The “Politics: Another Perspective” Interview
with Kam Williams
Dr. Leon Pressing On!
Wilmer J. Leon, III is a political scientist whose primary areas of expertise are Black Politics American Government, and Public Policy. Dr. Leon has a B.S. degree in Political Science from Hampton Institute, and a Masters in Public Administration and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Howard University.
He is a nationally-syndicated columnist and the host of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon.” He is also a regular contributor to national and international television news programs, newspapers and websites.
Kam Williams: Hi, Dr. Leon, thanks for the interview.
Wilmer J. Leon: Kam, my pleasure. Thank you for your interest in my book “Politics Another Perspective”. The struggle continues and we can only move forward through fact based analysis and dialogue.
KW: What interested you in publishing a collection of your Op-Eds?
WJL: As a political scientist, I was looking for a way to provide to the general public clear analysis of some of the issues impacting the country. I wanted it to be in a form that would be easy for readers to access and digest. I’ve always received great feedback to my Op-Eds. So, a collection of them seemed to be the natural answer or solution.
KW: Most of the pieces were written during Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House. How would grade him as a president?
WJL: Wow, that’s a difficult question to answer. Usually we take some time and allow the lens of history to provide some distance and space for the analysis to be done. Right now, I would give President Obama a “C.”
KW: What would you say is his legacy?
WJL: Again, that’s a difficult question to answer. Symbolically, being the first African-America president is invaluable and powerful. The fact that I can turn to my 15-year-old son and say, “You too can be POTUS” is a very powerful reality. In terms of domestic policy, navigating the country through the economic crisis was an incredible accomplishment. Even though he bailed out the banks, he did nothing for the homeowner. If he had forced the banks to lend the bailout money back to the homeowner in the way of more favorable loans, property values would have remained stable. The ACA [Affordable Care Act] was a great accomplishment even though its rollout was an utter failure. How can one pay so much attention to the detail of the legislation and then ignore its implementation? This is mind-boggling. He should have used the Recess Appointment option with Merrick Garland. He should have nominated an African-American woman to the Supreme Court instead of Kagan. In terms of education, he continued the Bush Era neo-liberalization of education, No Child Left Behind, with Race to the Top. From a foreign policy perspective, he continued a lot of the Bush administration approaches, if not policies. The assassination of Gaddafi was an utter failure. As a Senator, he voted against the illegal invasion of Iraq and then does a similar thing in Libya making the problems in the Middle East worse. The use of drones was not as benign or sterile as he tried to make them out to be. To a great degree, he did not use his bully pulpit to rally his base against the obstructionist Congress. I don’t believe that the politics he ran on were really his politics. I think he’s a conservative corporatist who ran as a centrist. He tried to be reasonable with a House and Senate that swore to oppose him at every turn but thought that his intellect was more powerful than their racism. Those are a few examples.
KW: Do you think African-Americans were rewarded fairly by the Obama administration for being his most loyal constituency?
WJL: Not at all. Again, the symbolism is invaluable, but you can’t pay the mortgage with symbolism. In his defense, the African-American community, for the most part, did not challenge him and force him to use his bully pulpit to address our issues. In that regard, we gave him a pass. So many of us were so happy to have him there that we focused on the politics of pigment and phenotype and forgot the politics of policy. He rewarded other constituencies such as the LGBTQ, Latino and women, but ran from us unless he was forced to speak to us.
KW: How do you explain the Trump victory? Do you think the Democratic Party made a mistake closing ranks behind Hillary, especially after it was obvious that Bernie was the candidate with all the enthusiastic popular support?
WJL: There are a lot of factors to the Trump victory. Dr. King called it “white backlash” and Dr. Ronald Walters called it the politics of resentment. A major part of this was the backlash to 8 years of an African-American president. There are a lot of people who fear the “browning of America” and the election of Obama validated those fears. As Dr. Walters wrote in his book, “White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community”: “Within American society, which includes contending social groups, there exists a balance of power that conforms to that society’s racial composition.” This balance must conform to the normal distribution of power, if society is to remain in equilibrium. President Obama, in the minds of a lot of people became an indicator that the normal distribution of power is askew and is in jeopardy. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of non-college whites backed Trump, compared with just 28% who supported Clinton, hence his statement “I love the uneducated.” Trump won whites with a college degree 49% to 45%. The CBS Exit Poll data found that 54 per cent of white women voted for Trump. Trump also won among white, non-college women 62 to 34 percent and white college-educated men, 54 to 39 percent. This begs the question, for as nauseating as Hillary Clinton was to a lot of people, how could white-women vote for a shallow misogynist who called women pigs and said about Carly Fiorina “Look at that face…Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that the face of our next president?” And we know about his reference to women’s’ genitalia and he also objectifies his own daughter? In spite of this, white women saw value and redeeming qualities in this guy. They voted “white” before they voted “women.” A lot of working-class and middle-class whites who have seen their wages and salaries remain stagnant for 15 years were convinced that immigrants are stealing their jobs and social programs for lazy “colored” people have been draining the public coffers. Trump spoke directly to them and was able to convince them that he would be their champion. They wanted to believe him because he spoke to and validated their bigotry. We can also explain the Trump victory by understanding voter suppression and the Crosscheck Program. According to investigative journalist Greg Palast, Kris Kobach’s Crosscheck “removed tens of thousands of minority voters from the rolls in the swing states that surprisingly shifted to Trump… Stopping Crosscheck is the Standing Rock of racist vote suppression.” Yes, the Democratic Party made a mistake closing ranks behind Hillary, especially after it was obvious that Bernie was the candidate with all the enthusiastic popular support? This demonstrates that the Democratic power structure is closer to the ideology of the Republicans than the constituents they are supposed to represent. The way that the DNC mismanaged the nomination of Congressman Keith Ellison to be the DNC chair is another example of this. They are not nearly as “progressive” as they try to make themselves out to be.
KW: The country seems very divided by the election of Trump? Can that rift be healed while he’s in office?
WJL: No, not as long as the racist reactionary forces such as the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus continue to dominate. Also, neo-liberal politics is killing America and it’s being sold wrapped in the cloak of xenophobic, fearmongering, racist, reactionary politics. As Lester Spence writes, “Racial politics perform work here, as white attitudes about labor, work, crime and taxes are fused to attitudes about black men and women and, through them, to other non-white populations.” As Trump said, “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” And on March 12 of this year, Congressman Steven King (R-Iowa) said “…culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The next day, King said, “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally, to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will.”
KW: Do you think Trump is serious in terms of his plan to make Chicago’s South Side and other crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods safe?
WJL: No. It’s a rhetoric to demonize a category of people and present a narrative that will prepare Americans for the militarization of our urban centers. The evidence is clear, safety comes from education, jobs, and the hope for a profitable future. Investing in the infrastructure of our inner cities and the people who live there is how you make them safe.
KW: What about when it comes to jobs and education? He did make overtures to the HBCUs.
WJL: No, he did not. That was hollow rhetoric followed by a photo op. Budgets are numeric representations of priorities. When his budget was presented the funding he had discussed vanished.
KW: Is the country post-racial? How will we know when it is?
WJL: No. As long as African-American men are incarcerated at a rate of more than six times the rate of white men and the incarceration of black women continues to grow at record numbers, America will not be post-racial. As long as unemployment among African-Americans is more than twice the rate of white Americans, and as long as studies show that a black family’s income is a little more than half that of a similar white family’s income, America will not be post-racial. According to Forbes, “The typical black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has just 8%, according to a recent study called The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters, by Demos, a public policy organization promoting democracy and equality, and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. [All figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation.]” This is what is called the “racial wealth gap.” And this is exacerbated by the problem with inter-generational transference of wealth. White parents are able to transfer assets to their children that African-American families cannot. As long as African-Americans continue to deal with “Driving While Black,” extrajudicial police murders, excessive high school dropout rates and imbalances in health care, America will not be post racial.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
WJL: I tend to read a few books at a time. Let me say, “Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram Kendi, “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist; “Knocking the Hustle” by Lester K. Spence, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison I’m always re-reading the classics.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
WJL: Wow! Being driven to nursery school in Mrs. James’ white Corvair, with her son Dennis and Kenny McGhee.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
WJL: My parents until their deaths.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
WJL: Yes. I was raised Catholic, sentenced as a child to do 1st to 12th grades in Catholic school, and served all 12 years. As the only African-American child in my class from grade 4 to 8, I was subjected to a lot of racist abuse by classmates and teachers. The spiritual element of my childhood came around the 6th grade when I was taught that the Jesus of history was a Palestinian Jew who looked more like me than my bigoted classmates and teachers, and not like the White Jesus/God that they were indoctrinating me to pray to.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
WJL: Smoked roast and/or shrimp or chicken etouffee’.
KW: The Morris Chestnut question: Was there any particular moment in your childhood that inspired you to become the person you are today?
WJL: Sorry, but there are four. First, my mother ran the Head Start program in our home town of Sacramento, California in the Sixties, and she would take me with her in the summers to work with the kids. My dad was a parole officer early in his career and would take me with him on some of his visits with former parolees. My parents taught me that all humans have value and the importance of working for the empowerment of the community. Hearing Tom Porter’s voice on “Morning Conversations with Tom Porter” on WPFW 89.3 FM in DC in 1983. His perspective changed my world view. And seeing Dr. Ronald Walters with Ted Koppel on “Nightline.” I knew then that my life’s work would be as a political scientist and that Black Politics would be my focus.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
WJL: As Sho Baraka says, “In the land of the passive, make sure that you man up; when introduced to a lady it’s always proper to stand up…always speak up for the weak until somebody listens…your knees should be hurt from prayin’ with your people and your shirt should be wet from cryin’ over evil.” Contrary to the popular narrative, our struggle has always been about the success of the collective not the individual.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
WJL: A flawed man, husband and father trying mightily to measure up to the standard set by his brilliant, loving and committed parents.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
WJL: One more conversation with my parents. I miss them.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
WJL: What was it like growing up in an African American community in South Sacramento as the son of Wilmer, Jr. and Edwina Leon? It was a blessing. I was a midget in the land of giants. I grew up around an eclectic group of educators, lawyers, physicians, Tuskegee Airman, etcetera, who were all committed to excellence, our culture, the community and raising their kids to be strong Race People who would fight against the racism that we were subjected to during the Sixties and Seventies.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
WJL: Challenging the status quo and using excellence to do so.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
WJL: Don’t. Learn from where I’ve gone; and lead, don’t follow.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
WJL: As a man who unconditionally loved his family and worked tirelessly to make his community better. And as a man who left the situation a little better than he found it.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Dr. Leon, and best of luck with the book.
WJL: Thank you for your interest, Kam, and for your assistance in promoting it.
To order a copy of “Politics: Another Perspective,” visit: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B01M1GOC55/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20