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Pulitzer Journalist Reacts to Pew Poll

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, race beyond black and white and remembering a civil rights pioneer.

But first, just about every Wednesday, we try to turn to those with experience and knowledge for their views on the news of the day, somebody not just smart but wise.

Today, we've been talking about the newly-released Pew poll on racial attitudes in the U.S.

To talk with someone whose been thinking about, writing about and doing something about race relations for years, we decided to check in with Roger Wilkins.

He served as an assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Watergate while at the Washington Post. He's been teaching History and American Culture at George Mason University where he is consistently rated one of their most popular professors. And he was kind enough to join us here in the studio. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

Professor ROGER WILKINS (Professor, George Mason University; Journalist; Civil Rights Leader): It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, you had a chance to review this study yourself. I know what stood out for me. But what struck you?

Prof. WILKINS: The idea that there is a new race that we have to begin to think about. Most of the academics who look at the issue of race, sociologists, geneticists, say that race is an artificial social construct. So that the idea that we're kind of starting to get another race rather than Americans who are in a different situation that needs to be addressed, is a little alarming. Moreover, what they're looking at in the poll is the divergence between blacks of different economic classes and as if that's something new.

Back in slavery times, you know, there was the house slaves and the field slaves. And later, there was - in Charleston and other places, there were the color distinctions. If you were too darker than a paper bag, you couldn't get into a certain social functions. But there never was a sense that somehow there were other races.

MARTIN: It's unusual because that is something we associate more with the European experience…

Prof. WILKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: …of color and caste is that people who are…

Prof. WILKINS: Right.

MARTIN: …of a certain social status see themselves as sort of a group apart. I wanted to talk about - what stuck out for me was the pessimism. That just one in five African-Americans say things are better than they were five years ago. And looking forward, if you would, then half of blacks think things will get better. And this is down from 57 percent in a 1986 survey.

Now you can think about - we talked about earlier in the program about why recent events might cause folks to feel that way about the recent past, like Hurricane Katrina, you know, the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, things of that sort. But the lack of optimism about the future is something that I found compelling. What did you - how did you interpret that?

Prof. WILKINS: I think in economic terms, first of all, I grew up in Michigan, which was the epicenter of the auto business, the epicenter of blacks climbing the economic ladder. And it was a time when post war time, when the auto business was expanding. It threw off a lot of other businesses: glass, rubber, steel. The whole Midwest thrived on it. The poor black people would come up from the south, get jobs in the factory, send their kids to decent schools and all of a sudden, there was a class change in the family.

A couple of my friends at University of Michigan who were exactly like that, had exactly that trajectory. A father from cotton fields in Alabama moves up for work in the war factory, put his kid in a decent public school, the kid is smart, goes to a university in Michigan, becomes a doctor. That's gone. Detroit's half gone. Flint's half gone. The auto industry and all of its offshoots has just withered away. And so that ladder is gone.

If you look at the restaurants in this city - when I first came in the '60s, and you went downtown to a restaurant, virtually, every serving person was black. Now, you go on town, virtually every serving person is not black. So the floor has just opened up and dropped a lot of black people out of the economy.

MARTIN: The survey also showed, though, that when you ask people who they feel is most responsible for the progress or lack, thereof, of African-Americans, most African-Americans say they think black people themselves. They're a great deal of responsibility for their own circumstances.

Prof. WILKINS: Well, there are two ways to look at that. Of course, you're responsible for your personal behavior, but if you are raised in a single-parent households that has terrible money problems, is in a terrible part of town and you go to a terrible school, it's pretty hard to come out of that kind of circumstance with a hard, clear will that would make it possible for you to climb out of the pit that you were born into. And that's what's happening. Now, would it be better if poor people acted more like middle-class people? Yeah. But the fact is that economic circumstances do have a lot to do with things including single parenthood.

Now, I don't mean that — I don't mean to say at all that the society is to blame for all of the ills that I see in black America, but the society is to blame for a lot of those ills. One of those is that across the country, we are providing terrible education to poor kids, particularly to poor black kids.

I go to my gas station down in southwest and, invariably, some guy with dead eyes and raggedy clothes comes up, the guy, maybe my age, maybe younger, and asked me if he can pump my gas for me. I could pump my own gas, but usually I let them because these are guys who, if you talk to them and ask them, can you read? Either they will tell you no or they will - their behavior tells you no. So they've done — most of these guys have done their time in prison. And now, they're on the street; they're useless; they're rotting on the street…

MARTIN: And they're stuck. And they're stuck.

Prof. WILKINS: They're stuck. There's nothing we can do except wait to die.

MARTIN: Speaking of stuck, one of the things that struck me was that there were a lot of changes in views of a lot of different groups about each other overtime. African-Americans, for example, are far less distrustful of illegal immigration, for example, less hostile to it than maybe sort of 20 years ago; views of blacks and whites toward each other more favorable than they were in the past, people, many more people report having a friend of a different race than did so in the past. And yet, I think, many people have a feeling that our racial conversation, our dialogue is somehow stuck. Do you feel that way? Is there a way in which you'd like to see the country moving forward in a way we talk about race?

Prof. WILKINS: Yeah. I think that what we need to do, most urgently, is to educate poor kids. That would make an enormous difference. Part of the divide between whites and blacks and between classes of blacks is rap and hip-hop. And it is music. Some of it is music of despair, some of that misogyny and that violence and stuff that turns people off.

I don't think that if we worked hard to create avenues out of the most desperate poverty that our conversations would be the same. One of the reasons is that we'd have less street crime, which scares people to death. And if we can make it so that more black kids are capable of taking care of themselves, capable of the kind of self-regard that makes you not have children until you can take care of them, we would have a different conversation because people could be then optimistic that efforts to change things could really work.

MARTIN: Didn't President Bush try to do that with No Child Left Behind? Isn't that part of the whole logic of No Child Left Behind is that the achievement of every kid can't be sort of hidden under the achievements of the most successful kids in school?

Prof. WILKINS: It's hard for me to say something good about President Bush, but, yeah, that's what No Child Left Behind was designed to do. But a number of things happened between the planning and the implementation. One of them was that not enough money was provided to make it work, and the second was that the teachers' union just hated it.

And so now, they're trying to fix it. And Congress can't. I mean, you've got two of the most powerful Democrats on the Hill chairing the committees - Ted Kennedy in the Senate and George Miller in the House - but they cannot get to a bill that they agree on, that the Democrats agree on and that can pull in the Republicans.

MARTIN: We only have about a minute and a half left so, I guess, I wanted to ask you having been a witness to and a participant in so many of the great efforts to improve our society and — particularly in the area of race relations, do you envision a time when we will get back to a sense of optimism about the future that is equally shared?

Prof. WILKINS: Yeah. But it's going to be a long time because the country is in hot(ph) right now in such a huge way from this war that I look at my middle-class grandson, who's five years old and he's got two educated parents who are devoted to him, and he's going to a good school, but I have - I'm not optimistic about his future because I'm afraid of where the country is headed.

I mean, with China having so much of our debt, with our currency not in our control, I'm worried that the economic future of this country is not bright in the near term. So I can't be optimistic. I can't say I know that struggle changes things and no matter how bad it looks, you've got to keep struggling.

MARTIN: All right. Roger Wilkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, professor of History and American Culture at George Mason University.

Thank you for that bracing assessment, and thank you for coming in today.

Prof. WILKINS: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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