Josh Watkins is mad.
Watkins, born, raised and still living in Southeast Washington, is sitting at a coffee shop on South Capitol Street, and talking about how tough it is to get young blacks out away from drugs, poverty and the dangers that go with the territory.
“It’s bad enough fighting the government, the whites and the system, but when you gotta fight black people too, there’s a problem.”
Notice Watkins doesn’t say “Afro-American,” the current politically-correct term for “people of color,” (another example of PC).
“Afro-American? What kind of bullshit is that? We’re black. We’ve always been black and we always will be black. That’s a fact.”
Watkins is 54 going on 70. The lines in his face are a roadmap to years on the street, years working with young blacks, trying to show them there’s a better way than the drugs, the gangs and, as he calls it, “the whole black attitude thing.”
“Our biggest enemy these days is our own attitude, this in-your-face “I’m tougher than you are” strut that you see in athletes and others. It’s not helping.”
Like many native Washingtonians who grew up in the city in the 50s and 60s, Watkins remembers a different city, a city of neighborhoods and personality and one where gangs didn’t rule and graffiti didn’t mark turf.
“Now it’s different. Too damn different.”
Watkins joined the army after high school, then returned to his hometown to work for Uncle Sam. He earned a good living, but didn’t move out of Southeast, even when he could afford to and even after the gangs took over the street. He started spending his spare time working with kids, trying to convince them that they could make something of themselves.
“Damned if I was gonna leave. This is my home.”
Four young black kids walk into the restaurant. They’re wearing gang colors and talking the street jive that a school superintendent in Oakland, California, should be recognized as an actual language. They’ve even given it a name: Ebonics.
“Listen to that Ebonics shit. Unbelievable. They want to teach black kids to speak it. That just means you stay in the ghetto. Listen, if you talk like a nigger, then you’re always gonna be treated like a nigger.”
Watkins still works for Uncle Sam and he still spends his free time on the streets. The social workers who are paid to do what Watkins does for free say he is very, very good at it, that he reaches kids in ways they can’t.
“Josh is unbelievable,” says psychiatrist Janet Reslyn. “He goes out on that street where most people are afraid to be, he ignores the threats of the gangs, and he gets through to kids primarily because he’s not afraid. He deals straight and they know it.”
That devotion has cost Watkins several windows in his house, his dog, two cars (one stolen, the other burned) and two beatings. But he won’t quit.
“I listen to these people who are supposed to be so smart and they say the problem is whitey, or the government or the system or the police, but they never say what the problem really is. The problem is us. Black people are their own worst enemies. Ask a black kid on the street who he admires and probably will be the local drug dealer or that cross-dressing freak Dennis Rodman. What kind of role models are those? We don’t have to worry about white people. All they got to do is sit back and wait for us to do ourselves in. Shouldn’t take long.”
A teenaged couple comes into the coffee shop and joins Watkins in the booth. Unlike the others, they are not wearing gang colors. When they speak, it is English, not Ebonics.
“My older brother was in the gangs,” Ishmael says, “before he got zapped. Happened about six months ago. Josh came to the funeral and told me it wasn’t gonna happen with me. He says I’m gonna finish school.”
“He better too,” Watkins says, “or I’m gonna whip his black ass.”
The gang members get up from the counter and saunter by the booth, staring at Watkins as they move slowly by with exaggerated struts. Watkins maintains eye contact.
Nothing is said.
Nothing needs to be said.
Watkins keeps his eyes on them until they are outside the door.
“Dumbass fools. Every one of them will be dead before they turn 18.”
The kids in the booth nod agreement. An older black woman gets up from the counter and heads for the door. As she passes the booth, she doesn’t look at Watkins, but mutters “amen.”