When Bill Cosby, in a speech to the NAACP last May, let fly a merciless condemnation of black illegitimacy, educational apathy, and the idea that white racism causes black social problems, political commentators dropped their jaws. They remained stunned when he vented similar frustration to audiences across the country over the next six months. Sure, “civil rights” advocates have been known, on rare occasions, to criticize self-defeating black behavior, but convention requires that after briefly denouncing, say, black-on-black crime (as if black-on-white crime would be okay), the “leader” should turn his attention to the racial injustice that allegedly causes such crime and harp on that for the next year or so. This Cosby refused to do. “It’s not what [the white man] is doing to you; it’s what you’re not doing,” he thundered in Detroit.
The reaction of black audiences was just as unexpected. Rather than take offense, they waited hours in line, in blistering heat and freezing cold, to hear Cosby deliver his impassioned plea for bourgeois behavior.
Cosby’s tough-love campaign foundered in January, when a woman
accused him of sexually assaulting her the previous year; he denied the charge, but has not been heard from since. No need to wait for him to
find his voice again, however. Dozens of grassroots black conservatives
have been delivering the same message of personal responsibility—in as electrifying a fashion—for years without generating a glimmer of interest from the press. Routinely denounced as pariahs and race-traitors, they nevertheless believe that they are speaking for the silent majority of blacks. Now that Cosby has exposed the untapped audience for straight talk, maybe the media will finally pay attention to these unknown iconoclasts. Nothing would help black Americans more than for the mainstream press to give such honesty and hard-won wisdom the respect it deserves.
How can anyone in their right mind accept reparations?” asks Rapheal Adams incredulously. “I would never accept them,” he says, pressing his hands to his chest. “I don’t have shackles.” Suddenly solemn, Adams intones melodramatically: “ ‘Four hundred years ago, they brought us here!’ ” He squints skeptically: “Yeah? You’re lookin’ pretty good for 400 years old. Guess what? The slaves have been dead a long time. Show me where the ‘Colored Only–Whites Only’ signs are in this country . . . anywhere. Everyone agrees slavery was horrific, but you have to look at what people did to end it. I’m sorry, you’re not owed one damn dime.”
Rapheal Adams is a dissenter in Cincinnati, seat of the country’s most vicious race politics. Until recently, the ebullient 43-year-old fought the city’s racial arsonists as a host on black talk radio, working the night shift at a General Electric jet-engine plant in order to promote his views during the day. When race riots erupted in 2001, Adams, as the sole pro-police counter-demonstrator at an anti-cop rally, barely escaped assault.
The hatred directed at him by Cincinnati’s race-baiters has had no effect on his high
spirits. Over bacon and pancakes in an outlying Cincinnati shopping plaza, he parodied black victocrat dogma and countered it with his own exasperated common sense. Despite his hip exterior—shaved head, tiny retro glasses, and sleek black turtleneck over a slender frame—Adams is remarkably old-fashioned. When a classmate handed him a joint in the seventh grade, he handed it back, because his mother had never mentioned such things to him. His filial respect remains unwavering today. “My parents are the most important people in my life,” the air force vet explained in a heartfelt letter he sent before we met. “They instilled in me a very important lesson about the value of right vs. wrong.” As for his grandparents, “They’re deceased, but I carry them with me every second of my life. My grandfather grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a time when black men were not allowed onto the sidewalks. He gave me this lesson: ‘You can’t condemn someone for his skin color. If you can’t be nice to people, there’s something wrong with you,’ ” Adams urges emphatically, pointing for emphasis. “My grandfather never gave me hand-me-down misery.”
By contrast, the anointed civil rights leaders, Adams says, constantly manufacture racial resentment to stay in power. “Conyers, Mfume, Sharpton, Jackson—these people can’t go before a camera, they can’t go to sleep, without pushing the ‘get-whitey’ syndrome. There was Jackson down in Florida in 2000, talking about ‘dis-en-franchise-ment,’ ” Adams rolls out the syllables portentously. “Oh, really? Go to Dade County and check out the educational level of the population. The Democrats were taking U-Hauls and vans to cart anyone they could find to the polls. ‘But I’ve never voted in my life!’ their captives said. ‘Don’t worry, you just get in there and press the lever for Gore.’ But these people couldn’t read, they didn’t know what the hell was going on. Why doesn’t anyone talk about voter irresponsibility?”
The “get-whitey” syndrome now permeates black culture, Adams observes, destroying the spirit of self-help. “It’s so disheartening for black people to try to pin blame on every white person.” Adams recalls Jesse Jackson’s 1999 lawsuit against the Decatur, Illinois, school district for having expelled six ninth-graders for a vicious football-stadium brawl. “Now we call school discipline ‘disciplinary profiling.’ See how twisted that is!” He shakes his head incredulously. “People say: ‘We’re more boisterous; that’s our culture.’ No. You can’t just stand up and shout at your teacher; you’re embracing behavior that others see as wrong.”
The flip side of the “get-whitey” syndrome is the “acting-white” syndrome. “Anything of value, that’s ‘white,’ ” observes Adams. “Standing with your pregnant girlfriend, that’s ‘white.’ Staying away from gangs, ‘white.’ Wearing pants where they’re supposed to be—on your waist—‘white.’ ‘We wear our pants below our butt line.’ It is so sick. If you’re not acting out in school, you’re an Uncle Tom, you’re ‘white.’ ”
Adams’s parents watched the romanticization of underclass culture in the 1970s with alarm and predicted that it would spell the black community’s downfall. “In 1970, 1972, you had the start of the Superfly period,” Adams recalls. “Do you know the things that we celebrated? Pimping, drugs—they all showed up in Blaxploitation movies. It destroyed the advances of the civil rights movement. Medgar Evers, in his suit, tie, and white shirt—it all got stripped out. People said: ‘Man, we’re done with that; it’s time to let our hair down,’ ” Adams says in a lilting, super-cool glide. “We glorified street life, the projects. The Superfly period morphed into the gangsta culture of the mid-eighties, and now we’re glorifying violent criminals.”
Today’s self-designated “civil rights” leaders are cowards, Adams charges, because they refuse to challenge dysfunctional black behavior. “The battle that really should be going on is against the enemy that looks like you—the father who abandons his children or rapes women or sells drugs. Those are the people you need to fight, but you’re scared. Because they look like you, you don’t want to get your hands bloody.”
Adams shares no such reluctance for the necessary fight.
David A. Clarke, the towering sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, electrified Milwaukee in 2003 with his candid expression of disgust at the scapegoating of police. Lamarr Nash, a 24-year-old criminal, had stolen a truck and then led the police on a 17-mile high-speed highway chase, ending when he crashed into a deputy’s squad car. Nash exited the truck with his hands up and lay down on the asphalt. The deputies surrounded him, and for a brief moment, one put his foot on Nash’s neck, without causing any injury.
Predictably, the black civil rights establishment erupted in rage at this instance of police “brutality.” The NAACP called a meeting to denounce the police. At the meeting, Sheriff Clarke asked the crowd if they thought the offending deputy was a racist. The verdict was yes. Interesting, said Clarke; here’s his picture. The deputy was black.
Afterward, Clarke fired off an e-mail to a local talk-show host, Charlie Sykes, which Sykes read on the air. It was a classic Clarkean counterthrust. “I sat at the community meeting held at the NAACP on Saturday in utter disbelief and disgust at another failed opportunity for leadership. . . . Like sheep, the black legislators marched up to the microphone criticizing law enforcement, using words such as oppression [and] racism. . . . They spoke about Nash as if he was some sort of icon in the struggle to achieve equality and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as people like Rosa Parks. I, for the world, cannot figure out why someone engaged in felonious conduct, conduct that used to meet with condemnation and shame among blacks, was exalted into folk-hero status. Not one of these elected officials did the hard thing, which would have been to speak of the conduct of Mr. Nash as reprehensible, abhorrent, and unacceptable.”
Clarke’s e-mail set off a firestorm. Like Cosby, he was condemned for airing dirty laundry in public. A municipal judge accused him of pandering to the “right-wing conservative . . . reactionary crowd.” A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist accused Clarke—not the NAACP—of playing the “race card.”
Standard behavior for the victimologists, Clarke wrote. These apologists adopt “victimhood as an identity and exaggerate it. They give failure, lack of effort, and even criminality a tacit stamp of approval. This is done not with a view toward forging solutions but to foster and nurture an unfocused brand of resentment and sense of alienation from the mainstream.”
The 48-year-old sheriff exudes a dignified command presence, which does not prevent him from hitting back hard, sarcastically, and often against his critics
in Milwaukee and
his ideological foes nationally. Learning of an ACLU attorney’s statement that he “hated the sheriff’s office,” Clarke responded: “I take great pride in it. The feelings are mutual.” He regularly pens op-eds about the bankrupt civil rights “leadership,” which the local press, including black newspapers, just as regularly refuses to publish. Clarke then gives them to Charlie Sykes to read on the radio. One such op-ed, “Herd Mentality,” scoffed at Al Sharpton’s presumption to speak for all blacks and said of the Democratic Party: “A wise man once told me that if the horse is dead—dismount.” “Plantation Politics” likened the attacks on Bill Cosby to the punishment of blacks who dared to run away from slavery.
Where does Sheriff Clarke get his self-possession? “I was raised to think independently and for myself,” he explains in his deep voice. His father is responsible for his indifference to racial appeals. The elder Clarke joined the army rangers at 16 and fought in Korea in a segregated unit. “You’d think he’d become resentful, but when he came out, he had learned how to become a man and harbored no ill will.” As a result, Clarke says, he didn’t grow up “hating white people.” When someone called him a nigger, his father told him to get over it. “I grew up not dwelling on our blackness. We knew we were black, but we didn’t see it as being different.” Instead, his parents emphasized the cultivation of personal virtue. Clarke went through a black radical period in his twenties, complete with a big Afro, he recounts matter-of-factly, but he grew out of it. Today, Clarke says, “I refuse to view everything through a racial lens.”
That refusal puts him in the minority in talking about black crime, where the usual drill requires immediately changing the topic from a criminal’s act to his race, a free pass to exculpatory victimhood. Like every police chief in the country, Clarke regularly faces charges of “racial profiling.” But unlike many other police chiefs, he gives unwavering support to his officers, when merited. While he would never excuse brutality, Clarke said in his e-mail to Charlie Sykes, he backed the deputies in the Lamarr Nash arrest because they risked their lives to protect innocent motorists in an incident “started not by law enforcement, but by Lamarr Nash.” With typical feistiness, Clarke declared: “I will not play Pontius Pilate and offer a member of this organization up as a sacrificial lamb just to remain popular in the black community.”
Clarke’s indifference to specious “racial-profiling” allegations underlies his support for consent searches, a vital law enforcement tool and prime target of anti-police agitation. An officer, observing suspicious behavior, can ask the individual, often a motorist, for consent to search his person or property. Such searches regularly turn up guns and other contraband. The ACLU calls them a racist tool. In response, less fearless police commanders have banned the practice; Clarke couldn’t care less.
The welfare-industrial complex is none too happy with Clarke, either, since he insists that taxpayer-funded social programs show results. He opposed Milwaukee’s continuing award
of federal block-grant money to an “anti-gang” program that could not account for the public funds that it had already gobbled up. With
typical take-no-prisoners aggressiveness, Clarke demanded from the city all documentation
relating to the program and answers to rigorous questions about how the city evaluates grantees. He then alerted the local U.S. attorney and Wisconsin’s congressional and senatorial delegations to his concerns. The program was funded again anyway. Clarke’s reaction? “It makes me sick.” Even though the director is, in Clarke’s words, “a fraud,” the liberal elite, he says, “are more than happy to look the other way, because continued funding of black social-services agencies ensures the monolithic pattern of black votes.”
His battle against the grievance machine would seem a poor prescription for political advancement, but Clarke is hardly a conventional politician. Though he lost a bid for Milwaukee mayor in 2004, he will certainly run for office again. He is eager to speak on broader issues of personal responsibility: teen pregnancy and fatherless families, he says, are surely the most dire consequence of the 1960s counterculture. “No government program will be able to fix that until we face it in the black community,” he warns.
Not one for false modesty, Clarke argues—plausibly—that President Bush should give him and other black conservatives a platform to boost their credibility and exposure. Black ministers call him furtively to express support but explain that they can’t do so publicly. “People are watching what will happen to me; they want assurance that they can survive. It’s going to require individuals to develop courage to buck the plantation politics, because it’s not fun to be ostracized by one’s own people.”
Given Don Scoggins’s august Republican lineage, his close involvement in the War on Poverty would have been hard to predict. Scoggins’s grandfather, president of a historic black college in Richmond, was the sort of gentleman who would not dream of appearing in his own home without a coat and tie. The straight-arrow grandson, head of the ROTC at Virginia’s Hampton University in the 1960s, admired Republicans’ support for personal investment and wealth creation. But the optimism of the 1960s civil rights era inspired Scoggins to seek an M.A. in urban planning, which landed him a job as a community-development planner for the District of Columbia in 1972. “That’s when my real education began,” he notes dryly.
The 59-year-old, with the courtly manner of the southern black gentry, shrinks from criticizing others. But when it comes to misguided social schemes, his polite restraint loosens. Scoggins’s Washington, D.C., development office gave out grants to bring District houses up to code. Without accountability, the renovation contractors did
shoddy work and fleeced the government. “I’ve
never seen so much waste in my life,” he recalls. “I was just mind-boggled by the inertia of these programs.” Yet blacks look to them as guaranteed employment, he laments. Equally unaccountable, the D.C. government “was throwing money at problems hand over fist,” Scoggins marvels. “The more problems the bureaucrats found, the more money they got.”
Disgusted, Scoggins resigned in 1978 and became a residential landlord in the District. Again, he had high hopes for doing good. Though other middle-class blacks were moving out, Scoggins stayed put, determined to be a pillar of the community. Nevertheless, he ended up a typical slum landlord, paralyzed by local rent regulations. Tenants would fight his every effort to collect rent in housing court. In response to their trumped-up complaints, city officials would come to inspect his property and would inevitably find some housing-code infraction. Judgment: the tenants stay rent-free. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to spend money doing anything, because it was all going down the drain.”
Then the crack epidemic hit, further debasing Washington’s black neighborhoods. A dealer assaulted Scoggins in one of his own buildings. Landlords could rent their property only by entering the federal government’s noxious Section 8 housing voucher program. This was the last straw. “If your tenants are on Section 8, you’re on Section 8, too,” Scoggins realized.
He had become a welfare recipient. He sold his properties and got out of the real-estate business.
Scoggins’s experiences with government intervention confirmed his political heritage. At age ten, he had helped his family campaign for Eisenhower in the 1956 election, carrying the basket from which they sold chicken sandwiches up and down Tulsa’s historic black business district. “You had every last thing you wanted there. Welfare was not even thought of,” Scoggins says. Businessmen represented the black community, not a “bunch of ministers or poverty pimps, like today,” Scoggins recalls.
But once the government started its anti-poverty crusade, those viable black businesses were doomed. “A private housing provider can’t compete with the government. Socialism destroyed the black community. We went where the money was, and that was in the welfare state.”
Scoggins’s recipe for black advancement? “Someone should pool the great minds and figure out how to get blacks back into the private sector.” Right now, he says, a market-based society almost doesn’t exist in the black community. “Everything is Section 8, welfare, and make-work jobs programs. I’ve seen other ethnic groups start out without a dime in their pocket, and they thrive.”
As part of his own contribution to revitalizing black entrepreneurship, Scoggins labors tirelessly to bring blacks into the Republican Party. He says with his usual diplomacy: “If I had one complaint—and I don’t want to call it a complaint—the party is not working fast enough to get us into the hierarchy.” So Scoggins decided, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Besides working constantly on Republican campaigns, he formed the Frederick Douglass Republican Forum in Virginia’s Fairfax County in 2003 to bring conservative speakers to black audiences. He regularly communicates with the handful of other local black Republican clubs across the country and predicts that younger middle-class blacks will be increasingly skeptical about government social programs: “They’ll see that these programs only perpetuate the problem.”
Jesse Lee Peterson is one of the more flamboyant scourges of the civil rights establishment. He holds the “National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson” on Martin Luther King Day (to contrast “King’s dream and Jesse’s nightmare”), and he lectures on such topics as “We Shall Overcome Civil Rights Leaders.” He leads a national boycott of the NAACP, listing ten reasons, including: “Absent Fathers: 70 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock. Where are the fathers, and where is the NAACP?” and “Education: 44 percent of black Americans over the age of fourteen cannot read. Calling the NAACP!”
Tact is not one of Peterson’s defining traits. The sharp-chinned, goateed 55-year-old is too impatient with black stagnation to mince words, though he softens his more provocative statements with a disarming chuckle. At a recent conference on black leadership that he organized with the Heritage Foundation, Peterson fairly burst with exasperation, his eyebrows rising in a fervent exclamation point: “What is wrong with black folks that they let themselves be represented by” the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? he asked plaintively. “You have cities run by blacks—the mayor, the police chief, the city council are black; everybody and his mama, black—and I’m afraid to go out at night. Yet these cities’ leaders are still able to blame white racism for their problems. Help me on this. Why don’t blacks say: ‘You’re in control; do something’? Why do black folks continue to accept” the racism excuse? Peterson answered himself:
“I believe it’s because black people have been brainwashed, dumbed-down, and demoralized”—above all, by the destruction of the black
family. “Am I right or wrong on that?” he asked
Whites come in for equal rebuke. “Tell me this,” he asked the Heritage panel. “Why are white folks so afraid, why do they cower down at the charge of racism?” A few minutes later he threw out, laughing: “Don’t be scared, white folks!”
Peterson’s nonstop attacks have not escaped the notice of the black establishment. Michael Eric Dyson, the University of Pennsylvania’s tenured white-basher, perfectly summed up the victocrat reaction in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed. Dyson had debated reparations with Peterson at the 2002 National Association of Black Journalists conference and concluded: “If you’ve ever wondered what a self-hating black man who despises black culture and worships at the altar of whiteness looks like, take a gander at the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson.”
Even some grassroots black conservatives, while rejecting Dyson’s silly “self-hating” charge, find Peterson too acerbic. But he’s not going to change his style, especially when “feel-your-pain” emoting has become the Democratic machine’s signature attitude. He was raised on an Alabama plantation, where the laws were all against blacks, he says, but where people still had their self-respect. Work and family were fundamental; it never occurred to anyone that there was any alternative. After he moved to California as a teen, however, the welfare-industrial complex found him. He started running with a bad crowd and smoking marijuana. He learned that for his marijuana addiction, the federal government would send him a monthly Supplemental Security Income check, essentially paying him to keep using drugs. “I didn’t know anything about welfare until white folks told me about it. They said America owed us something.”
At the same time, Peterson was inhaling racial animosity from one of the most prominent Los Angeles black churches, the Crenshaw Christian Center. By harping constantly on racism, “the church taught me to hate the white man,” Peterson recalls. His welfare and drug habits took away his self-esteem. “I just partied for years,
until I realized my life had gone to hell. I was desperate to overcome.” Eventually, Peterson
got hold of himself and started working again
That experience of liberal paternalism fuels his candor. “One reason the black community is so screwed up is too much government involvement. Most black folks—not all, not all, not all, not all,” he quickly adds, his hands preemptively trying to tamp down what he knows will be a furious reaction—“are not suffering because of racism but because of lack of moral character.”
Today, Peterson is trying to build that character in troubled boys. His Los Angeles boys’ home, called the Brotherhood Organization
of a New Destiny (BOND), fights the passive victim mentality of the inner city. “We show the boys how to stop blaming others and take control of their lives,” he says. “White folks
are not waking up at the breakfast table every morning figuring out how to keep the Negro down.” BOND refuses public money. “Government programs aren’t the solution to the personal-responsibility crisis,” Peterson insists. “Families are.”
No Amens for the GOP’s Clergy Strategy
What do grassroots black conservative organizers think of the Republican leadership’s court-the-clergy strategy for bringing blacks into the Republican Party? Not much. A political strategist for President Bush recently explained the GOP’s rationale: “The minister is the No. 1 influence in the African-American community,” said Matthew Dowd. The president’s faith-based initiative, which directs government social-services funds to churches, has been the White House’s primary—and successful—tool for bringing black ministers into its ambit.
But the black conservatives with whom I spoke expressed little enthusiasm for this strategy. The black church is in some respects part of the problem, not the solution, they caution. “I’m tired of hearing ‘we have to rally the black ministers,’ ” sighs Don Scoggins. “Quite frankly, black ministers ushered us into the welfare state in the 1960s. I’m not against what the Republicans are doing, but I wish they’d do something with black business.” And the success of the faith-based initiative may be less than meets the eye, these conservatives worry. “A lot of these black preachers are on board with Bush this year,” acknowledges Jesse Lee Peterson. “But I’m concerned how their hearts have changed toward white America. I’ve had preachers tell me they’re with the Republicans only because of the money.”
Black preachers have been missing in action or affirmatively toxic on key social problems. They jump on the anti-cop bandwagon far more often than not. Rather than condemn black criminals, they are much more likely to protest against the police in any disputed arrest or shooting. This February, when a Los Angeles police officer fatally shot a 13-year-old car thief who had tried to run him over after a wild 3 am chase, the Los Angeles black clergy blamed the cop. As Pastor Frank Stewart of the Zoe Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles told me, “I wouldn’t doubt it if that officer said, ‘I’m gonna kill this nigger.’ ”
Moreover, the black church has made little effort to fight the greatest problem in the black population: the collapse of marriage. Mainstream preachers have told Jesse Lee Peterson that they don’t focus on illegitimacy because their members live that way. Cecil B. Murray, the most prominent minister in Los Angeles, called Peterson a troublemaker for opposing the distribution of condoms in church. But God is self-control, not condom control, Peterson responded.
I asked Pastor Stewart of the Zoe Christian Fellowship if he condemns out-of-wedlock childbearing in his church. “You know how I deal with it?” Pastor Stewart responded. “I have a five-minute radio spot in which I talk about what blacks have to do to take responsibility for themselves. People don’t come to church to hear me talk about some social message.”
Yet Stewart has wholeheartedly embraced a recent effort spearheaded by a Virginia minister, Bishop Harry Jackson, to rally black preachers against gay marriage. Jackson is promoting what he calls the Black Contract with America on Moral Values, whose primary plank is opposition to gay marriage. Republican operatives are undoubtedly thanking their lucky stars for this turn of events, because the anti-gay-marriage movement has enormous potential to move black Democrats into the Republican camp. A huge proportion of the signatories at the kickoff event for the Black Contract in Los Angeles were liberal Democrats, including Pastor Stewart. Stewart may be exquisitely cautious in broaching marital childbearing, but about homosexual unions, he is clarion-clear: “This black doesn’t believe that gay rights and black civil rights are the same at all,” he told me. “This movement is going to be a big thing, I’m gonna be a big voice.” Stewart says that he is being called an Uncle Tom by gay blacks. “I welcome it. That is very fine, just fine.”
The irony will be considerable if the movement catches on. The near-total breakdown of heterosexual marriage poses a far greater risk to black children than homosexual marriage. Gay marriage could be banned tomorrow, but if the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks continues at 70 percent, there will be absolutely no change in child outcomes. Nevertheless, if, in opposing gay marriage, ministers find themselves arguing for the value of heterosexual marriage in raising children, this seemingly irrelevant detour into the culture wars could have a positive effect.
It also could further weaken the traditional civil rights leadership, which overwhelmingly opposes the fight against gay marriage, despite the black public’s 60 percent disapproval of gay marital unions. Eddie Huff, a real-estate agent in Tulsa and conservative blogger, argues that this conflict will lead to a greater skepticism toward conventional liberal wisdom: “Once you open yourself to one aspect of conservative ideology, more and more makes sense. Especially when you start getting attacked by liberals.”
Olgen Williams sees opportunity everywhere—this is, after all, America. “What I would love to do more of is to tell people: you can change your destiny. You can send your kids to college or turn your neighborhood around,” he says.
Williams knows whereof he speaks. He
returned to Indianapolis from the Vietnam
War a white-hating, marijuana-smoking militant, who celebrated each urban riot as
revenge on the Man. He tried LSD with hippies, and soon added heroin addiction and
larceny to his resumé. He stole from the post
office, where he worked as a clerk during
the day, while dreaming up schemes to “off
the pigs” with his black Muslim friends at
A conversion to Christianity stopped the slide. After starting a lawn-care business (which he ended after breaking both wrists by falling
off a pruning ladder), he became the premier anti-crime organizer in Indianapolis’s troubled Haughville district. Today, his office is plastered with the Ten Commandments, accolades from successive governors and mayors, glowing press tributes to the “Heart of Haughville,” commendations from Justice Clarence Thomas
and former attorney general Janet Reno,
and a presidential pardon for his larceny conviction from George W. Bush.
Where Jesse Lee Peterson is hot, Olgen Williams is cool and watchful. A double-chinned, slow-talking “ol’ boy from Tennessee”—who, when asked about his hard-to-decipher accent, retorts evenly: “I’m not going to try to change my diction”—Williams mixes a deeply traditional Christian morality with an ironic skepticism about both left-wing and right-wing schemes for black redemption. Every important change, he believes, has to take place in the family. How can we create more people like you, who reject racial victimology? I ask. “I start in my own household. That’s where the cycle has to be broken,” he replies slowly. “My sons”—six
of them, plus two daughters—“don’t got no
girlfriends. They’re not laying about with every girl they see. It’s about what you put in ’em. I treat their mother with respect. I don’t want no tattooed, dope-smoking, shacked-up athlete to be their hero.”
If individuals don’t have values, Williams says, social anarchy results—though, he adds, “I’m not talking about forcing morality on anyone.” Instead, he has extended his moral influence into his neighborhood through example. Nineteen-year-old boys affiliated with his community-service center accompany him to local jails. They get up in front of 200 young inmates and announce: “ ‘Guys, I’m not fornicating. I’ve never smoked no cigarettes or marijuana.’ ” And the convicts, Williams says, break out in applause.
“ ‘Yeah, brother, you’re right,’ they say.”
I asked Williams how he found such boys. “They’re here, all around you,” he tells me. “When you give them a chance, you’d be surprised.” Popular culture, however, puts them at risk, in Williams’s view. For example, a recent article in Ebony on the top ten black couples featured only one married pair, he notes contemptuously. “I’d rather see a custodian raising his kids and sending them to college than a $1 million entertainer. What entertainer promotes the sanctity of marriage?” The Black History Month website contained just “basketball players, tattoos, dancers, and buffoonery,” Williams says. “What about hardworking, blue collar people?”
Would more youth programs help foster traditional values in kids? I ask. Not a chance, at least without accountability. “We spent $7 trillion on poverty and lost that war a long time ago,” he says. “I don’t have no silver-bullet program,” he adds with typical realism.
There is one government initiative, however, that has immediate and certain effects on urban communities: crime-fighting. Without safety, Williams says, neighborhoods collapse. “All the people with economic power will be gone; all that’s left are poor people.” Economic development can occur only where crime is under control, because “people spend money only where they feel safe.”
To prove his theory, Williams forged an unprecedented alliance with the police in Haughville, a neighborhood previously accustomed to protesting law enforcement, not working with it. “We told the police: we want you to arrest the criminals; we’ve got your back. In 1995 we started kicking it hard,” he says. Drug dealing and murder dropped markedly, and Indianapolis cops began requesting assignment to Haughville because of the community support. Businesses moved in, and economic activity picked up.
But getting local residents to take advantage
of those new opportuni-
ties isn’t easy. “We’re
in serious jeopardy as a
people,” Williams argues.
Immigrants are starting businesses where the victimologists claimed that only government spending could spark economic activity. And then, rather than finding out how the new entrepreneurs
did it, Williams observes, many blacks just get resentful. “I hate to hear how mad people get
at immigrants because of their success. We’re good at that, black people. We think government is giving immigrants something. I tell people: ‘Ask them. Ask them to teach you how to run a business.’ But we don’t want to, because it means sacrifice.”
To fight the entitlement mentality, Williams runs Christamore House, his community agency, with a radical twist: it doesn’t hook people up to welfare. “There are no excuses here. I have no checks to give out. Our thing is: get a job. I don’t use the term, ‘McDonald’s job.’ Five dollars is better than zero. That’s better than you coming here and asking me for a handout.”
Despite Christianity’s all-important role in his own life, Williams rejects the idea that religious faith is the key to urban reclamation. It is the American dream that he is fighting for. “We have greater opportunities in this country than anyplace in the world,” Williams says. “Notice, I said ‘opportunities,’ not ‘panaceas.’ I want to stand for American values. I tell my kids: ‘There ain’t no other place to live, honey; you don’t want to go there.’ There’s nothing wrong with saying: ‘I love America, I support the American dream,’ ” he says. “I’m an American. I don’t want to be anything else.”
Many black conservatives are banking on time to bring about a more widespread change in thinking. The older generation remains wedded to what U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow calls the “grievance-legislative model” of politics. For many who were close to segregation, America will always be racist, and only government social programs can possibly offset the effects of white prejudice. “Their mentality is frozen like Japanese soldiers in World War II
in Burma, who weren’t aware that the war
was over,” observes Los Angeles–based talk-show host Larry Elder. It’s a hopeful sign that the younger generation, by contrast, is distancing itself from the previous norm on several key social issues, and that younger blacks are increasingly likely to identify themselves as conservative and moderate, according to polling done by the Democrat-aligned Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The most hopeful sign, however, comes in the courage and eloquence of individual black conservatives who are willing to withstand hatred to defend their beliefs. They are radically committed to color-blindness and, for that reason, reject the idea that a new black leader is necessary to give legitimacy to conservative thought. “We have a ‘leadership,’ ” argued journalist Mychal Massie at the recent Heritage Foundation conference. “He’s George W. Bush.”
The president would do well to take Sheriff Clarke’s advice and invite these brave men over to the White House.