WATERTOWN — He was born in Panama and emigrated to the United States around the age of 4. He’s gained experience in the world of journalism, and is now a Fox News personality. Juan A. Williams is living a life his father never could’ve imagined for him — his very own version of the American Dream.

Thursday morning, the United Way of Northern New York hosted its first community-wide virtual town hall meeting on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. The event featured Mr. Williams as a special guest who shared his perspective on race relations in the U.S. for more than 130 viewers and answered the questions they submitted.

“Today, given all this going on in the country, all the racial tensions, I think it’s very important to understand the pervasiveness of race in the way that we deal with each other, the way we talk to each other, how we see the world,” he said. “...I think part of this argument that we’re having about racism, it’s cultural, but it’s also systemic in terms of power and how power is exercised.”

Speaking on topics ranging from discrimination to the country’s current leadership and white privilege, Mr. Williams conversed with the event’s moderator Alexandra J. Wilke, currently the director of public relations at SUNY Potsdam, for the first half of the event, answering questions openly and honestly.

Mr. Williams started out by giving his virtual audience some background about himself, like how he grew up in Brooklyn after his mother brought himself and his two older siblings with her to live with her sister.

Growing up, as he continued his education, he noted he was always interested in journalism, editing his junior high and high school newspapers, and interning at various media outlets. Now, Mr. Williams is a journalist and political analyst for Fox News Channel. He writes for several newspapers, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He’s also been published in magazines such as The Atlantic and Time.

A co-host of The Five on Fox News, Mr. Williams has authored seven best-selling books and has interviewed every president since Ronald Reagan, giving him a unique vantage point on the nation’s constantly evolving political climate.

“I think you have to be willing to listen and think about somebody else having a different point of view as not being on the other side of a political divide or neighborhood divide or a racial divide, but as a fellow American,” said Mr. Williams. “...I don’t think there’s any question in a global economy and a global culture the fact that we’re Americans and that we live together.”

When asked how he teaches young people of color to overcome the implicit bias of others, especially those who have missed opportunities because of it, Mr. Williams answered that people need to speak honestly to young people because they’re extremely attuned to our culture, its realities and social hierarchies.

“All these things are glaring to young people in a way that I think the old heads like me, we kind of just take it as a given when sometimes we stop reacting directly to the reality that stares us in the face, but not so for the kids, they’re still new to it, may see it very clearly,” he said. “So, my counsel to young people is not to put on some sunny glasses, pink shade glasses and pretend that all is fine. It is to understand that you have to take personal responsibility, you have to work hard at getting an education, you have to make smart decisions for yourself, take control as much as possible.”

While mostly steering clear of politics because he didn’t think it would advance the conversation, Mr. Williams noted he doesn’t believe the current leadership in the country has been very helpful, instead being fairly divisive. He said if you play on racial division and divisions against immigrants, these things add to the polarization we see, the breakdown in the ability not only to have conversation, but to have productive solutions to America’s problems.

“I think we need leadership that doesn’t just react or exploit that change in response to the question, but leadership that has a vision for how people can come together, how we can create new opportunities given the changing society,” he said.

When speaking about the protests sweeping the nation in response to police killings of Black Americans, Mr. Williams mentioned one of the ironies is the assumption that because he himself is a man of color, he would be anti-police. He made sure to set the record straight and note that having grown up in poor neighborhoods, he has a strong appreciation for good policing and the necessity of having good police around.

“The reason there’s a Black Lives Matter movement at this moment goes back beyond George Floyd having a policeman with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes,” he said. “It reaches to the idea that Black lives are important, and shouldn’t be simply viewed as a point of irritation, or ‘What are those people doing?’ or somehow not in the American tradition.”

Presented with the topic of white privilege from a viewer asking if another term could be used due to the fact that everyone struggles, Mr. Williams took the opportunity to explain what the term means, stating it doesn’t mean people don’t struggle in their lives. While everyone has hurdles to leap, race is not one everyone shares.

“As I put it to some people: would you rather have your child born as a Black child or a white child?” he said. “Putting aside all kinds of racial pride, I don’t think there’s any question that you think that a white child in America has a greater degree of privilege. ... So, if we’re talking about that reality, about kind of a paradigm of who has the greatest level of opportunity and who is on the wrong end of that stick, I don’t think there’s any question that there’s an advantage to whiteness in modern America even to this day.”

Thursday’s event, sponsored by Community Bank, was open to all north country residents. A recording of the virtual event will be available for viewing on the United Way’s website at unitedway-nny.org. The next town hall event has not yet been announced.

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