Robert L. Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, has never been reluctant to criticize those who, in his view, use their blackness as a shield against corrupt behavior. Politicians, civil rights leaders, academics and journalists all have felt the sting of his righteous indignation.
"But it's not enough to criticize those who do evil," he said the other day. "We also have to celebrate those who do the right thing."
Last week he celebrated two federal workers whose tenacious investigation led to disclosure of a massive housing scam that ravaged several Washington neighborhoods.
At clear risk to their careers -- often in the face of direct orders from their superiors to call off their efforts -- Sarah Lyon and Hilton Green worked evenings and weekends to expose the scheme in which speculators used fraudulently obtained mortgage insurance to take over apartment houses: driving up rentals and leaving hundreds of working-class residents homeless.
The National Press Club luncheon at which the two HUD employees were cited and the $1,000 "community conscience" awards they received were paid for by Woodson out of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award he received a few months ago. Woodson will make the luncheon an annual event, he says, hoping to "encourage the recognition of people who combat conspiracy, corruption and incompetence as heroes in a war of conscience."
Woodson, who learned of the efforts of Lyon and Green through a series in The Post, said he was appalled by the public indifference to both the devastating effects of the fraud and the career-risking efforts of two people to bring it to light. "When 40 members of the KKK came to town a few weeks ago, they were met by 4,000 demonstrators," he said. "When they return, they will be met with 10,000 demonstrators, ready to do battle. Yet when this scandal shattered the lives of hundreds of hard-working people, destroyed over 2,000 units of housing, and turned decent families into the streets, the response was silence. No demonstrations against the villains, no outpouring of appreciation for the heroes. How can we ignore this kind of conscience-driven risk-taking and expect others to stand up for what is right? There is an old adage that says you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish. And maybe that explains why we get so much corruption and so little heroism."
When Woodson first decided to stage the luncheon, he was under the impression that both Lyon, a temporary employee at HUD, and Green, a HUD investigator, were black. He learned on the day of the luncheon that Lyon is white. "It doesn't matter," he said later. "In fact it helps to make the point. The perpetrators of the fraud were both black and white, and so were the people who exposed it. The issue is not race but evil."
Woodson worries over the perversion of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. "King hoped that we would be judged 'not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,' " he said. "But too many of us refuse to see evil unless it wears a white face. Too many of our leaders portray the black community as mere victims, and by doing so they grant themselves a special exemption from personal responsibility. Such a proposition ravishes the rich moral fiber that has sustained black America in the worst of times. It says we are powerless to be accountable for our actions and that we need 'Mr. Charlie' to set our standards of behavior. This luncheon was my way of saying that we have to set our own standards.
"It's time to draw a moral line in the sand, to adopt a single yardstick by which we measure justice -- with no exemptions for anyone."
Woodson is right, of course. Few of us have the resources to put on fancy luncheons and write handsome checks. But all of us have the ability to confront evil where it exists and to honor those who bring it to our attention.