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Juan Williams: A necessary discussion

Mitch Landrieu, the white liberal Democratic mayor of 60- percent-black New Orleans, had this to say about white conservative Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) trouble after Ryan spoke out about the “inner city” culture that does not value work:

“So, Paul Ryan said something people took issue with and it became a huge battle. It was not a thoughtful [debate]…it all got to be about condemnation. ‘I condemn him for saying this.’ ‘No I condemn you because he did not say that... And all this yelling across headlines. No wonder people who want to be thoughtful [are afraid to say anything about real problems.] They want to say ‘I think this, I don’t really know how to say this, but I want to deal with the issue and get past race.’”

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Landrieu was sitting on stage at the Newseum last Tuesday with Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter (D), a black man, for the annual Aspen Institute Symposium, sponsored by Comcast, on the State of Race in America. I moderated the discussion between the mayors in which Nutter said blacks get mad at him for talking about problems in the black community, especially the incredibly high crime and homicide rates.

“So you can imagine what happens to my somewhat non-African American friend from New Orleans – he catches hell for talking about it,” said Mayor Nutter.

There is one specific racial issue the two mayors want the Congress and all America to talk about honestly: The high rate of young black men killing young black men in America.

Nutter said homicide is the top cause of death for black men ages16-34, and 80 percent of the people arrested for homicide are black men.

He added that 435 Americans are killed every 15 days in the U.S., the exact same number of people in Congress. The people killed and the killers are mostly black males. Landrieu added that since 1980 over 600,000 people have been killed on the streets of America and that is “more than all the Americans killed in every war in the 20th Century.”

“If the Ku Klux Klan killed 200 black men in the city of Philadelphia, I can assure you that we would be on lockdown,” said Nutter, “Every federal agency known to mankind would be up there trying to figure out what is going on. But 200 black men were killed in Philadelphia last year.”

Landrieu added that if black men were killing “white boys” there would be outrage and a quick response.

“Mayor Mike and I had a gut check conversation before we decided to get into this [discussion of black men killing black men] because we said to each other we are going to get beat about the head [for bringing it up],” said the New Orleans mayor. “Elected officials, pundits, nobody knows how to talk about race in this country.”

The Congress fails to show any outrage over the homicide situation, Nutter complained, and is doing nothing to stop it. He noted that after the September 11 terror attacks the Congress created whole new departments of government and spent trillions on homeland security and two wars. The news media focused on the threat of more terror attacks. But black men killing black men daily in America gets little media attention and no allocation of hearings, legislation, action and money to stop the carnage.

Landrieu said often the left and right talk past each other. For example, he said President Obama and the National Rifle Association do agree on one thing. The president wants to increase spending to put more police on street corners. The NRA wants to put more armed police in schools.

“You know what the distance is between the corner and the school door?” asked Landrieu. “It’s about 50 feet.”

The New Orleans mayor said Americans are often unable to find common ground for constructive discussion of any racial issue but especially the homicide rate because that conversation can “take you everywhere…institutional bias, the history of bigotry, personal responsibility, poverty…culture of violence.” The answer, he contends, is that “all of the above” is the answer and instead of getting stuck in a useless finger-pointing exercise it is time for people to take action.

Landrieu predicted that the country is about to have a big debate on the anniversary of the 1965 report done by then labor department aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  The future New York Democratic senator’s report said the high out-of-wedlock birth rate among black people [then 25 percent] was leading to the breakdown of the black family and “the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” Today more than 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers, while more than 50 percent of Latino children are and about 30 percent of white children.

The Moynihan Report was attacked by civil rights leaders and left-leaning intellectuals as stereotyping black people as pathological and failing to understand the impact of institutional racism, the residue of the history of slavery and allowing blacks to be blamed for causing their own troubles. But 50 years later the report turned out to be on target for blacks and also a preview of the troubling family breakdown problems for all Americans.

Far from Congress and the White House, two tough mayors, one black and one white, are stepping up to create a starting point for a necessary racial discussion today that can get results, a concrete take on black-on-black crime. Let’s hope it does not take 50 years to see that the mayors are on the right track.