Tony Brown: tough on whites and blacks
New York — `IS the white community in America going to change the conditions of the black community in America?'' Cameras rolling, black TV host Tony Brown fires the question to his guest - then, microphone in hand, paces the floor past his studio audience. Mr. Brown has things just where he wants them: The guest is editorial writer Joseph Perkins of the Wall Street Journal, a black conservative. And the audience, mostly black and mostly liberal-Democrat, is primed.
``No,'' says Mr. Perkins. ``Whites are going to act in their self-interest. We can't depend on white people to do for us what we can do for ourselves.''
Tony Brown breaks into a smile. It was a good answer - just the kind he hoped for, the kind that has kept his ``Tony Brown's Journal'' at 18 years the longest-running black-affairs TV show in the country.
Brown is a journalist, an entrepreneur, a filmmaker, and a leader in the area of black economic self-determination. But he's best known for the weekly ``Journal,'' a lively discourse among Brown, audience, and guests on public television.
Far from presenting a monolithic ``black'' point of view, the program reveals a rich and complex inside dialogue among various subcultures in the black community. One recent show centered on the favorable cul-tural climate and economics behind the increasing number of Northern, middle-class blacks moving back south. Another dealt with the issue of patriotism and blacks: the deep-rooted emotional ambivalence many blacks feel about the United States when confronted with Howard Beach-like racial incidents on the one hand, though with civil rights-affirming Supreme Court cases on the other.
Brown's guests range from superstar Bill Cosby giving a sermon on the importance of the black male in families, to little-known Temple University professor Molfi Asanti, who is examining Africa's contribution to civilization in the ancient world.
Such topics rarely get raised in major commercial media. ```Tony Brown's Journal' helps bridge the gap, the empty chasm left by the media in covering our people,'' says Walter Parrish, executive director of the black American Baptist Churches of the South.
Unlike a number of black-affairs shows, Brown's is not captive to a civil rights establishment party line. As a journalist, he relishes in prodding sacred cows, or tweaking the status quo. He agrees with sociologist James Q. Wilson that solving the race problem in America is not a white responsibility only (Gunnar Myrdal's notion), but a ``black responsibility'' as well. His main hobbyhorse is black self-help and a work ethic - traditional themes among black leaders from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Closely tied to these themes is Brown's view that blacks too quickly bought into the idea of desegregation in the 1960s; that a forced integration of schools and communities did not bring equality, but assimilation, which drained the black community of its cultural and economic potency.
``I'm convinced that most white people are not racist,'' Brown said in an interview from his midtown Manhattan office. ``But most white people have decided that being with black people will reduce the quality of their lives.
``Racism is not the primary problem of black people,'' he continues. ``Economics is. Blacks earn $200 billion a year, but only spend 6 percent of it in their community. Other ethnic groups turn their money around five to 12 times before one penny leaves - and not all these groups are liked. The Cubans aren't particularly liked, but they took Miami and elected a governor in 25 years. The Koreans aren't especially liked, but they now own 23 percent of Harlem - in eight years. Blacks won't be equal, won't gain respect, if they're always broke. We have to learn how to spend with each other.''
Brown says he has always ruffled feathers - pointing to the paradox that some whites brand him a militant at the same time radical blacks call him a segregationist. ``I'm an independent,'' he says. ``I'm not a Democrat, not a Republican. No segment of the black community can claim me, so all segments have reservations, and I like it that way. I call it the way I see it.'' He was the first major TV journalist to say openly (15 months ago) that the evidence didn't support an AIDS epidemic among heterosexuals; that the main problem was among homosexuals and intravenous drug users. ``Now the Centers for Disease Control has reversed itself, and is saying the same thing,'' he says.
Columbus McGowan, a black father of four from Hampton, Va., says his family watches Brown's program in order to discuss race issues with ``our oldest kids. Brown is tough on whites and he's tough on blacks. You have to have an open mind to hear Tony Brown.''
He's not, however, a black Phil Donahue or Morton Downey Jr. The show's tone is more sober. ``Very educational, historical, balanced,'' says one black Maryland social studies teacher, who requires her students to watch it. Brown has so far refused to ``get into the media circus'' of the Tawana Brawley case: ``We'll have a show when the facts are clearer.''
Ratings show that 60 percent of Brown's viewers are white. ``The topics you treat are important to the survival and development of our human family,'' one white New Jersey minister wrote recently. Brown gets a fair number of ``conversion'' letters, as well, as from this Tennessee woman last May: ``I was taught a `mild' but insidious type of bigotry while just a tiny little girl,'' she says, but the ``Journal'' helped change her attitude.
Not that the program is overly pious. Guests are chosen on the basis of accomplishment; the result is candid, spicy interviews. Wynton Marsalis, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter, in a show on the lack of black support for jazz, unloaded on the ``adolescent music'' of black artists such as Michael Jackson and Prince, who, he said, put ``white powder on their faces and straighten their hair.''
Hollywood has not made an effort to cultivate black film stars who present a serious, intelligent image, Brown says: black adult couples, for example, who share an abiding love for each other.
``Where are the black Redfords, the Meryl Streeps?'' he asks.
``Eddie Murphy tells dirty jokes. Whoopi Goldberg spent her last movie chasing a white man all over town. We still need to get past being seen mainly as comedians and sports figures. It's silly to define a whole race of people by who can best kick a football.''
It's in a community based on self-respect that blacks are going to finally find their hope, Brown adds. He draws from his own experience of growing up in a strong black neighborhood of unsung heroes in Charleston, W.Va.:
``From the time I was born I saw black people control their lives, and control them in spite of racism and white people. Mr. Barnes in the 11th grade spoke Chaucerian English as well as modern English. Mrs. Norman in 12th grade knew Shakespeare inside and out. My music teacher had a degree from the Sorbonne. Our preacher was a philosophy professor.
``Being in a community is different from being an individual. You may find a King, or a Malcolm X, or a Fanny Lou Hamer. But we had a community, too. Everybody in the community was not strong; everybody didn't excel as individuals. But the community was cohesive.
``We still need that.''