Bob Woodson: On COVID 19 Racial Disparities, the 1619 Project, and the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 27, 2020

Why might black Americans be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

In the eyes of Bob Woodson, why is the prominence of the 1619 Project deeply troubling, especially now that its creator has won a Pulitzer Prize for her work?

And how should we be looking at the terrible killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, by a white former police officer? Is there a bigger picture we’re missing?

In this episode, we sit down with Bob Woodson, a grassroots leader in the black community. He’s the President and Founder of the Woodson Center. He is also a recipient of the 2008 Bradley Prize and the Presidential Citizens Award.

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Bob Woodson, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Bob Woodson: Just pleased to be here, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, I originally reached out to you to talk about the realities for black Americans amidst coronavirus because there’s some really concerning realities there, and you’re in the middle of that. But today, there was this Morning Joe panel that focused on the “1619 Project” and also “1776”, which was the response that you created—this “1776” initiative. I thought we should definitely start with this. Actually, quite an interesting panel and I thought that they portrayed what “1776” was about pretty reasonably.

Mr. Woodson: Now, I was shocked. First of all that opposition to “1619” was acknowledged publicly. And also, I must commend Joe Scarborough because they did an accurate portrayal of our objection. And they also invited one of our members, Clarence Page, who wrote a very compelling essay as a part of our presentation and he held it very well, and they fully articulated our objections in a fair and balanced way. And so I think that I’m just very pleased that now there’s a comparison of 1619 to “1776”. That is going to initiate a much-needed debate in America.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, in the introduction to the segment, they talked about how your big concern with the 1619 project is that it defines America as being “incurably racist.” This is what you’re saying when you say you felt that your objection has been explained, is that right?

Mr. Woodson: I don’t disagree with [the assessment in “1619”] that America has not engaged in full disclosure about the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. I don’t disagree with that and I think that is very important to present. But where we disagree is in the conclusions that they draw from that. For example, 1619’s postures that the problems of black-on-black crimes, out of wedlock births, high unemployment rates, the kind of self-induce pathology that characterizes many of the inner city neighborhoods, that somehow this is related to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. And therefore, the solution is for black Americans to receive reparations from the government and more access to services, and that’s very dangerous because it means that exempts black America from any responsibility from being agents of their own uplift, plus it’s just contrary to the realities of history.

Black America’s plight in this country has never been defined by oppression or slavery. When white people were at their worst, we were at our best. Even during discrimination, we built our own school. When we were denied access to hotels, we built our own hotels; own medical schools. All of this is ignored. So black America is defined as America’s perpetual victim in need of compensation, and white America is portrayed as America’s villain in need of punishment. Where do you go from there when you say something or someone is “inherently racist,” and it’s “in your DNA”? How do you change something that’s in your DNA?

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. The biggest issue that people have with “1619” was this one line in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay that talks about how the Revolutionary War was actually fought to preserve slavery.

Mr. Woodson: It really was, but it was very interesting that she said that the war was fought to preserve slavery, when the reality was slavery continued in the Caribbean 50 years after the Revolutionary War. But Hannah-Jones did something very interesting that the New York Times was compelled to backtrack on—they printed a mild retraction of that by saying that some of the founders believed in it. And on the show today, she presented it as if that was a part of her original thesis, which is not true. She quoted the published correction by the New York Times as if it were a part of her original essay. Her original essay said unequivocally that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. So even on this show, she stated an untruth.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Clarence Page of course was one of the panelists. I looked up the essay that he wrote that’s part of “1776”—”‘A dream as old as the American dream’: Embrace black patriotism over victimization.” I think that speaks to exactly what you were talking about earlier—your big concern with the project.

Mr. Woodson: Again, we agree that we have not fessed up enough about slavery. But America should never be defined by its birth defect of slavery. But she should be defined by this promise, and that is the Emancipation Proclamation. We are the only nation on the face of the earth that had before a war to end slavery. We’re the only nation on the earth that has an Emancipation Proclamation. And so we are the model for the world about ending oppression. The very fact that my father fought and was injured in the First World War and blacks have fought in every war in this nation—are these young people today saying that somehow they’ve been duped? Somehow their sacrifice was to defend a racist nation? That would make them complicit.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, of course Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer for this essay, but you’re actually saying that one of the fundamental premises of this essay required a correction. That strikes me as odd.

Mr. Woodson: Not only just one correction. There have been multiple challenges to the content of her essay, but they gave it to her anyway. The only other time that I remember it happened is to a Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke, who also received a Pulitzer for an essay that proves to be totally fabricated. I’m not suggesting that Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay is fabricated, but it’s just filled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Now perhaps it should have been competing in the category of fiction, but I won’t go that far.

Mr. Jekielek: Of course that said, you mentioned that there does need to be more of the discourse around the horrors of slavery and everything associated with that. I think in this segment, the “1619 Project” is portrayed as a contribution to that. Now, is your concern that this contribution is going to replace the whole narrative, or if there is a valuable contribution, why not let it sit?

Mr. Woodson: Well, I agree with you. It should let it sit. But the whole issue of slavery in America is much more complex than a black and white. There were free blacks that own thousands of slaves. There were Native Americans, the five civilized tribes, they owned about 3,000 to 4,000 slaves. On the Trail of Tears, they took thousands of slaves with them. In fact, there was a treaty that if a white settler had a child by a Native American, and they own slaves, that the slaves would be the property of the couple.

So the issue of slavery is much more complex and we ought to be describing it in its complexity. If you’re talking about reparations, well, should the families of free blacks that owned slaves, pay reparations? What about Native Americans that owned slaves? Shouldn’t they pay reparations then? What about the whites who came here after slavery? How about the thousands who gave their lives in the Civil War to fight to end slavery? Should their families be compelled to pay?

So it’s just much more complex than the way it’s being portrayed in “1619.” But I really think it’s a waste of time and energy for us to be talking about events that occurred 200 years ago when we have contemporary challenges that we must address. And so what we’re trying to do at “1776” is to deracialize race and desegregate poverty.

Mr. Jekielek: I want to dig into both of those statements. Actually, this is a perfect segue into the main topic of today which is the disproportionate way in which black America, among other groups, is being affected by coronavirus.

Mr. Woodson: It’s very interesting that there are two ways that we can protect ourselves according to the CDC. One has to do with the personal choices that you make, and the other are external—in the hands and control of the medical profession. Americans have generally accepted the proposition that your health is determined by your actions, yet when the Surgeon General Jerome Adams made an appeal to black America to take steps to protect themselves, he was challenged and derided by members of the civil rights community saying, “You’re blaming the victims. Their disparities and morbidity rates, it has nothing to do with the behavior of blacks and they have no right to demand that blacks change their behavior,” and that it’s all “environmental”, it’s “racism”, it’s “where they live” and all.

Now, I can see that black Americans tend to occupy jobs and live in places where they’re living closer together. They have to go to work and stand next to people, so their risk as a group is higher, but it’s also true that they can take steps themselves to practice safety. But when we look around the country in black communities, they were doing just the opposite, that there are pickup basketball games; hundreds of people attending parties, picnics; passing around cigarettes, marijuana. So what we did in “1776” is merely saying that we must do what the rest of America is doing to protect ourselves and we stand firmly on that proposition. When Hasidic Jews were going to funerals and services, and they were dying in record numbers, they were challenged by the mayor to not do this. Well, black Americans should also be treated the way the rest of Americans [were] with a demand that they take steps to protect themselves.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, two vantage points here. One of them is, you sit in an interesting place with your work with the Woodson Center and “1776” to see what’s happening in the black communities, and I’m wondering if you could speak to that so folks understand that. That’s the first part, and I’ll get to the second one in a moment.

Mr. Woodson: The Woodson Center has been around for 38 years and we have a solid track record of helping low-income people of all races. We have about 2,500 grassroots leaders in 39 states that look to us for leadership training, and they’re all different racial groups. And so about last Friday, we had a one-hour webinar. Pastor Buster Soaries—who speaks to about 900 black church leaders as a part of his network, and we have hundreds of grassroots leaders tune in for an hour, where we talked about strategies in the black communities to protect themselves against the virus—[he and I] had a panel of about five or six grassroots leaders who engage in some dialogue with us, and they shared with us the kind of risky behavior being taken by people in their neighborhoods, and what their strategies were to change that.

We also spent 20 minutes taking questions from people who had tuned in around the country, and there was a consensus in this meeting that our destiny is determined by actions that we can take. One very innovative way that some pastors in Atlanta contributed said that not only should we protect ourselves, but we shouldn’t wait for the government with the payday protection grants they’re giving, that if you know that you go to a barber or a nail salon, and you’re unable to do it, take the money that you would normally spend it, give it to that business owner anyway so we can have an internal kind of payday protection plan. This is what the black Americans used to do at a time of segregation. We came up with innovative ways to help ourselves and so we were delighted to provide a forum for these kinds of strategies to be shared around the country.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, let me see if I have this right and correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve argued basically that government policy over the last 30 [to] 40 years has acted to remove that sense of personal responsibility, disproportionately, from the black community. Is that right?

Mr. Woodson: Absolutely. I’ve documented this in a paper at the Harvard Review where I talked about up until 1965, 85 percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising children. That even during the Depression of 1930s—1930 to 1940—when we had a high unemployment rate of 25 percent for white America, 40 percent for black America, we didn’t go to hell in a handbasket because we had the highest marriage formation rate of any other group in the country. Because of our Christian values, was a control of our behavior, elderly people could walk safely in their neighborhood without fear of being mugged by their grandchildren.

But all of this changed with the war on poverty and when the civil rights movement morphed into a race-grievance industry. We saw a dramatic decline from 1965 until today, so a 85 percent two-parent households [rate] declined to 35 percent in just 50 years. And just to give you a comparison, in 1929, in Chicago, Illinois, in the Bronzeville section, there were 731 black-owned businesses. Blacks had $100 million in real estate assets. Out of wedlock birth was 15 percent and that was considered scandalous. So if we could achieve these great things not only in Chicago, but almost every major city in the south and in the north, but all of this gets discounted, somehow it has been erased from history. And “1776” is trying to resurrect this reality because our young people need to know, like all Americans need to know, blacks are never defined by slavery and discrimination. But we were defined by our resilience, our fortitude, our ability to achieve against the odds, that our children in the country need to know that people are motivated to improve their lives when they are showing victories that are possible—not constantly remind them of injuries to be avoided. “1619,” the only theme is “we are victims, we have to be pitied, we have to be patronized,” and that’s a dangerous message.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating, Bob. Something that just jumped to my mind that I wanted to ask you is the surgeon general when he made this appeal to black Americans to change behavior, and he used a language which a whole bunch of people took issue with. They said, “Oh, this is some kind of inappropriate or even racist language.” What do you make of this?

Mr. Woodson: The surgeon general was talking affectionately. He was trying to show people that he was one of them, that we use terms like “big mama” or something—that’s all. He was just trying to show this affinity for black folks. But people [who are] politically correct always look for some reason to discount a powerful message—always look for something discounted. It’s unfortunate.

Mr. Jekielek: You don’t think that the black communities would have found this questionable. You think that they would have found it more affectionate and so forth.

Mr. Woodson: Absolutely. One has to make a distinction between the attitudes of those who are supposed to be our spokesperson, and ordinary black folks in these communities. In fact, there were several studies done by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington. They did three studies over 12 years. They went into the black community and asked them, “What are the issues that are important to you,” and of which race, unemployment, [and] health care were listed. In all three studies, race only came up 8 percent. But you don’t hear that because the purveyors of this defeatist attitude are the ones that MSNBC rushes to, or advice on CNN to be the representative of black America.

That’s why “1776” believes you have to go around these gatekeepers and go directly to the black community, and give them a chance to express themselves. And that’s what our webinar is all about, and we intend to do more of these in “1776” to give ordinary black folks a chance to express themselves. But it was a funny little antidote to this years ago. A reporter for The Washington Post came into low income black neighborhood in Washington at a time when 20 members of the Klan were picketing in Washington and 5,000 people were trying to get at them, and they asked this elderly black man in this high crime black neighborhood if he was going to join the demonstration against the clan. And he said, “Bring them down if they can get rid of these drug dealers.” So the reality of people living in these challenging neighborhoods is very different than those you see on MSNBC.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve heard now that “1619” has been used in high school or maybe even earlier educational curricula in all 50 states. Asssuming that “1619” is a valuable contribution to the discussion around racism in America, slavery and so forth, what would it mean if it became the dominant educational tool for discussing slavery in American history?

Mr. Woodson: I think the “1619” curriculum would be absolutely devastating to our children because what they’re going to be taught is America’s incurably racist, and all white people are villains deserving to be punished, and all black people are victims deserving charity. Also what it teaches that capitalism is evil, individualism is racist, and that they live in a country that is incurably racist—it’s in our DNA. And so can you imagine a 10-year-old black child being raised with this kind of message. From the time they are 17 and ready to graduate from high school, and they’ve been taught that they live in a country that despises them, the deck is stacked against them, why would they want to defend the nation against a foreign invader? Or why would they want to become a member of law enforcement and protect people domestically? So I think it’s a national security crisis that we’re facing if our children are being imbued with the notion that they were raised in a country where the cards are stacked against them.

Mr. Jekielek: You actually ended up leaving the civil rights movement. Can you actually explain why you did that?

Mr. Woodson: Because I realized that a lot of the people who suffered most were not benefiting from the change. When I was leading demonstrations in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the home of Bayard Rustin, we picketed for months outside of Wyeth Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, to desegregate their workforce. And when they did, they hired nine black PhD chemists. And we asked these men and women to join our movement, they said they got these jobs because they were qualified. Well, this happened two or three times. And so I then left the movement because I realized that this was a bait and switch, that the civil rights leadership would use the demographics of poor blacks living in very challenging conditions as the bait. And when the resources for the poverty program showed up, they went to people who were well educated like myself, and they were the ones who delivered services to the poor.

I also left it over the issue of forced busing for integration. I was never supportive of it. I thought the opposite of segregation is not integration, but desegregation—that if you create centers of educational excellence in the black community, it will attract people of all races. So it should be excellence that we should be pursuing, and then a byproduct of excellence would be integration. That happened with Marva Collins, the Eastside Academy in Chicago, a disaffected public school teacher that set up an academy in a rundown black neighborhood and really took kids that were losing in the public schools, and they were outperforming the kids in public schools to the point where white parents were bringing their children in from the suburbs to attend Eastside Academy. So she has the model for what I believe should be the center point of education in the black community for uplift.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Are there attempts around the country at the moment to build these sorts of centers?

Mr. Woodson: Oh, yeah, Ian Rowe in New York City is one of our essayists and a leader. He has a whole network of charter schools, and there are others around Providence St. Mel in Chicago. There are others around the country who have models of educational excellence. Latasha Fields, one of our other activists in Chicago, is promoting homeschooling and is trying to set up a network to give children alternatives to public schools. We are supportive of her reference as well.

Mr. Jekielek: Particularly relevant in the time of coronavirus because everyone is almost by edict homeschooling these days, right?

Mr. Woodson: Absolutely, they are.

Mr. Jekielek: With respect to “1776” now, where can people access those essays and resources, and are there resources of that nature for the schools too?

Mr. Woodson: Anyone can visit our website. It’s 1776unites.com, and you can go on there and see the essays; see videos of our activists. We are working with one of our members Joseph Young. He has a company that produces animations. We are working with Ian Rowe and Wilford, and others who generate curriculum. We hope to, by later this summer, to have some samples of what we are going to be generating so we can offer school boards, teachers, and parents an alternative to “1619.” But we are seeking support so we can generate the kind of content that provides an alternative to “1619.”

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, before we finish up, I did want to talk to you a little bit about this very difficult case that’s in the news these days of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. This is something that of course is generating a lot of discussion. I saw that Senator Rick Scott described it in very strong words. It looks like he was hunted down. Through your lens, how should we be looking at these sorts of situations?

Mr. Woodson: I feel the pain of those parents. I lost a son 17 years ago, not to homicide but to an accident, so I know what that pain is like. But it’s unfortunate that we know his name only because he was killed by somebody white. During the same period in the city of Baltimore, 14 blacks were killed by other blacks in seven days. In another city, a man, and his wife, and his son, and daughter walked into a dollar store, and because the security guard who was also black demanded that the girl put on a face mask, the father became enraged, went out and got a gun, and shot the man in the back of his head. Now the mother, father and 23-year-old son are facing murder charges. My point isn’t to diminish the brutality of what happened to this young man, but why is it the only circumstance that generates a public outcry? That’s the question.

Mr. Jekielek: Basically you’re suggesting that this type of murder will be popularized disproportionately.

Mr. Woodson: Murder and these kind of crimes are horrific for everybody. But why does it become a part of national debate and discussion only when a white person kills a black person? In other words, we need to address violence regardless of who are the perpetrators and who are the victims. Why do we first have to know the race of the victim and the villain before we become outraged? That’s my point.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting because in this case, it may well have been racially motivated, and I think you’re suggesting that your points stand irrespective [of that].

Mr. Woodson: It really does. It may have been racially motivated and that’s terrible. We need to address racism in America as well. But my objection is the time and attention that we give it, means that we’re not putting the same time and energy in addressing the more pervasive problems. Black Americans have a 9/11 every six months, which means over 3,000 blacks are killed by other blacks every year. That’s more than were lynched in 50 years of racism in America. So the question is, where should we be giving our time and our attention? But the only time we can generate outrage is when the villain is white and the victim is black. I’m not trying to dismiss it or diminish it. I’m really trying to put it into some proportion.

Mr. Jekielek: We know the statistics. I’m familiar with these realities. Are you arguing that this reality of an epidemic of murder just isn’t being addressed because it’s kind of racialized? Is that what you’re saying?

Mr. Woodson: Yes, absolutely. It almost diminishes black life that we can have 23 children under the age of 10 murdered in urban communities, and that’s not front page news. In St. Louis last spring, 14 young people under the age of 16 were murdered in less than a four-month period, and that’s not an outrage. I have a picture on my desk of … a five-year-old girl sitting on a grandfather’s lap. At 5 p.m. at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a bullet comes through the window and hits her in the head, and that’s not front page news. No one knows of her name, yet these kinds of outrages ought to be the front page news. That’s my point.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, what do you see as the solution? And I know that you’ve been thinking a lot about this.

Mr. Woodson: The solution is what the Woodson Center has done over the last 20 years. We have gone into these communities that are in crisis and we have recruited grassroots healing agents within these communities, and supply them with the money, supply them with the training they need, so that they can begin to heal from within. We went into an area of Southeast Washington called Benning Terrace where there were 53 murders over a five square block area in just two years. Because of these warring factions, the Avenue and the Circle, we recruited a local grassroots group called the “Alliance of Concerned Men”—five ex-offenders who had the trust and confidence of the young people. We helped them to go into that troubled neighborhood and bring those warring factions to our office downtown—16 of them—and we negotiated a truce. And the same young men who used to be predators went back into those communities hired by the housing authority, who became a partner. The police department partnered with us and these young men, they got to rebuild that community, and we didn’t have a gang related murder for 12 years.

So we took our experience, packaged it, and we did the same thing to Dallas, Texas, Hartford, Connecticut, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And so the Woodson Center has sponsored examples of remedies that can be created from within these communities. But it never did attract the kind of investments that could make that mainstream and spread it throughout.

Mr. Jekielek: Obviously there’s a financial barrier, but in a more general sense, what is the barrier from adopting these methodologies, which seem to be very effective?

Mr. Woodson: Well, first of all, 70 percent of the $22 trillion we have spent on poverty programs, 70 percent of it goes not to the poor but to those who serve poor people. They asked not which problems are solvable; which ones are fundable. And usually they look to well-credential people to provide services that are parachuted into these communities. Well, most of our grassroots leaders do not fit the profile of a professional provider. They don’t have college degrees; they have the trust and confidence of the people they serve. But these people outside who qualify to serve are the ones who get funded. But it’s fundamental elitism by both people on the right and the left because many of our grassroots leaders do not have requisite degrees, but what they do have is the trust and confidence. But getting people, funders and the government, to invest in these, I call them “grassroots entrepreneurs”— And even a venture capitalist realizes that a local entrepreneur that has trust and resources, they tend to be poor bookkeepers. So venture capitalists bring not only capital but training and managerial expertise. We must treat these grassroots leaders as social entrepreneurs, provided not only with money but with training and managerial skills, so they can take their innate skills and trust, and begin to apply them to heal these communities from within.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, this is incredibly important work that you and the Woodson Center, and “1776” have been doing. I wish you the best of success in growing that. Any final words before we finish up?

Mr. Woodson: I’m really inspired that you give me this time to share that all of us should understand, again, that we should be inspired by the best of this country. This is the finest nation in the world. People are sacrificing their lives to get here, and so we need to cherish it and push back against those who would denigrate us because of the sins of our past. How many watching this show want to be judged by the worst of what we’ve done as a young person? Redemption is what we ought to be celebrating—not constantly reminding ourselves of the crucifixion.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob Woodson, such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Woodson: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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