Monday, November 12, 2007

Blacks, Victimhood & Dignity

Entertainer and social activist Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, have co-authored the book, "Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

The book’s themes run through an op-ed they published recently in The Christian Science Monitor [excerpts]

[…]We know there are forces that make the ability to escape poverty seem bleak: overburdened single-parent homes, a high dropout rate, joblessness, gangs, drugs, crime, incarceration, deaths at an early age from guns fired by angry black men. We know that systemic racism and governmental neglect still exist.

Yet we in the black community must look at ourselves and understand our own responsibility. We sometimes inflict ourselves with a victim mentality, feel hopeless, and do self-destructive things that make our lives even worse.

Many people who are trying to make it find themselves struggling against fellow African Americans so lost in self-destructive behaviors that they bring down other people as well as themselves.[…]

This is not the future for which our ancestors escaped slavery or resisted it. None of our forebears sacrificed their lives so that their children's children could call each other "nigger."

We cannot accept this current state of affairs. We must realize – and believe – that, for all the external hassles we face, we are not helpless.

We can overcome the odds and succeed in spite of the obstacles. And we must try. Despite the fact that racial discrimination has not been eliminated, black strength lies in the resolve to keep on keeping on, never quit, never give up, never yield to the role of cooperative victim.

Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to end school segregation, black people have achieved extraordinary accomplishments on all fronts that seemed unthinkable 50 years ago.

As black people face the future, we must remember our successes in American society.

One way slaves survived brutal conditions was to turn the Christianity they had learned into a liberation theology. The stories of the Hebrew slaves became their own.

Even as slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery, black people used the Bible as God intended – to give people hope for a time when there would be true justice.

For black people to hold their heads high even today means getting rid of internal feelings of inferiority.

This can be difficult given that white supremacists had real clout in this nation for nearly 250 years.

Take, for example, the very definition of a "black" person in America. Historically, a person with any known black ancestry was defined as black, making African ancestry a taint on white purity.

The way race is defined in the United States makes no biological or genetic sense. It's been used primarily as a tool for political and psychological oppression – providing economic gain for many white people. […]

We wonder how … embedded stereotypes affect black people today. Are we too dependent? Do we rely too much on white people or "the system" to rescue us? Do we lack faith in our own ability to run things? Has the legacy of slavery affected even our current mental state?

Too many people, including some black people, believe many poor black youth – particularly males – cannot be educated. This position harkens back to the notion of poor genes determining poor performance rather than poor environment, poor schools, or a music scene that imparts destructive, degrading values.

The good must be separated from the bad while treating black people with respect and not demeaning an entire culture.

Black neighborhoods today must adopt that same can-do attitude and take action. They must be enterprising and work hard to improve their own economic situation – and by so doing, help improve the community.

This tenacious drive to be victorious is a quality that will help us meet the current challenges in our neighborhoods.

We can pass this sense of strength on to our children by strengthening black families, whatever their structure, and nurturing our youth with love and guidance.

We must put children first and sharpen our parenting skills in both single-parent and two-parent homes. Fathers must play a bigger role. They cannot be absent. Children do better when fathers are actively involved in their lives.

With the help of supportive social policies, we can shoulder the remaining challenges and overcome the barriers to black success.

The driving force for change has been the activism of African Americans and others who take up our cause.

The key word is activism, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We must be actively involved in empowering our schools and participating in the political process by exercising our right to vote.

Being passive takes us nowhere. Activism is what gets us where we want to go.

It is time to think positively and act positively. A people armed with the will to want to get better, armed with the will to win, and armed with knowledge of the past and present, can move forward and take action, succeed, and reclaim their dignity.
I don’t agree with Cosby and Poussaint concerning “government neglect.” And I’m not sure just what they’re saying about how race is defined in America.

But those two matters excepted, I agree with everything they say here.

Most of it sounds just like what generations of immigrants to America did and taught their children to do.

Millions of them, including some I knew first-hand and grew up with, came to America directly from places where their situations were every bit as bad or worse than slavery.

As I recall those who were successful said things just like what Cosby and Puissant are saying: "We can help ourselves." "If we don’t do it, nobody can do it for us."

Things like that.

On the other hand, here’s some of what Duke professor Karla Holloway said recently in an Orlando Sentinal op-ed about what Cosby and Poussaint are urging blacks to do:
[…] Bill Cosby made his career earning our laughter, but his recent "call-out" to black communities --- in which he blames the multifaceted perils of black children (whom he has called "dirty laundry") on their parents' lack of interest in their success -- only serves to solidify our biases about privilege, potential and race. […].

Cosby lobs these critiques about troubled lifestyles and dangerous decisions that haunt too many urban youth and families with a style of argumentation that is easily persuasive but analytically thin. Argument by anecdote -- the storytelling mode he has adopted about parents who . . ., or children who . . . , or black males who . . . -- easily captures his audiences' attention and affirmation.

But Cosby's error is not only stylistic; a critical dimension of his storytelling is equally problematic.

When, for example, Cosby tells stories of how studious and responsible black children are teased by peers and accused of "acting white," he validates the associations made by those who do not consider the charge a specious association.

Because he fails to critique the presumption of this insult, he solidifies the ridiculous notion that education, poise, standard grammar and ambition are properties of a particular racial identity.
What Holloway says about Cosby isn’t a bit like what Cosby and Poussaint are actually saying, is it?

Cosby and Poussaint have high expectations for blacks. They want blacks to empower themselves.

Holloway rejects what they say; and endorses the status quo.

Yes, she does talk about moving beyond distinctions of race, but does anyone seriously believe Holloway wants to do away with race-based programs such as affirmative action?

Holloway expresses what she’s really hoping will happen when she ends her op-ed with: “I think it is time for us to hear less from America's favorite father.”

You can read Holloway’s op-ed here and Cosby and Poussaint’s op[-ed here.


Ralph Phelan said...

A young man Cosby raised was lost to a murdering criminal.

A young man Holloway raised became a murdering criminal.

When Cosby talks about the raising of children, reason, humility, and the most basic understanding of PR all suggest that Holloway should shut up and listen.

gracie said...

When I first read Holloway's piece last month, I was glad to see from the comments it was not well received.

Today I considered that my opinion of Cosby is strengthened by the fact that he is an educated man.

Education, however, does not in and of its self validate an opinion.

Holloway proves an unsustainable position is still stupid and the fact that its advocates are educated doesn't change anything.

Stephen said...

Holloway makes her living within the framework of the status quo. Of course she embraces it. Mr. Phelan, you are spot on!

scott said...

The concept of someone "acting white" as it is used by the black community is about as destructive as it gets.

The only people I know who consider studying in school to get better grades as "acting white" are black people. I have never once heard a white person tell a black person that excels in the classroom, "hey, way to go; glad to see you're 'acting white.'"

But if blacks want to continue to follow the Jacksons, Sharptons, and Holloways of the world and always be looking for a hand-out and to blame other people for their situation, well, they may have gotten off the plantation, but they're still slaves. Not to a white master anymore, just to their own foolish thinking.

TombZ said...

John, there are 3 typos of Poussaint's name near the end of your post. Otherwise, excellent.

Reminds me of a song from some time ago (1989?), by Living Color. The lyrics ring a little different in my mind after reading about this topic... (with apologies)

"Look into my eyes, what do you see?
A Cult of Victimology
I know your anger, I know your dreams
They have everything you want, you see
It's a Cult of Victimology
Like Lubiano and Holloway
It's a Cult of Victimology
Cult of Victimology
Cult of Victimology"

Ralph Phelan said...

"The only people I know who consider studying in school to get better grades as "acting white" are black people."

I wonder if they'd find it more palatable if they thought of it as "acting Chinese"?