. You can name the Overtown area where we had all the hotels and…so, what I’m saying to you is…it’s not an ideological statement. We need to sit down and soberly assess what has worked, but we’ve got to remove the disincentives for low-income people to produce wealth, welfare policies. If you own any assets over $1,000, you can be eliminated from welfare. We really need to look at…looking at low-income communities as areas not just to consume but to create wealth.
BILL MOYERS: You also are holding meetings around the country in the communities dealing with values, with family issues. What are you doing there?
ROBERT WOODSON: What we’re doing in seven…the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise is hosting seven town meetings all over the nation. We’ve had two so far. We’re bringing together from a 500-mile radius people that have demonstrated that they have solutions to urban poverty, to despair. They bring people back from drugs, stopping the violence, developing small businesses. We need to look to the real experts in society, convene them and let them tell us what works and why.
BILL MOYERS: Who are the real experts?
ROBERT WOODSON: The real experts?
SISTER SOULJAH: That’s a good question.
ROBERT WOODSON: The real experts are the people like Kim Gray, public housing resident, a mother of five, all kids went to college from public housing, motivated 680 other kids to go on to college, now owns a multi-family complex where there has not been a death in four years in Washington in an area that used to have a death every two weeks. I mean, we have to look for models of success and then bring those in and say, ”Well, what is it that they are doing that’s different than the people two blocks” and then, ”What can we do in public policy to spread this throughout the nation?”
BILL MOYERS: Jennifer Hochschild?
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: It seems to me you simply cannot afford to define all whites, all middle-class blacks, all outside professionals as the enemy, not because whites necessarily have the interest of blacks at heart. I think many don’t.
SISTER SOULJAH: Most don’t.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: Most don’t even. Most at least are indifferent, if not actively hostile, I think.
SISTER SOULJAH: Which is still being—
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think it’s…OK, but my point is that you can’t afford to write them off. It’s the same problem as expectations in classrooms. If you continue to tell whites that they are predominantly racist and predominantly we are at war with you, whites will continue to act that way. It seems to me that if you—
SISTER SOULJAH: They’ll act like that whether I say that or not—
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: No. What you need to do
SISTER SOULJAH: —because historically for 500 years that’s how they’ve acted.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: That’s correct. I don’t deny any of that. You need to persuade whites that it’s in their self-interest to stop acting like that.
SISTER SOULJAH: I don’t think my destiny lies in the hands of white people.
JENNIFER HOCHSCHILD: No, I didn’t say it did.
BILL MOYERS: Professor Jaynes, last point.
GERALD JAYNES: Well, the point of economic…one of the things that people like the president could do or should do is to stop, number one, taxing jobs and taxing work, things like Social Security taxes which raise the—
BILL MOYERS: Payroll taxes.
GERALD JAYNES: —costs of hiring people 10, 15 percent should be put on a different system for financing for people’s retirement and stop taxing the workers. Welfare systems which in effect are not for intact families but are for certain kinds of families should be stopped. Individuals should be given family assistance, but it should not be at the cost of being able to be together.
BILL MOYERS: All right. Charles Hamilton, what has changed if anything since you and I met in the ’60s?
CHARLES HAMILTON: I think there is a heightened sensitivity nationally from all elements. The big question is how we deal with it, how we take advantage of this adverse situation.
BILL MOYERS: So, we have an opportunity now?
CHARLES HAMILTON: Oh, there’s no question.
MICHAEL CROSS: But we also have another opportunity and what’s changed is the awareness of black people, of their culture and the strength that they can draw from that culture and that knowledge and the power that the African heritage gives us and helps us in these situations. I don’t think we’re undermining that and I’ll never undermine that. I’m dedicated to protecting my people, providing for my people, respecting black women and acting as an African-American and not acting like anyone else. I think that’s—
BILL MOYERS: Thanks to each one of you for joining. You make me want to close with an image from Los Angeles that sums up what I perceive to be the challenge we have agreed upon.
It appeared in The Los Angeles Times. You see the heroic effort of a solitary man as he hurls a single bucket of water against the roaring flames. You see courage, but you also realize how futile it is unless we see it as the symbol that alone is not enough. I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 3, 2015.