To commemorate Black History Month, the Afro-American Cultural Center held an open forum Tuesday evening on the current status of black political leadership in the United States and socioeconomic barriers facing the disadvantaged black community.
The event — entitled “Black Responsibility: By Whom and for What?” — featured a debate between Juan Williams, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for National Public Radio, and Lani Guinier LAW ’74, a prominent American civil rights scholar who was the first black woman to serve as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. Williams argued that the black community is responsible for its own advancement, while Guinier advocated an approach rooted in social policy measures.
The discussion was organized and sponsored by the Yale alumni-led Ogilvie Robinson DeChabert Leadership Forum.
Ralph Dawson ’71, one of the ORD event organizers, said the forum was a response to a debate sparked three years ago by entertainer Bill Cosby. In a controversial speech at the 50th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Cosby argued that misconduct by poor black people was the primary impediment to their advancement in today’s society. His speech was condemned by critics, who argued that systemic racism and discrimination remain the primary barriers to improving the situation of black people.
“The debate topic remains important because it relates to choosing and implementing the best strategies for advancing the interests of a group of Americans who have been and remain affected by unlawful discrimination, and have not shared in the progress of America in the manner that they should,” Dawson said.
The event, which was moderated by Kurt Schmoke ’71, a former mayor of Baltimore, Md., and the current dean of Howard University School of Law, filled the Law School Auditorium to capacity.
Dawson said Guinier and Williams were invited because they are leading voices in American public policy discussions. In support of Cosby’s position, Williams has written a book entitled “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — And What We Can Do About It.”
The speakers diverged over who is most to blame for perpetuating what they called the disadvantaged state of the black community.
Williams argued that the poverty-stricken community is only making a weak effort to advance itself through education and work, failing to appreciate the great strides made during the Civil Rights Movement. But Guinier said the bigger problem is a national climate of self-interest, which has led to inadequate government aid to poor black communities.
“I would not put the burden just on the people who are in the gravest and most extreme circumstances,” said Guinier, who was nominated for assistant attorney general for civil rights by former President Bill Clinton. “We need to think more boldly and transformatively.”
During the debate, Williams and Guinier spoke on how to identify leaders in the black community, and alternately agreed and clashed over issues ranging from affirmative action and inter-generational social mobility to Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy for president.
Both speakers agreed that the current media-driven vision of a black leader is dangerously flawed.
In response to a question about whether he would consider Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas a black leader, Williams said he is concerned with the growing belief that a black leader is not “black enough” if his or her views do not adequately address grievances that the community faces as a result of historical racism.
“It comes down to a limited definition of someone who would speak in the tradition of an old-time civil rights leader,” he said. “This is anachronistic, disruptive and hurts us as a race.”
Williams also criticized the young black community’s emulation of sports stars and hip-hop and rap artists at the cost of its education, calling these celebrities “phony leaders.”
Both speakers said they would endorse Obama’s run for president in 2008.
Students had varied reactions to the speakers, but many said taking a middle road between the two conflicting views would yield the best results.
Sharifa Love ’09, who said she was more aligned with Guinier’s arguments, thought the debate was useful in engaging students in national political issues.
“Juan Williams presented a convincing argument about why some people are phony leaders, but I do not think he addressed where one would find a proper leader or what a proper leader would look like,” Love said. “Guinier was more helpful in encouraging us to look outside of famous people for good community leaders.”
But Marcus Hill GRD ’08 said Williams’ argument that the black community should pull itself up by its bootstraps is valuable. The attitude complements Guinier’s call to increase the political and social opportunities available to blacks through a collective action, he said.
“Much of what he said about personal responsibility may be necessary to kick off the other side,” Hill said. “A lot could be done by combining their two stances.”
The Ogilvie Robinson DeChabert Leadership Forum at Yale was formed by alumni who attended the University during a time of increasing black enrollment in the 1960s and 1970s. Dawson said the organization, which is an offshoot of the Afro-American Cultural Center, aims to prepare students for leadership in an increasingly diverse world.