How is the anger and grief following George Floyd’s killing being exploited?
Why does civil rights veteran Bob Woodson argue that the national focus on systemic racism distracts from larger problems facing black America?
How do funds meant for helping low-income black communities fail to actually go to the people who need it most?
And, what are real solutions to uplift people in impoverished neighborhoods?
In this episode, we sit down with Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Woodson Center and one of the founders of the “1776” initiative.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Bob Woodson, so good to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Bob Woodson: Just pleased to be here again.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, these are some really difficult, difficult times when I called you the other day to discuss. You’ve become a voice of reason for me. You said, “I never imagined we could be in a situation like this.” Just tell me, what was on your mind?
Mr. Woodson: Well, what I found troubling is that the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police would escalate into a full-scale assault on the fundamental values of the nation. There’s been a steady march over the past five decades of an assault on our founding values of America, by people who really are denigrating our founding principles. They’re again using the death, the tragic death of this man to continue that assault, and it’s very troubling and very disturbing that the charge of racism and institutional racism has become a consistent mantra that’s being broadcast around.
It’s even now morphed into an orthodoxy like communism. Are you a supporter of the party or not? There is no tolerance for anyone who disagrees or challenges the assumption that racism is the core problem facing the nation and particularly black Americans. Anyone who challenges that statement, that orthodoxy can lose their jobs. People in law firms are being asked to sign on to documents attesting to that belief.
Drew Brees, a football player, just challenged whether or not players should be taking a knee and disrespecting the flag, [and] was almost mobbed. He was compelled to offer an apology for saying that taking a knee during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner disrespects the flag and disrespects the nation.
Corporations are just pouring money into organizations that are what I call race grievance organizations. Some of these organizations have just received a million dollars from the Uber company. Their position is that slavery has not ended; it’s just evolved. Many of those organizations that Hollywood types are pouring money into are taking the same position that America is defined by slavery and that capitalism is corrupt. Therefore the nation is incurably infected with racism.
It moved from “de jure” to “institutional” racism. I’m not sure I know what that is, but it’s really sweeping the nation like a virus. This is our second pandemic in recent days, and it has some very dangerous possibilities that people are afraid to challenge this orthodoxy. But challenge it, we must, because it’s really harming the very people in whose name it’s being evoked—that is low-income blacks.
My organization, the Woodson Center, has been for 38 years championing the cause of the least of God’s children. Those that are in these crime-infected, drug-infested neighborhoods are the ones who are suffering the consequences of this emphasis on race. That’s what’s most troubling. And so we are committed to pushing back against this orthodoxy. That’s why we’ve formed a program within the Woodson Center called 1776, because we affirm America’s values. Many of the grassroots leaders that I support and we’ve supported over the years were able to redeem and transform their lives and therefore revitalize their communities, because they have embraced the principles and virtues of our founders of self-determination, of resilience, of triumph in the face of despair.
Those are the founding principles upon which they have found from freedom from drugs and alcohol and self-destruction. For those values to now be under attack, as expressions of racism really, will be most damaging to the least and the most vulnerable people in our society. So we intend to push back with everything that we can.
Mr. Jekielek: I know you work in over 2500, I think, communities around the nation. It’s incredible. I’d actually like you to talk a little bit later a bit more about some of what these leaders that come from the grassroots have managed to accomplish, because there’s some remarkable stories there.
To your point earlier, actually I just read today there’s a letter that was signed on by something like 1000 health professionals. [It] basically says, this is my quick read of it, that systemic racism is a much bigger health problem than coronavirus or COVID-19, roughly speaking. I didn’t know what to say or think about that.
Mr. Woodson: Really, really… I find it as a black person who’s a veteran of the civil rights movement most insulting. It’s the most demeaning proposition that I could think [of]. It is the most patronizing thing that anyone could say about someone, that somehow your life and your destiny is not in your own hands. That somehow whatever conditions or challenges you’re facing in your community, that it is not your fault. That the fault lies outside with white America. And therefore, unless and until white America changes, there’s little expectation that life will improve inside that community. I mean, that to me is fundamentally racist.
…They’re injuring people with the helping hand. In other words, what they’re saying, some of the proponents of this position, is that the out-of-wedlock birth, the black-on-black crime—There are about 6000 blacks that kill other blacks every year. Even though we’re only 13% of the population, we contribute 50% of all the murders that occur—somehow these challenges that we face, the solution to it rests outside of the community. Nothing is more lethal than to provide a convenient excuse for someone’s failure. To say to them, “You are not responsible.”
… The people who advocate [these] positions, unfortunately do not live, don’t have to live with the consequences of their advocacy. They’re demeaning the police. Some of them [are] saying we should defund the police. Well, there are studies now that support the proposition that when you vilify the police, and the police therefore begin to step back and not enforce the laws as vigorously, as aggressively in low-income high-crime areas as they did, it results in an increase in the number of black-on-black deaths. There are two studies [showing this].
But the people who are assaulting the police and attacking them as instruments of institutional racism don’t live in those communities that are suffering the problem. Their children are not in the foster care system. And so you have an unfortunate situation where middle-class—I call them grievance-oriented, middle-class, privileged elites—are the ones on television shaking their fists, claiming that America is incurably racist. They are preying on the guilt of white Americans who are writing checks to them. They are personally enriching themselves and their organizations in the name of champions of social justice. They are taking money in the name of addressing an injustice but the people who are going to suffer from this arrangement will be the people in those communities.
Because around the country recruitment of police officers is down 62%. It has the highest kind of dropout rate of people. Suicide rates among law enforcement is high. And … 86% of the police chiefs said they are having difficulty recruiting people. And so what happens? In some cases, in some cities, the police are unable to respond appropriately to 911 calls, because they don’t have enough officers to cover it. Many of the people who are advocating reducing these budgets, live in gated communities, and they don’t have that challenge.
… I don’t know what institutional racism is. I want someone to tell me what that means. I believe that the reason that they keep invoking it is because it prevents black elected officials who have been running the cities, the liberal democratic mayors and city council members and school board members [who have] been running our cities for the last 50 years [from accountability]. Those are the places where they identify the largest amount of inequities. Well, they don’t have to then answer the difficult question: If you were elected on the promise of improving the conditions for the least of these, why are students, why are children failing in systems run by your own people?
To avoid answering that question, all they’ve got to do is point to some abstract notion like institutional racism. Somehow white America has found a way to compel black professionals to miseducate their children in schools run and controlled and financed by them. They don’t have to answer that question as long as they can keep the public’s attention focused on institutional racism, whatever that means, then they don’t have to address the difficult questions. They also don’t have to deal with the economic realities of life. Many of those young whites who are participating in these demonstrations live in what were formerly low income black communities that have been gentrified. In Washington, DC, for instance, where we’ve had black leadership for five decades, 20,000 low-income blacks have been moved out of DC through gentrification. But no one discusses that, because we’re talking about institutional racism. Then the question is, what is it? What is the answer? What is the solution?
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a huge question. I was looking at … a few interviews that were being done … with protesters the other day. A couple of young men that I noticed were out there basically saying, “black lives matter.” I’m not talking about the organization, Black Lives Matter. They’re saying, “No, I care about the black community. Blacks are disempowered. They need to be empowered.” These are the messages. I sensed this man is quite genuine in his … hopes for the black community and so forth. You’re basically saying that … they’re fighting for something that they don’t understand or that isn’t even entirely real.
Mr. Woodson: First of all, you cannot generalize about the black community or any other people. We’re not monolithic. We have differences in education, differences in income. When it’s convenient, we generalize the black community, and we use the demographics of those who are living in the most troubling situations. We use the demographics of incarceration, of low-income housing, we use that demographic information to make a case that all blacks are suffering. Then when the money arrives, it goes not to the people suffering the problems, but those who are providing service.
For instance, in the last 50 years, the government spent $22 trillion on programs to aid the poor. 70 cents of all those dollars go not to the poor, but those who serve poor people. They ask not which problems are solvable, but which ones are fundable. Then you have black elected officials, many of them were veterans of the civil rights movement, who then came into political office, they were the ones who were dispensing those funds.
Listen to this, two out of ten whites with college degrees work for the government. Six out of ten blacks with college education work for the government, which means that the vast amount of money that has been spent on the poor that has produced and reinforced dependency has been administered by a lot of middle-class blacks, who then elect those into office in those cities who continue this funding. As a consequence over the past 50 years, if you look at the biggest income gap in America, it isn’t between whites and blacks, but it’s between lower income blacks and upper income blacks. And so the question if that is true, if racism is the culprit then why are not all blacks suffering equally? You have a lot of professional blacks operating in a professional class whose careers depend upon having poor people to serve. These are not ill-intentioned people.
They’re talking about structural racism. It’s structural inequality, which means that you’ve got one class of blacks, whose careers and future depends upon another group of blacks who are dependent. So if your career as a professional service provider is dependent upon having dependent people to serve, what incentive do you have to promote independence among the class of people who are down and struggling for independence and self-sufficiency? You do not have one.
In some cases, the exploitation is even worse. I remember in a lot of the contracting set aside programs where they said, “Well, blacks are not involved in this industry, we need to have set asides.” Okay, so what happens is that I remember a case, a manager, a black contractor told me he was bidding on a $3 million contract for the Alaska pipeline so that minorities can get involved in working on it. So he gets the $3 million contract. He takes 300,000 [dollars], 10%, off the top and then subs it back to the white company that was the competitor. He walks away with a windfall. They’re all whites working on the project, but he walks away with the windfall.
That is typical of what happens in a lot of these set aside programs. It was so vast and so pervasive, that when [Ronald] Reagan’s Labor Secretary, Ray Donovan, came up for charges of corruption in New Jersey, for doing something similar, the judge ruled that you can’t hold him responsible, because the problem of this perversion … is so pervasive that you can’t hold him responsible. What I’m telling you is a part of the public record, but it doesn’t get discussed because it’s a part of a game that has been played.
I said in an article that I wrote that the big sleeping giant in America is low-income blacks. They’re gonna wake up and realize one day that they’re being scammed. In the words of Malcolm X, they’ve been bamboozled, hoodwinked, hustled because they are allowing race to conceal the exploitation of one class of blacks by another. But we’re not supposed to discuss these things, because if you have a charge of racism and you have guilty whites pouring millions of dollars into professional black grievance-mongers and they are enforcing closure on any discussion or open debate or discussion on the issues that I’m discussing today, there will be no analysis of it, because you’re in violation of the race grievance orthodoxy.
Either you sign on here that you support institutional racism, or we’ll drive you underground. We will come after your job. We will destroy your career. One of the things that served black America well in the first part of this last century was the quality of the debate inside. That’s what’s sorely needed today. There needs to be more debate and discussion about … whether or not institutional racism is our biggest fault or whether there are challenges that are internal.
My position is that black America needs to have a two year moratorium in complaining about white folks, and use that time for self examination about how in the past century after slavery, blacks were able to achieve greater gains in a 30-year period between 1940 and 1970 than we have been able to accomplish in the last 30 years. In other words, when white people were at their worst, we were at our best.
We closed the education gap in the south on a 20-year period from [an education gap of] three years to six months. We did this because we built 5000 Rosenwald Booker T. Washington schools. We had more capital assets back then, which means hotels, insurance companies, ship companies. We had railroads. All of these things happened under segregation. Yet today, there’s not a single black-owned office building from Maine to South Carolina. It is important for us to move beyond this discussion of whether something is racist or not, whether there’s equity or not, so that we can begin to go in and analyze the economics and the social dynamics that will produce for the least of God’s children.
In other words, the acid test of effectiveness of any policy or program should be: “Does it improve the lot of the least of these?” At the Woodson Center, the test we use is whether people’s lives have been improved. We have 100 people who were drug addicted last year. Our groups can show you that they’re free of drugs this year. They were people who were living in public housing and dropping out of school. They’re now in college. There should be a very simple and concrete test of the efficacy of whatever you’re advocating. Does it improve the lot of the least of God’s children?
Mr. Jekielek: You’re basically saying, good intentions aren’t enough.
Mr. Woodson: Good intentions, no, they’re not enough. Someone said, I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred [by] Hitler, said one of the most difficult human phenomena to confront is not malice, because you can confront malice with violence. It’s folly. It’s when someone thinks they’re doing something that’s in your interest that’s really injuring you with a helping hand. That’s the most dangerous … I’d rather confront an honest bigot, than to confront some patronizing white person telling me, you just don’t have what it takes to make it unless I do something for you that’s special.
People don’t even understand [those] who are advocating for institutional racism are insisting that white America patronize them and treat them as an impotent child as an expression of their acceptance. That’s what’s so sad and ironic about the current discussion. They don’t even know when you’re insulting yourself, wanting white people to get down on their knees and acknowledge their privilege. There are enough stupid white people to do that, ingratiate themselves. It’s disgusting what this country is coming to.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, … there’s a lot of people [on the streets]; I’m hearing a million. Among these people, most are peaceful from what we’ve been seeing, but then there’s these other groups like the Antifa people seeking the end of civilization as we know it, those groups. And then we have gangs that are taking advantage of these situations and looting and all this kind of stuff. So there’s this fuse; there’s a powder keg; there’s people trying to light the fuse. How do we approach this in your mind, being with all your grassroots leaders?
Mr. Woodson: There may be a million people coming, but the people who are in these communities who are suffering the problem are much larger in numbers. They’re the silent majority of black Americans. We need to give them a voice. … People talking about voter suppression. The biggest voter suppression in black America is apathy. If you go around your major cities like Washington, Trenton, Newark, in the last mayor’s race in the high-crime areas of Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, the turnout rate for the mayor’s race was 6%. That’s the level of apathy that exists in the cities.
But also, if you were to look at the footage from some of these riots, there were very strong black men and women who were standing up to the looters. There was one I saw where a well-dressed white couple came with a nice car and pulled up, and in the backseat there were bricks that they were handing out to black teenagers. One black woman really went into a rage and started cussing them out and demanded that they get the hell out of that community because they were destroying it. And they left. Another white woman was defacing a church and she was assaulted by a neighborhood leader. Then there was a very vocal woman in Manhattan, I’m trying to reach out to her, who went into a rage for 15 minutes saying that she fought for 10 years in defense of this country, and people are coming out ripping out charging stations where homeless people are able to charge their phones. That’s one.
…They took out and burned and looted a drugstore, a large drugstore. Now the elderly people can’t get their drugs. They have to get people to come outside. She went into chapter and verse about the horrors of what these outsiders have done to destroy her community in the name of social justice, in the name of Floyd. She was a peaceful demonstrator. She was seeking justice, but she saw those who were exploiting that passion and coming in and ruining her neighborhood.
Well, the Woodson Center intends to give a voice to those three people that are indigenous to that community and bring them together so they can begin to speak for themselves, because a lot of the people who are advocating the destruction of this country are doing it in the name of low-income blacks. Well, if you give low-income blacks the means to talk and speak for themselves, that will undermine the moral authority [of] those who say they are.
We have ample evidence that major change can come by this approach. For example, back in the early 80s, I was working with a group in Philadelphia, House of Umoja, that President Reagan mentioned in his State of the Union address. I’d worked with them for years, and they had promoted the reduction of gang violence. It used to be the country’s leading gang center.
I won’t tell the full story, but it was one woman and her husband who had six boys. One of them was a gang member, so she invited them to bring his friends home, so they moved into their little house and from there, for three years, they created an island of excellence that expanded to the whole city. They had a citywide gang summit. Gang violence went down from forty-eight a year down to two. So they had that kind of influence.
In 1983, there was an outbreak of groups of small bands of black boys, who would rob people on the streets, knock them down, take their chains and purses, and it spread like wildfire. There wasn’t an organized effort. The city couldn’t do a thing about it. [With] the House of Umoja, in ’83, I came together with four of their leaders. This is the innovation. They went to the local house of correction, the prison, and recruited 130 inmates on a crime prevention task force.
These men in prison gave them the names of 200 altogether young people from around the city, said bring them to us, let us counsel them. We were able to rent some school buses on that Saturday and brought 200 kids into the prison, into the gymnasium. We had a table and had lunch there. The inmates came in. Some of us spoke, but then the inmates broke into small groups with the kids. They have moral authority, and told these kids what they’re doing is destroying their families and this city, and it must cease. The wolf pack attacks stopped overnight. Overnight. It’s a matter of public record: 1983 Philadelphia. Your viewers should check it out.
If one organization with moral authority speaks to a selected number of grassroots leaders, and they’re able to effect change that changed the whole city then that same resource exists today. The Woodson Center has worked with leaders like this over the years, who have been able to go into high crime, drug-infested neighborhoods and create islands of excellence within those communities. What we’re lacking is the resources to go back and take those same approaches and apply it to some of these troubled cities around the country.
Mr. Jekielek: … Do you want to talk a little bit more about that? Just one thing that keeps hitting me here. You were talking about groups that seek to defund the police. Black Lives Matters, indeed it’s part of their platform, which I find astounding again. Yet there are all these people out there who … certainly believe that black lives matter. I’m one of them, I think. But then you have an organization that believes that there should be no police. I don’t know if I’m reading that right. … I feel like people are confused about these things.
Mr. Woodson: Well, they are dangerously confused. In fact, the City Council in I think it was St. Paul, Minneapolis took a vote on a resolution to replace police with social workers. So someone’s shooting up your neighborhood, you call a social worker. There’s some radical kind of crazy kind of recommendations like that. Again, I want to know from the people in those neighborhoods what they want. That’s what the Woodson Center is doing. We want to go and do polling in those communities to ask those folks what they want.
Right now the people who are on television, with their fists shaking, talking about Black Lives Matter. Black lives only seem to matter when it’s taken by a white person. It doesn’t seem to matter that in St. Louis in a four-month period last year, 18 children under the age of 14 were murdered in that one city, and only one arrest was effected because of the distrust with the police. Only one arrest, which means there are 17 killers roaming free. Do we want this to spread throughout the whole country and the fact that for every one black person shot by a police officer, 270 blacks are killing other blacks.
… In one case, it’s a little girl whose picture I carry with me. She’s a five year old, cute little thing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin about three years ago sitting on her grandfather’s lap at five o’clock in the evening. Somebody shoots through that window and hits her in the head, [while she’s] sitting on her grandfather’s lap. It’s not front page news in the paper. It doesn’t lead. This kind of black-on-black genocide is almost becoming the new norm. But that does not fit the Black Lives Matter narrative, and so that never gets discussed. They’ll say you’re mixing apples and oranges.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s just a tragic, tragic situation because … there seems to be a lot of energy for justice in the nation. Again, I don’t know if I have my numbers right but a lot of people … believe that there needs to be some kind of reform. They feel there’s something deeply wrong. You’re just saying that energy is being pushed in the wrong direction.
Mr. Woodson: The wrong direction. In other words, that woman I told you about with her husband or [some man] drove up in a nice car and offered bricks. She is considered a protester. They use protester and peaceful demonstrators as synonymous. Mark Zuckerberg just put $10 million to support organizations that support women and people who do that. Then the Hollywood types pledged $20 million to bail out of jail anyone arrested for rioting and protesting. But there’s nobody putting up money to support what this woman [was talking about]: putting in charging stations so that homeless people then can get their phones charged.
There was a black fireman and his wife you remember in Minneapolis [who] took their savings and opened a sports bar and a restaurant, and it was burned to the ground. They had no insurance. It was a young white person who stepped up, started a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild, and they achieved their success. We need to be investing in people to rebuild those communities with the same vigor that we are going to fund people who are driving in that community, opening their car door and offering bricks to young people, instead of supporting a fireman and his wife to create a business in a community, so what they can offer is jobs and a future to young people.
We’re at that divide right now in America, whether we are going to invest in the promotion of opportunity as a hedge against injustice, or are we going to promote protest and accusation and fund the vilification of the nation, continue to teach our children that they live in a nation that’s hostile to their future, that the values of America are antithetical to the best interests of their future. Are we going to continue to teach these derogatory lessons to our children?
Or do what we’re proposing to do with 1776: give them an alternative curriculum. Show them that America is defined not by its legacy of slavery, which is its birth defect, which we should acknowledge. But America is defined by its promise, because people are motivated to change and improve, when they are shown visions of victories that are possible, not constantly reminding them of injuries to be avoided. Again, I can’t say this enough, there’s nothing worse than convincing a person that their destiny is determined by someone who hates them.
… I think it was Carter G. Woodson [who] said, if you condition a person to enter into a back door, they will demand that you build one if you don’t have one. We ought to be concerned about the mental conditioning and the attitude of young blacks saying that unless white people are willing to do something for you, whatever that is, then you can’t expect to achieve.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, I think I’ve said this before: every two-bit self help book out there will tell you that you have to accept responsibility. I don’t think there’s one out there that would say something different than that, … because that’s what lets you overcome.
Mr. Woodson: Well, one of the leading books on Amazon in the socialist section is Communism for Kids.
Mr. Jekielek: I think I need to read that book, frankly. I want to know what they’re teaching.
Mr. Woodson: Well, go on Amazon and look up Communism for Kids. It’s one of the best-selling books in that section. That’s what we’re preparing. … Again, that race grievance has become an orthodox, and its mantra is institutional racism.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the connection between this and communism?
Mr. Woodson: Well, I’m saying it’s developing an orthodoxy like communism is. I’m not saying that it’s synonymous. But I mean, in China and communist countries, you either follow the orthodoxy or you go into a prison camp. You accept the orthodoxy of the party, or you’re ostracized or murdered or put in prison. We’re approaching that. If you don’t accept this orthodoxy, if you don’t embrace it, if you say anything against it, you will be punished. You can’t debate it. You can’t discuss it. You can’t challenge it.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, today, what looks like a bit of a powder keg, so to speak, I don’t know if everyone agrees with me, but it’s deeply troubling. What can we do today?
Mr. Woodson: Again, what we can do is to give voice to those in those communities who have the most to gain or the most to lose. Give them a voice, give them the resources. They are the ones who are trying to protect their communities. Let’s give them the means to protect their communities. Let’s let them articulate how they think their communities can best be protected.
Mr. Jekielek: Ask them if they want police, for example.
Mr. Woodson: Exactly. Ask them and not someone who doesn’t have to suffer the problem. We shouldn’t allow people who don’t live there to make decisions for people who do live there. Let’s do a survey of these communities where crime is the highest and find out what the people there want before we rush to accept the recommendations of people who don’t have to suffer the consequences of what they’re advocating
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Woodson: Even with all the challenges, I’m optimistic. I believe America is at its finest when it’s meeting its greatest challenge. I’m optimistic, because I have seen transformation, redemption in action both of individuals [and communities.] I’ve seen whole communities transformed before my eyes when the people there understood that they must be agents of their own uplift. They must be responsible for their own destiny. They are the ones who must triumph over challenges, so I’m optimistic.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob Woodson, such a pleasure to talk again.
Mr. Woodson: Thank you.