Zina Saunders

‘I know black contractors who have gone out of business because their black workers were not prompt or had negative attitudes. I know black workers who take pride about going to work any hour they feel like it, taking the day off when they feel like it. . . . Many leaders who are black and many white liberals will object to my discussing these things in public. But the decadence in the black community . . . is already in the headlines; the only question is what we should do about it.”

Recent remarks from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin? Nope. That’s Jesse Jackson in 1976.

Bob Woodson reads the quote when I ask him to respond to the backlash over Mr. Ryan’s telling a radio interviewer last month that there is “this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is a no-nonsense black conservative who heads the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and knows a thing or two about that culture, the nation’s inner cities and Mr. Ryan.

“Paul approached me about a year ago,” says Mr. Woodson, sitting recently in his Washington office. “He knows we have groups all across the country that deal with the plight of the poor. He asked me to take him on a listening tour. He said, ‘I’d like to learn about the alternatives to what we’re already doing, and I know you’ve been involved in assisting people at the local level.’ “

Mr. Woodson agreed but warned that there would be a time commitment. “I said to his staff, ‘I don’t do drive-bys, so he’s got to give me an entire day.’ If you’re serious, you’ll put in the time. And he did. I’ve taken him now on 12 trips—all to high-crime, drug-infested neighborhoods. And he was not just touched but blown away by what he saw.”

Mr. Woodson believes that the Ryan brouhaha could turn out to be a blessing. “Low-income people haven’t been on President Obama’s agenda for five years,” he says. If this sparks a conversation, all the better, “but we have to have the right conversation.”

Mr. Woodson attended the White House announcement in February of the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is aimed at helping disadvantaged young black men. White House concerns about the president’s black base of support may be behind this newfound interest in the poor, Mr. Woodson says, “but I don’t care. If someone is doing something for political advantage, but it has the consequence of helping people, I don’t think we should be critical.”

Mr. Woodson was pleasantly surprised by what he saw and heard: “The president had the kind of people I deal with up there with him. He was introduced by a young man who was recently robbed on his way to school. I was also glad to hear him say that there must be a nongovernment approach to the problem, and he assembled private-sector funders.”

But optics and rhetoric notwithstanding, Mr. Woodson is skeptical that much will come of the initiative. “My worry and my fear is that the money and resources will go to the same racial grievance groups, the same members of what I call the poverty Pentagon. They’ll give it to Al Sharpton and the others to do what they’ve been doing for decades, to do what doesn’t work—what in fact is making things worse.”

Mr. Woodson, who remains fit and energetic at age 76, founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in 1981 after stints at the liberal National Urban League and conservative American Enterprise Institute. He is academically trained but wears his pragmatism on his sleeve. “We go around the country like a Geiger counter, looking at high-crime neighborhoods and asking the questions the poverty industry doesn’t.

“If we see that 70% of households are raising children out of wedlock, that means 30% are not. We want to know what the 30% are doing right. How are they raising kids who aren’t dropping out of school or on drugs or in jail? We seek SEK.AU +0.36% them out—we call them the antibodies of the community—and put a microphone on them, and say, ‘tell us how you did this.’ ”

Mr. Woodson says that many poor communities don’t need another government program so much as relief from current policies. “For instance, a lot of people coming out of prison have a hard time obtaining occupational licenses,” he says. Aspiring barbers, cabdrivers, tree-trimmers, locksmiths and the like, he notes, can face burdensome licensing requirements. Proponents of these rules like to cite public-safety concerns, but the reality is that licensure requirements exist mainly to shut out competition. In many black communities, that translates into fewer jobs and less access to quality goods and services.

Mr. Woodson sees an opportunity here for the GOP to do right by the poor without abandoning its conservative principles or pandering. He points to the successful outreach efforts of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, two Republicans who worked with local minority communities to push market-driven urban redevelopment and were rewarded politically by blacks for doing so.


To illustrate the difference between his approach to community activism and a liberal’s, Mr. Woodson tells me about a pastor in Detroit who wanted to build 50 new homes in a ghetto neighborhood but couldn’t find financial backing or insurance. “If he had gone to someone on the left for help, they would have gotten their lawyers to sue the insurance company and the bank for redlining or something. What I did by contrast is arrange a meeting between the insurance executives and the pastor. They saw what he was trying to do, the people in the neighborhood he was employing. They saw someone developing human capital.” The insurance company got on board and a bank followed. With financing in place, the homes were built, as was a new restaurant currently run by a man who did 13 years in prison.

“I’m optimistic,” says Mr. Woodson, noting that his organization has trained some 2,500 grass-roots leaders in 39 states. “We have the platform. We need the investment. My challenge is to get more conservatives to understand that there are many people who are in poverty but not of it.”

Mr. Woodson is irked that Republicans aren’t more entrepreneurial in their outreach efforts, citing Mr. Ryan’s mentor, the late Congressman Jack Kemp, as a model. Kemp, a former housing secretary for George H.W. Bush, distinguished himself as a proponent of low-tax urban “enterprise zones” and more privatization of public services.

“The other thing that annoys me,” Mr. Woodson continues, “is that too many Republicans, as [economist] Walter Williams has said, abandon old friends to appease old enemies.” In the 1990s after black Congressman J.C. Watts denounced Jesse Jackson as a race hustler, House Speaker Newt Gingrich apologized to Mr. Jackson and invited the reverend to join him at President Clinton’s second-term inauguration. “Despite all the help we provided Newt Gingrich, he turned his back on us and invited Jesse Jackson into his booth,” says Mr. Woodson. “Conservatives have to stop validating these people.”

But Mr. Woodson saves his most passionate disdain for those on the black left who all but abandon the black poor except to exploit them. “Around 70 cents of every dollar designated to relieve poverty goes not to poor people but to people who serve the poor—social workers, counselors, et cetera,” he says. “We’ve created a poverty industry, turned poor people into a commodity. And the race hustlers play a bait-and-switch game where they use the conditions of low-income blacks to justify remedies”—such as racial education preferences—”that only help middle-income blacks.”

Mr. Woodson broke with the traditional civil-rights movement in the 1970s over forced busing. In the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren suggested that all-black classrooms were inherently inferior, and liberals convinced themselves that ending legal segregation wasn’t enough. “The left assumes that if you’re not for forced integration, then you support segregation, but that’s a false dichotomy,” Mr. Woodson says. “I believe we should have fought for desegregation, but forced integration is a separate issue, especially in education.”

A majority of black parents always opposed this social engineering and said they wanted better neighborhood schools, “but the civil-rights leadership pushed busing for the poor. Of course, none of their kids were on the bus,” says Mr. Woodson. To this day, the left’s obsession with the racial composition of a school trumps its concern with whether kids are learning.

A recent study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project criticized charter schools for being too racially segregated. Never mind that many of these charters outperform the surrounding neighborhood schools and that excellent all-black schools have long existed and predate Brown. Liberals remain convinced that black children must sit next to white children in order to learn. The Obama Justice Department currently is trying to shut down a Louisiana voucher program for low-income families on the grounds that it may upset the racial balance of public schools in the state.

Mr. Woodson frowns on attempts to dismiss antisocial black behavior as a product of white racism or a biased criminal justice system. “It’s cynical and patronizing, and I’d rather be hated than patronized,” he says.

He is also an advocate of faith-based remedies for drug and alcohol abuse. “The most effective community leaders that I’ve seen and worked with all over the country agree that it’s transformation and redemption that changes the heart,” he says. “They take you into communities and introduce you to hundreds of people who were former drug addicts and criminals, who tell you that prison couldn’t change them and a psychiatrist couldn’t change them but a religious or spiritual experience did. I don’t understand why it works. It’s irrational. But it works.”

That’s pretty much Bob Woodson’s guiding philosophy. Do what works, and stop doing what doesn’t.


Mr. Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed,” which will be published by Encounter in June.