When we talk about Black Lives Matter my guest has made the well-being of the black community his life-long mission. Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the founder of the Woodson Center. The Center’s mission is to transform lives, schools, and troubled neighborhoods, from the inside out.
Guest: Robert Woodson Sr.
Robert Woodson Sr. on Race Relations
Episode 108 – What Really Matters for Black Lives?
Newt Gingrich: (00:00)
Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded the Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low income neighborhoods address the problems of their communities. A former civil rights activist, he has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Referred to by many as “godfather of the neighborhood empowerment movement,” for more than four decades, Woodson has had a special concern for the problems of youth. In response to an epidemic of youth violence that has afflicted urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods alike, Woodson has focused much of the Woodson Center’s activities on an initiative to establish violence-free zones in troubled schools and neighborhoods throughout the nation. He is an early MacArthur genius awardee, the recipient of the 2008 Bradley Prize, the Presidential Citizen’s Award, and a 2008 social entrepreneurship award for Manhattan Institute.
And let me say, that I have worked with Bob off and on all the way back into the Reagan years. He had an enormous impact on Jack Campa, myself ,and others, and his new book Lessons from the Least of These: the Woodson Principles will be released on December 8th, 2020, and will be a very timely addition to where we are now. So, let me start Bob, if I could, and just ask you to spend a minute or two about the journey you’ve been on, because you’ve really had a remarkable life. And I don’t think it was necessarily predictable in any way.
Robert Woodson Sr: (01:44)
Well, I was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement Newt, but I parted company with the movement in the sixties over the issues of forced busing for integration. I believe that the opposite of segregation is desegregation not integration, and I think if you pursue excellence, then that will attract people. Integration ought to be a response to excellence. I had this debate with Julius chamber, who was a NAACP lawyer, Harvard graduate, before the New York bar association arguing in this point. So, I asked him, halfway through the debate. I said, “If we have situation A where there’s all black and there’s a presence of educational excellence in situation B, where what you have is integrated with diminish excellence, where should we send our children?” He said, “Situation B.” and I said that, “This is over.”
Woodson Sr: (02:49)
And so that was one point, but also I realized when we were demonstrating outside of a pharmaceutical company when they desegregated, they hired nine black PhD chemists, and we asked him to join this movement. They said they got this because they were qualified. So, I left the movement when I realized that many of the people sacrifice for civil rights and not benefit from the change. I saw when voting rights came that a lot of black activists came in and became elected to public office at a time when the poverty programs were arriving, where 70% of those $22 trillion went to people to provide service to the poor, low income blacks. And all poor people became a commodity in the sixties where people concentrated on solving problems that were fundable, not one step was solvable. So, I parted company and began to work on behalf of low income people of all races…
Woodson Sr: (03:53)
…Because Dr. King said, “What good does it do to have the right to eat in a restaurant of your choice or to live in the neighborhood of your choosing if you don’t have the means to exercise that right?” So I spent a lot of time helping low income people prepare themselves when the doors of opportunity open. That’s kind of where we are right now and think that people have used the race issue to divide this country. So, I’m doing everything I can to push back against the forces trying to dumb down or define America as a criminal enterprise, the cause of the issue of slavery. So that’s my latest undertaking.
That’s tremendous. Now I remember you were very active in the Reagan years. As you look back on that and that whole experience, and then with, with Kemp when he was Secretary of HUD, what lessons did you learn during that period?
Woodson Sr: (05:02)
What I learned is that the principles that operate in our market economy must operate in the social economy. Now only 3% of the people in our market economy are entrepreneurs, but they generate 70% of all the new jobs. Well, I found the same principle operating the social economy, that it takes a small group of social entrepreneurs to mobilize their community and produce tremendous challenges. So I worked a lot with Jack Kemp to demonstrate this with public housing, as you know, resident management. People go on 60 minutes now, and they type in “Both the Guilty 60 minutes.” They will see an example of the success of that, where residents at Cochran and St. Louis drove out the drug dealers and started changing their behavior. And as a consequence, they created an island of excellence, of peace and market rate housing was built right across the street from public housing.
Woodson Sr: (06:09)
The new residents became a part of the public housing community association. And so that became our model, and we did this in three locations But throughout the Reagan years, we got resistance from all kinds of quarters, people who were strongly in support of these contractors who had been literally robbing public housing. The more people tear up the house, the more they got contacts. So, we were really fighting against the corrupt contractors but not just corrupt contractors, the Republicans allowed some of this corruption to occur also. So, we were fighting against an industry that profited from the despair of the poor. We really had to fight back.
So you went from that to creating the Woodson Center. Tell us about the Woodson Center.
Woodson Sr: (07:34)
As you know, when you were speaker, and we brought together grassroots group to advise you on welfare reform and we were saying two years and all of these, I realize that there needs to be, uh, some, some organization that mediates between the suites. In other words, we were representing grassroots, but we also had to have a strong presence among policy makers and the philanthropic community. So the Woodson Center was really established to provide the means for poor people to have a voice in the operations. So at the Woodson Center, there’s an intermediary between policy and practice.
And is it primarily based in Washington?
Woodson Sr: (08:43)
We are headquartered in Washington D.C., and we have provided service to 2,500 grassroots leaders that are in 39 states. We literally go into these communities where the poverty industry only looks at the 70% of the families that are raising children that are dysfunctional. We go into the 30% of people in these neighborhoods who are achieving against the odds to find out from them, what are the successful strategies that they have employed in these toxic, drug-infested neighborhood who raised children successfully? And then we apply the lessons from 30% to affect change among the 70%. So that has proven to be a very effective strategy to rebuild these communities from the inside out instead of the top down.
Well, I noticed that the Baylor University actually did a case study in Milwaukee and said that your efforts in violence-free zones led to a 9% increase in GPA, grade point average, for students and an 8% higher graduation rate. It’s very encouraging the sort of impact they have.
Woodson Sr: (10:08)
Also, Somerset, New Jersey has a model for how you transform a whole urban neighborhood from drug infested, to where there is small businesses moving into that community. Public housing looks like middle-class housing, it all depends on change. See, the problem that we have with addressing poverty, is we assume it’s a trend that promises a transaction, that if you give people jobs, education, and housing then they’ll improve their lives. Well, for some people that is true. There is no single cause of poverty. There are three categories: Those that are just broke, but their values are intact. For them, if you give them opportunities, welfare is used as an ambulance service, not a transportation system. But there are others whose character is intact, but there are perverse incentives. If they get a job, they lose health benefits. So, if you can take out the disincentives, they will be fine. But the third group that concerns us that creates a problem are people who are poor because of the chances that they take and the values that they pursue. So, for them, they must be redeemed and transformed as a precondition for them to take advantage of opportunity. So most of our grassroots groups around the country are faith centered, they know that in order for a person to be able to function, they must change in the value system they have.
Woodson Sr: (11:55). So after a person has been transformed and redeemed, then some drugs and some violent behavior, some predatory attitudes – well, traditional politicians don’t seem to understand, or they call it blaming the victim. But our grassroots leaders understand that if people are to be reclaimed and redeemed then have opportunities, they first must take that step to change themselves. But the left doesn’t want to hear that. Whenever they talk about the poor, it’s all external; What is lacking is the proper governmental transactions, and that’s just not true. You can actually injure with the helping hand by providing resources to people who have corrupt attitudes or dysfunctional values.
So when you really have both an individual salvation model, as well as the neighborhood salvation model, as I understand?
Woodson Sr: (13:15)
Yeah, that one or two individuals, once their character changes, Newt, their characteristics have an advantage because they serve as witnesses to others that a change and improvement is possible.
I was very struck years and years ago, Mike Deaver, who had been Regan’s communications director, became an alcoholic and went through recovery and routinely went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And he said he was approached one time by a federal official who said to him, “You know, we recognize the remarkable track record of alcoholics anonymous, and if we could drop that opening statement about God, we could fund the other 11 steps.”
Deaver said, “I think you misunderstand the program. It’s that first step, which makes the others possible.” And I have the same sense that’s what you’re talking about. Years and years ago, when in fact, when you were helping us think through the Welfare Reform Act, which is still, I think the most successful conservative social act on moderate times, which led to the largest number of children leaving poverty at any point in modern American history. When you were helping us with that, one of the things that really impressed me was a book called The Tragedy of American Compassion, which argued basically that the Johnson Great Society, big bureaucracy model, exactly violated every principle that successful reformers had known in the last 150 years. That it has to involve individual change, it has to involve applying principles that work, and as you pointed out in, as your new book will point out, you have really worked hard to understand the principles of the successful 30% so you can then try to migrate them into the 70% who currently don’t have those principles. If, if you were summarizing them for a minute, do you have a way of outlining what you think are the key principles that every policy maker should be aware of when approaching this?
Woodson Sr: (15:41)
Yes. Well, some of the principles, for instance, the first one is when you approach a community that’s in decline, assume that there’s capacity there. Don’t come in just because it looks dysfunctional, always look for strengths. In other words, just like a venture capitalist comes into a situation, they look for an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are like antibodies, every living body has antibiotics. What we’ve got to do is not parachute, if you come in and see what appears to be a dysfunctional community and you come in and you parachute your solutions into that community. So that’s one. The second one, so you have to look for indigenous solutions or antibodies within the community. Once you find them, it is this important to listen and to be guided by them. The second point is to be on tap, but not on top. Of course, the biggest barrier we face today is the assumption that someone who is untutored is unwise, and therefore incapable of offering innovative remedies to problems. That’s the biggest barrier.
Wait a second. I want you to go back because it took me a second to fully cycle. Expand just a little bit, because it’s a brilliant line, that you need to be on tap, but not on top. Would you just walk us through, because I think it’s brilliant, but it took me a second or two to realize how really smart it was.
Woodson Sr: (17:36)
I’ll give you an example. When I was advising Jeb Bush when he ran, I said, I need to come in and work with grassroots, and I introduced him to a woman named Dorothy Terry, who was like the Mother Teresa of public housing. Jeb said, “Me and my wife, we want to take 20 of these kids from home to swim and take them to the park. I said, “Don’t you do that.” I said, “You go in and partner with Dorothy so that it is more her teaching the kids with your help because otherwise you’re competing with her.” You’re saying to these kids come to my nice house and swim and have a good time, or stay here with Dorothy Terry who loves you. So rather than set it up as an informal competition, come in and build on what she has done. You are coming on to enhance an existing relationship so that it strengthens. Everything you do should be to strengthen existing relationships and resources that were in that community and not inadvertently compete. You know, a lot of nice people want to start to call the schools or take kids out to their house for summer camps, all of these things that are done by well, meaning people, they don’t know that sometimes they’re injuring people with the helping hands.
Woodson Sr: (19:03)
I think it was, you know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his letter from prison said, “The most difficult situation to confront isn’t violence, it’s when people really are injuring someone when they think they’re helping them,
That’s really helpful. What do you find is the biggest resistance to your message?
The biggest resistance again, is two groups of people who disturb me most, and that is self-flagellating, guilty, white people and rich, angry, entitled black people with their victims’ books.
Woodson Sr: (19:50)
That’s the biggest one, and people who are unwilling, because of rage, to be honest with people. One of the reasons that attracted me to conservatism is because of their willingness to talent, you gotta respect the person to disagree with them. So, it’s that, and also elitism coming from both the left and the right. I think Bill Bennett, I remember back in those days, he said, “When people on the left look at the core, they see a sea of victims, and people on the right see a sea of aliens.”
Woodson Sr: (20:42)
It’s really disbelief. It’s just interesting in our market economy that it’s is not true. We know that studies from David Birch at MIT for many years, that looked at the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. They tend to be C students. C students come back to colleges. I mean, A students come back and teach, C students come back. Because a lot of smart people sometimes have to have all the answers before they act, and when they act the opportunity is gone. What causes you to become elevated is what you produce that people will purchase. In our social economy, certification is treated as if its qualification. And if you’re a well certified person armed with good intentions, you could waste millions if it’s well managed by well-intended people. Then when the failures occur, you can blame it on the people being intractable.
So, with all the work you’ve done and the successes you’ve had in specific places, how do you react to the current, whole process of Black Lives Matter and demonstrations and setting up standards, retraining white people? What’s your reaction to all this?
Just really anger, because they are exploiting and hustling black people. They are appropriating the rich legacy of the civil rights movement and using it to bludgeon this country, to use it to condemn this country. They’re flying under the flag of social justice, but recent events prove what their real agenda is. The very fact that Black Lives Matter says they’re doing this for George Floyd and to pursue a racial justice for blacks, are, in fact, burning flags and burning Bibles, condemning the nuclear family as Euro-centric and therefore racist, to say that the cross is racist.
Woodson Sr: (23:08)
It was the nuclear family and Christian faith that has brought black Americans through from slavery, up until the sixties. That’s what has brought us through. Newt, between 1930 and 1940, when racism was enshrined in law and Blacks had no political representation when the unemployment rate was 40% in the black community, we had the highest marriage rate of any group in society, and elderly people could walk safely in their community without fear of being assaulted by their grandchildren. This was our protection in the storm. It was our Christian faith. It was our nuclear families that caused that. Now for Black Lives Matter to say they are acting on the moral authority of social justice and the civil rights movement, to say that the family and faith are racist. They revealed themselves as being an entity to black people, not their champion, but they are exploiting that racial justice by vilifying the police. As a result of the police being vilified, they’ve withdrawn from enforcing the laws aggressively. So, the murder rate goes up and then Black Lives Matter gets paid more money by American corporations who continue to profit off a problem they’ve helped create.
So when you look at all that, I know when you were on CSPAN in June, you were very tough about this idea of defunding the police. Could you explain why you reject it?
Woodson Sr: (25:03)
Well because it has been proven over the last 10 years that I’ve studied this, we’ve called it nullification or the Ferguson effect. I’ll give you an example: 10 years ago, in Cincinnati, a young white police officer shot a teenager who stopped as he was running and turned around because he had a weapon in his hand. So, Al Sharpton and the rest of them organized a boycott of Cincinnati, and as a result, the police say, well, if we’re going to be accused of racism for enforcing the laws, then we won’t do that in those communities. So, the murder rate went up 800% in one year, but none of the civil rights leaders, or political leaders live in those communities that were suffering an increase in murder. This is a pattern now that has occurred throughout the country. There are even studies to support that the more police are nullified, the less they enforce the laws and the higher the murder rate. That’s why the murder rates right now, black on black murder rate, more were killed in one year by other blacks than 50 years by the KKK. We have a “9-11” every six months, and only about a third of the murderers ever get arrested. That’s because Black Lives Matter has sown the seeds of distrust of the police, so people are not testifying
Woodson Sr: (26:44)
But we have, again, a violence-free zone effort going in Washington, DC, that you’ll hear more about. This is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods. For the last 86 days, there has not been a violent incident, even in the July 4th weekend. That is because one of our groups decided that they were going to impose discipline within, so we have still demonstrating that it is possible, but the answer will not be found by funding Black Lives Matter to address institutional racism, whatever that is. I don’t even know what it is. They’re getting paid handsomely by these dumb companies. They’ve got over a billion dollars, Newt, flowing into Black Lives Matter to do what?
You know, I agree. I think it’s almost a social statement so that they will feel good about themselves as opposed to a serious effort to help anybody. Let me ask you something I’ve been very curious about for, I guess, the last 15 or 20 years. When you have an area like the south side of Chicago, which has such a large endemic violence pattern, which has schools that don’t work, and has neighborhoods without jobs. Why has it been so hard to launch sort of a reform movement hat would be built around safety, jobs, and learning? As you point out, this is why I’m fascinated with your work, it has to grow out of the community and be integral to the community. It just strikes me that the failure of the system is so enormous that there ought to be some kind of opportunity for a very different approach to taking on an establishment which has clearly failed.
Woodson Sr: (29:02)
Yeah, let me tell you, there are voices of dissent, even in Chicago, cause we talked to them. But again, Soros is pouring in millions of dollars to rent a rioter and again, the left invests in a ground game Newt. They give all these people who are running for office and allow about protesters, a microphone. Look at Al Sharpton. He’s got a nightly news show. They would never let a white person do that. You go down all of these other blacks who are on these stations, and there needs to be investment in the dissident voices. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to raise the resources so that we can give voice to the insurgents in these communities. There are a lot of insurgents, but they don’t have a place, a landing spot.
Woodson Sr: (30:03)
That’s why 1776 has been the place that they now are turning to. We are collecting all these insurgent voices. We are developing a curriculum that will counter 1619, we’re developing a strategy to counter what they’re doing, but we’re not going to do it by setting up a debate club with them. What we’re offering, as you saw in my column today, is aspirational and inspirational examples of resilience. We want to turn a lot of those kinds of stories into curriculum. We want to have a full-scale advertising campaign. In other words, we want to take the 2,500 grassroots leaders that are part of our network over the past 38 years and resource them so they can begin to speak for themselves and they can begin to rise up. There’s some lessons Newt, look at the 2018 and the gubernatorial race in Florida, where the DeSantis defeated Gillum, theblack mayor of Tampa. DeSantis won by 32,000 votes, and that’s because a hundred thousand low income blacks voted for the Republican because of his position on choice and vouchers and education. Now Gillum had Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey come in and campaign for them. That means a hundred thousand low income black people voted against Obama, voted against Oprah.
Woodson Sr: (31:51)
So that means that there is that there is an opportunity. That’s a very dissident voice, but I don’t see much made of that. I don’t see it discussed. That’s a major breakthrough, and it can happen all over this country, but it takes investment, it takes paying attention to it. There are too many conservatives that are waiting for the next liberal blow to their gut, or they’re waiting to surrender as some of them are doing. I think my biggest fear is that conservatives will take the route of surrender and this country is finished.
I think that’s right. That’s why I think this here is so extraordinarily important and really makes such a huge difference. Listen, this has been really helpful, and I hope we can continue to talk offline and continue to develop things. I hope that the people who found this useful will both get your new book, and will also recognize that you have the kind of institution that’s very worthy of support. Could you give us just a one or two minute tease about your new book?
Woodson Sr: (33:22)
My new book is called Lessons From the Least of These, and it’s out in December, but it really does lay out specifically, what are the principles that should guide our understanding of why this country has gotten into tribalism? It gives a history of it that from the 1960s, there was a deliberate attempt to flood the system and bankrupt the system by pushing blacks onto welfare system. That’s when I talk about the disintegration of the family occurred when you separate work from income. I think that it’ll be an inspirational book because it talks about the process of redemption, how we move from brokenness and rebuild from the inside out. So, I think it’ll be an inspirational book. It’s not a policy book, but I think it’s an important guide and it talks a lot about faith. It talks a lot about principles, and it gives a lot of examples of when these principles and faith are applied. The powerful and exciting redemption that you’ll read about here are examples of triumphs and redemption in the face of oppression and disadvantage.
Well, I’m encouraging everybody to get a copy of the book. That’ll be a great Christmas present and a great conversation for folks getting together over the holidays. I’m encouraging them to look very seriously at the Woodson Center as a place that’s doing work that really is central to the future of America. So, thank you for your dedicated lifetime commitment. I really appreciate you being part of this today. Thank you.