Dr. Boyce Watkins

Dr. Boyce Watkins

The folks at Simmons College and St. Stephen Church weren’t playing around when they chose the keynote speakers for the inaugural HOPE (Having Only Positive Expectations) Conference, a three-day event focused on “Renewing Urban America.” These are IdeaFestival and TedTalks-type heavy hitters. True vanguards in their fields.

HOPE is the brainchild of Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen Church and president of Simmons College of Kentucky. Simmons was founded in 1879 by former slaves and is poised to receive designation as a Historically Black College. 

The first full day, Thursday, featured keynotes from Dr. Boyce Watkins and Tim Wise. Both entered the stage to orchestral pomp and a flashy slide show fitting a WWE wrestler.

Dr. Watkins is a leading black scholar. Born to a teen mom in Louisville, he went on to earn a master’s degree and mathematics and a PhD in finance at The Ohio State University. During his year of graduation, Watkins was the only African-American in the world to earn a PhD in Finance.

“You have no idea the respect I have for Pastor Kevin Cosby,” Watkins said during his opening remarks. He called Cosby “one of the greatest black men in history,” praising his commitment to community during a time when “a lot of people are encouraging black men to not stand up for their community.”

Watkins said he grew up as a Cardinals fan, “like every self-respecting black man in the ’80s.” (The University of Kentucky had a reputation for racism on its sports team and with its fans). But he graduated from UK.

“What do U of L and UK have in common with the prison industrial complex?” asked Watkins. “Getting really good at making money off black men and not giving anything back.”

You can’t talk about the modern black experience without talking about prisons, he said, explaining that the prison industrial complex is now in its second generation. He is suspicious of for-profit prison systems. “They’re like hotels; you don’t get paid for empty beds.”

“The only men around to teach our young men is Li’l Wayne,” Watkins said. When he’s asked to name the most powerful mega-pastor in the United States, he answers Li’l Wayne because he reaches and influences so many people. “He reminds me of Malcolm Little, not Malcolm X.”  Power and anger without direction and mentorship.

Watkins showed a clip from this video (totally NSFW) by rapper and gang member Li’l JoJo:

In the video, Li’l JoJo taunts a rival gang while he and his gang point guns at the camera. Shortly after the video posted, Li’l JoJo was murdered by the rival gang.

Watkins pointed out the sheer volume of guns in the teen’s video. “All these people live in neighborhoods where it’s easier to get a gun than to get an education.”

But then he said, “You are always being educated,” and unfortunately hip-hop teaches terrible lessons, including:

  • You should “have sex with everything that moves.” Black men have four times as many sex partners as black women, according to Watkins.
  • If you get a gun, you should not be afraid to use it. “Have you ever seen a group of people so excited about murdering each other?” said Watkins. “I don’t fear a George Zimmerman as much as I do my own brothers.”
  • Get high and drink as much as possible.
  • You don’t save or invest your money. If you get a bunch of money, you should “go to the club and make it rain.”
  • “You should never, ever show any respect toward women, ever.” But women should be accountable, too, he said. When these hip-hop songs with misogynistic messages come on in the club, “the first on the dance floor are women.”
  • Going to prison means you’re “keeping it real.”

Watkins concluded by quoting Frederick Douglass: “It’s easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”

Tim Wise

Tim Wise

Tim Wise is a prominent anti-racism writer and educator who was recently named one of “25 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World.” His most recent book is “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority,” but he is best known for his memoir “White like Me.”

Wise took the stage immediately after Watkins and said, “It’s hard to follow Boyce, and I’m not at all happy about it.”

For the past 20 years, Wise has been talking about “institutional inequity.” He studied at Tulane University in New Orleans and was a community organizer and worked at various housing projects in the city.

According to Wise, the United States has 30 years, at most, to reconcile its race issues. By then, he said, white people and people of color will be about equally split in the population.

“We’ve turned poverty into a pathology,” said Wise. If we view problems like poverty or addiction as an individual’s problem it can be seen as a personal defect. A criminal is just a bad person. A person is unhealthy because she is lazy. He’s an addict because he has no self-control.

People aren’t broken, Wise said; it’s the system itself that is broken.

Even the idea of the American Dream hurts people, he said: It is “secular gospel” that “you can be anything you want if you’re just willing to work for it.” And that’s just a lie.

Inequality is not due to unequal effort, he said, it’s due to unequal opportunity. Four hundred white men in the United States have more net worth than all African -Americans combined, according to Wise. “Do you really think these men worked harder than millions and millions of black people… combined?”