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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Tony Brown : Black Empowerment--via a Computer

February 18, 1996|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

Tony Brown sounds like a Republican--which he is. He preaches black self-help and economic independence. His advocacy didn't originate with the current welfare debate. It dates back decades and includes his famous "buy black" campaigns. His views are now emblematic of a new black agenda independent of political affiliation.

Witness the Million Man March, which Brown supported philosophically and attended as a journalist. He says the march signaled a sea change: African Americans are no longer interested in petitioning the government for redress or demanding that whites "do for us what we refuse to do for ourselves." He counts the march among the nation's greatest public events, second only to Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington. But he is no civil-rights leader, and doesn't put much stock in traditional black leaders. Brown insists he has got enough civil rights. He wants equality.

He believes the fastest ticket to equality for the black community is a computer. He prescribes a computer in every home and is only too pleased to announce that his on-line service will start Feb. 20. It will join NetNoir and other black-oriented Internet services.

He is an unlikely cyberspace guru. Computers are a young man's passion. But Brown, who will only own up to being fiftysomething, hosts a "cyberspace club" on his popular talk show on WLIB, a New York radio station, and often touts computers on his nationally syndicated TV program, "Tony Brown's Journal," the longest-running talk show on PBS. That weekly show routinely attracts about 5 million viewers, including many non-blacks.

Consistently controversial, Brown shrinks from no subject. He is provocative but rarely less than thoughtful--though he does assert that the AIDS outbreak derives from drug abuse, not the HIV virus. Sometimes scolding, sometimes just explaining, he warns that unless problems of the inner city are solved, there will be no white winners nor black winners, only American losers.

Born poor in segregated Charleston, W.V., to a single mother who had been abandoned while pregnant, Brown was rescued, when he was 2 months old, by two "angels." Elizabeth "Mama" Sanford and her daughter, Mabel Holmes, who were domestic workers, raised him until he was 12, when he rejoined his natural family. He dedicates his new book, "Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown," to these two good Samaritans. He himself is the divorced father of an adult son.

Could a black boy born today into similarly harsh circumstances achieve as spectacularly as he has? He believes the road to success would be harder today--but anything is possible, especially with a computer.


Question: What's your civil rights agenda?

Answer: If you mean by civil rights, equal rights, then I am interested in being equal. We have civil rights. I don't think we need to continually fight the civil rights battle. I think we need to become equal. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the people who went through that era, the people who struck down the laws of segregation, who created opportunities for us, have done that. I don't know how many more civil rights we need. I don't need civil rights. I need equality.

Q: Do you oppose integration?

A: Integration is a subterfuge. The concept of sitting beside someone to be equal is insulting. The idea that the only way I can be educated is to live in an area dominated by white people is insulting. The idea that I have to depend exclusively on employment from people who are white is insulting.

I want to live in a desegregated society, "de"--a prefix meaning to move away from segregation, in which all institutions are open equally to everyone. If a school is predominantly black, and it is a good school, any child should be welcome to come to it. If a neighborhood is predominantly black, and its schools are good and its streets are safe, then everyone should live in that neighborhood.

I want to live in a society in which black people can own companies like Microsoft and General Motors, and not wait for Bill Gates so that we can get a job.

Q: Do you oppose affirmative action?

A: No. I think affirmative action is the salvation for this country . . . . What we have today for affirmative action is not my model . . . . As long as upper-income, middle-class black people can qualify because they are black, as long as 80% of what's called affirmative action goes to middle-class white women, as long as Asian Americans, members of the highest family-income group in America, can qualify for affirmative action simply because they are Asian Americans, we're not practicing affirmative action according to what I think.

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