Ours is not a culture of failure

written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey Harris

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, columnist Clarence Page writes:

In fact, the Urban League, like most of America’s old-guard black leadership, focuses on race while playing down how closely the fortunes of America’s new black middle class match those of their white counterparts. The biggest statistical drag on black progress comes from the approximately 25 percent of black Americans still in poverty.

America’s great race debate, inflamed by heat-seeking cable TV and radio talk shows, remains bitterly divided over which is the biggest obstacle to black progress: racism or a self-defeating culture within the black community?

Mainstream black leaders tend to blame black poverty on external barriers like racism, discrimination and the disappearance of low-skill jobs.

Conservative critics tend to blame black poverty on black behavior, attitudes and other “cultural” conditioning.

In fact, writes Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson in his new book, “More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City,” each side makes good points to which the other should listen.

“This book will likely generate controversy,” he writes, “because I dare to take culture seriously.” Read more…

On these things Page and I agree:

The idea that most black people have failed to achieve success in mainstream America is patently untrue and a meme that should die a swift death, if not only to preserve the self-esteem and cultural pride of future generations.

We do not have real, nuanced discussions of race in this country. Page thinks Eric Holder overstated things a bit when he referred to us as “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race. I think Holder was dead on the money.

The fate of black people who do not achieve cannot always be explained away by racism—though our country’s despicable history of treatment of African Americans should bear a significant amount of the blame. Also at issue, though, is classism and, yes, some pathology within the group in question.

But here is where I disagree with Page and, it seems, William Julius Wilson, author of the book, “More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City”—this idea that self-defeating behaviors and attitudes are part of black “culture.” They are not.
The dire statistics in Page’s column that were recently released by the National Urban League…

Blacks were twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned compared with whites, the study said.

…are not reflective of black culture. They are the fruits of, not just racism, but grinding poverty and marginalization. This isn’t a black thing:
A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the high mortality rates in northwest Washington Indian tribes, discusses the Makah and their high rate of drug overdoses and 50 percent unemployment rate.
A 1990s HBO documentary–one I have been desperately searching for since I first saw it; I don’t even recall its name–chronicled the history of violence and crime in America. What struck me, and what I have carried with me for years, is how the situations of modern blacks mirrors the situation of “ethnic” European immigrants around the turn of the century. The documentary viewer was treated to many newspaper headlines decrying the violence and criminality of immigrant Italians and Irish, laments about morals and ghettoes, tsk tsks about those ne’er-do-well criminally-inclined, loitering Irish boys.
Four years ago, when my husband and I moved from Chicago, with its housing projects and persistent urban poverty that seemed concentrated in black and brown areas, to a part of central Indiana, which is overwhelmingly white, we noticed that not only did the face of poverty change, but so too did the face of crime and underachievement on the local news.
Are low achievement, unemployment, substance abuse or criminality elements of black culture? Native culture? Italian or Irish culture? White culture?
And they are not the culture of the poor either.
But these ills are often the result of living forgotten in poverty in a country that is all about symbols of wealth and “getting yours.” These ills are the result of no opportunity in the land of opportunity. These ills are the result of schools with old books or no books. These ills are the result of being warehoused in dangerous, rat-trap, public-housing high rises, and tenements, and reservations and isolated Apalachian villages and trailer parks. These ills are the result of inadequate healthcare and childcare.
Dare he does, despite the risk of being accused of “blaming the victim.” That’s the typical and unfortunate response in academic circles, he points out, if you even suggest that shared values, attitudes and behaviors in poor, socially isolated neighborhoods are a significant reason why a lot of poor people stay poor.

Wilson is not wrong about the impact of shared values, attitudes and behaviors. But he is wrong if he associates self-defeating values, attitudes and behaviors with blackness, rather than, say, hopelessness–something that knows no race or ethnicity.
This, too, is a meme that needs to die. But I am not surprised that it has not. It is a useful idea for those who want to minimize the impact of racism in this country. Sadly, though, it’s not just your Rush Limbaugh types that advance this idea. Media, too, often ascribes certain pathology with blackness–even glamourizes it (And I am looking squarely at you, Bob Johnson and BET.). And too often, black folks buy into the idea as well.

This equating pathology with black culture makes things just that much harder for the parents of black children, who want their offspring to know that they can achieve anything if they only try. Calling pathology “culture” seems to create the very problems Wilson decries. It results in scenarios like the one I cringed at in Stephen Tally’s recent Best Life article (See the thread) where he discussed being the father of a mixed-race son (Tally is white. His wife is black.):

Raising Asher has made me more thoughtful about these things, and more driven too. But it has also made me harder in some ways. When I see young black dudes dressed like thugs and hanging out on local street corners–a rotten cliche, I know, but there really are black kids dressed in thug wear, hanging out on street corners half a mile from where I live–I have a different reaction now. Before, I felt a sting of sympathy for their place in life. I still hope their lives will change, but now what comes first is this thought: Man, my kid will not be standing out there, if I have to drag him off the corner myself. (My wife, I’m sure, will beat me to it.) I can’t afford to ignore those young men just because I might otherwise come off as racist. The stakes are too high. Read more… 

I won’t even touch the loaded term “thug wear,” but is is worrisome to hear a parent fret that his son may be lured to the street corner because he is half black and loitering is part of black culture.
Racism, marginalization and poverty have ugly consequences, one of which can be self-defeating behavior and beliefs. Those things need to be addressed as surely as their causes. But these negative consequences should be separated from who we are as black people, brown people, etc. America needs to know…more importantly, my son and daughter need to know that our culture is not synonymous with failure.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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